Easter With an Evangelist
It was here that funeral services were held for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who died after serving on the Supreme Court for more than 33 years.
Although Rehnquist was a Lutheran, the Archdiocese of Washington granted his family special permission because the National Cathedral (an Episcopal edifice) was unavailable on that particular date.
Nor was this the first historic service to be held here. On a chilly November morning in 1963, 3-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. stood by his mother outside of St. Matthew’s. Memorialized in a famous photo, he is shown saluting his assassinated father’s body as the horse-drawn casket passed by.
While these events have brought distinction to St. Matthew’s, its real recognition has been as the cathedral to capital-city Catholics for more than 160 years.
For me, the church’s present spoke as loudly as its past on a recent visit to Washington. Meanwhile the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist spoke silently yet most compellingly of all.
Begun in 1840, the original church was located less than a mile from where the present church stands in the northwest part of the city. Construction began on this St. Matthew’s in 1893; the first Mass was celebrated in 1895. The impressive brick building with its large copper dome was dedicated in 1913.
At that time, Washington, D.C., was a part of the Baltimore Diocese. In 1939, this large diocese was divided and St. Matthew’s was dedicated as the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
What a wonderful place to pray for our country this will be on Easter Sunday, especially as you call to mind the Resurrection account of its patron saint:
“The angel said to the women … ‘Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said’” (Matthew 28:5-6).
Mary in Action
Stepping inside the bronze doors of the main entrance, I was struck by the church’s depth and width. It has a cavernous feel with numerous side altars and chapels. Candles flicker behind tall marble columns throughout. The church itself is designed in the form of a Latin cross. Its architecture is a mixture of Byzantine and Roman styles.
A stunning white statue of the Virgin Mary with arms outstretched greeted me as I entered Our Lady’s Chapel. It was an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary that I had never seen before. She is portrayed reaching, gracefully yet assertively, down to fallen humanity.
Earth-toned mosaics depicting the genealogy of Jesus adorn the chapel. The tree of Jesse is represented with Jesse as the root, David as the trunk and Mary and the infant Jesus depicted at the top. Statues of St. Ann and St. Joachim stand watch nearby with a rack of lit votive candles below them.
Across from Our Lady’s Chapel is the chapel of St. Anthony of Padua, patron saint of the poor. This resplendent chapel, a replica of the world-famous one in Italy, was the first completed at St. Matthew’s.
Turning toward the back of church, I noticed that there is no choir loft. That is because the organ sits in front of the church, near the altar. The organ is gigantic. Its polished pipes glimmer in the dimly lit church. Installation of this new organ began in 1995 and it’s still ongoing. When completed, it will hold more than 5,000 pipes.
As I stood in the center aisle peering toward the altar, sunlight poured in from the dome above. At the base of the dome, which rises 190 feet, are mosaics of the Four Evangelists. They are shown with their traditional symbols as described in the book of Revelation. Christian tradition has connected the “four living creatures” of Revelation 4:7 with the Gospel authors. Thus St. Mark is shown with a lion, St. Luke with an ox, St. John with an eagle and St. Matthew with an angel.
History and Mystery
Just in front of the sanctuary gates, a plaque in the floor marks the spot where President Kennedy’s casket lay during his funeral Mass in 1963. An intricate floral design adorns the white marble altar, which was obtained through the archbishop of Agra, India. To the left is the archbishop of Washington’s throne.
The large depiction of St. Matthew sitting at his post cannot be missed from behind the main altar. The 35-foot mosaic depicts the saint holding a book with the passage from his Gospel: “Jesus saw a man sitting in the custom house named Matthew, and he said to him ‘Follow me’. And he rose and followed him.”
Before leaving, I ducked into two chapels in the back of the cathedral. The first was the baptistery. A marble baptismal font with a floral design sits at the center of the room. The deep history of this sacrament of initiation was illustrated for me with two brilliant mosaics that color the room. One depicts Jesus curing the sick man at the pool of Bethesda. Next to it is a scene of St. Matthew baptizing the Ethiopian.
The second chapel across the church is the chapel of St. Francis of Assisi. It is the burial chamber for the archbishops of the archdiocese of D.C. Of note, Washington’s first resident archbishop, Patrick Cardinal Boyle, is buried here. He served the archdiocese from 1947 to 1973 and was instrumental in leading the cause to desegregate the American school system.
As my visit came to an end, a sprawling mural above the main entrance caught my eyes. This depicts key people and scenes from our nation’s Catholic history. Mixed among the various faces and locales, I recognized St. Katherine Drexel and Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha.
This mural is a fitting tribute to our country’s rich Catholic history. What better place could there be for it than in the cathedral of our nation’s capital — a cathedral dedicated to the patron saint of civil servants?
Christ is risen! May St. Matthew the Evangelist pray for us and guide our nation’s leaders.
Eddie O’Neill writes from
Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Planning Your Visit
Daily Mass is celebrated at 7 and 8 a.m., and at 12:10 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday Masses are in English, Spanish and Latin. For more information or to arrange a guided tour, call the rectory at (202) 347-3215 or visit stmatthewscathedral.org on the Internet.
The cathedral is located at 1725 Rhode Island Ave. N.W. between Connecticut Avenue and 17th Street. The nearest Metrorail stations are on the Red Line at Farragut North and at DuPont Circle.
- April 16-22, 2006