Capitol Hill’s Cathedral
St. Matthew Hosts Saints and Statesman (Plus Popes)
CAPITAL CHURCH. Colorful mosaics cover the cathedral walls and ceiling, as statue of Sts. Anthony and Teresa greet visitors. Photo courtesy of Carrie Manetto
Located in the heart of Washington’s downtown business district, the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle — the mother church of the Archdiocese of Washington — is about a half-mile from the White House.
Fittingly named after the evangelist who is also the Church’s patron saint of civil servants, the red-brick and domed cathedral, designed in the Renaissance style, serves an active parish community that ranges from recently minted college graduates taking new jobs on Capitol Hill and beyond to longtime area residents.
Established in 1840 as the city’s fourth Catholic parish, the current church celebrated its first Mass in 1895, though work on the building, including its dome, extended into the next century. In 1939, St. Matthew’s was elevated to cathedral status when the archdiocese was created from the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
In November 1963, the cathedral was the site of the funeral Mass for President John F. Kennedy following his assassination in Dallas. An engraving in the floor in front of the altar notes the spot where the slain president’s casket rested, and the iconic photograph of a young John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s casket was taken on the cathedral steps.
President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, visited the cathedral on the day of St. John Paul II’s death, and every fall the cathedral hosts multiple Supreme Court justices and other jurists and public officials for the annual Red Mass to mark the start of a new Supreme Court term.
Other visitors of note include St. Teresa of Kolkata, St. John Paul II and, most recently, Pope Francis, who hosted the nation’s bishops in prayer during his visit to the city.
History and Prayer
I first arrived at St. Matthew’s 15 years ago, in September 2001, just after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Four years later, my wife and I would be married at St. Matt’s, and in 2007, our first son would be baptized there.
When I first arrived at St. Matthew’s, much of the church was covered with netting and scaffolding as part of a multiyear and multimillion-dollar restoration completed in fall 2003.
Once completed, the mosaics and paintings shined, following thorough cleanings to remove years of grime and the installation of new lights.
Upon entering the cathedral, a gaze upward will show the galeros (broad-brimmed ceremonial hats) of the late Cardinal-Archbishops Patrick O’Boyle, William Baum and James Hickey suspended from the ceiling.
A turn to the right upon entering will take visitors to the small St. Francis Chapel, which houses the cathedral crypt where the three cardinals are interred.
Making one’s way toward the altar on the right side, visitors will come to the eye-catching mosaics of the St. Anthony Chapel (perhaps my favorite location in the cathedral). Surrounding a statue of St. Anthony, the vibrant mosaics filling the walls depict the life of St. Francis, creating an ideal setting for prayer and reflection.
Across the way from the St. Anthony Chapel is a chapel dedicated to Mary, centered along a statue of her reaching down from the heavens against a deep-blue celestial backdrop.
The chapel also houses a statue of Mother Teresa comforting a homeless man. The statue is particularly fitting, given her long-ago visit to the cathedral and St. Matthew’s long-standing ministry to aid the city’s homeless.
As visitors make their way toward the main altar, the massive dome supported by pillars adorned with mosaics of the Four Evangelists beckons eyes upward. At 190 feet high, the cathedral’s dome is about 100 feet shorter than that of the Capitol Building. But its rich coloring and restored gold leaf make it a sight to behold.
Looming above the altar is a large and striking mosaic of the cathedral’s patron saint, whose feast day is Sept. 21. Above it is another mosaic, filling a semicircular space, featuring the Lamb of God surrounded by the “angels of the Crucifixion,” each of whom is holding an implement used in Christ’s passion.
While the mosaics are most striking, the cathedral also has its share of impressive paintings, including large murals to the right and left of the main altar depicting the calling of St. Matthew and his martyrdom.
No trip to St. Matthew’s is complete without the chance to hear its massive pipe organ. Built over many years, the organ was only recently completed as part of the lead-up to the cathedral’s 175th anniversary.
Nick Manetto writes from
Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle
1725 Rhode Island Ave NW
Washington, DC 20036
Planning Your Visit
Those interested in hearing the rich sound of the organ should plan to attend the 10am (Latin, ordinary form) or 11:30am Sunday Masses. The cathedral also, at times, hosts free concerts featuring visiting choirs, and a quick check of the website can point visitors to upcoming opportunities.
- Sept. 18-Oct. 1, 2016