Can the National Cathedral afford a quake?

As you may have heard, there was an earthquake in Washington, D.C., and other parts of the center-of-the-universe Northeast corridor. While people immediately started joking about the ratio between news reports and the actual damages (my personal favorite, here), the event has served up one major story (so far) for folks who cover the religion beat.

I am referring, of course, to the stunning amount of damage at the highest point in Washington, D.C. — the National Cathedral. Does this event have theological content (like, maybe, this act of God over in England)? Stay tuned.

But this much is certain: Journalists are going to be doing an unusual amount of coverage of ecclesiastical architecture in the months ahead. It is time for reporters to learn the difference between a “pinnacle” and a “finial,” for example. Also, a cracked flying buttress is nothing to shake a stick at.

In light of the spectacular nature of some of the damage — see some striking new pictures over at The Atlantic site — I have been amazed that most of the solid coverage has been online and outside the Beltway, as opposed to a solid sidebar and graphics package at the Washington Post.

Unless I have missed something, the best story seems to be Dan Gilgoff’s piece at, on the religion weblog. Here’s the key round-up of the damage:

Three of the church tower’s four corner spires lost their ornate capstones, or finials, during the quake, and the building remained closed to visitors on Wednesday.

Called the “Gloria in Excelsis,” the cathedral’s central tower is the highest point in the nation’s capital, rising to a greater height than even the Washington Monument. Cracks have appeared in some of the cathedral’s flying buttresses around the apse, the area around the altar, though the buttresses supporting the central tower appear to be sound, the church said in a statement.

The cathedral’s mason foreman, Joe Alonso, said he is most concerned about any cracking in the cathedral’s vaulted ceiling.

“I just did a quick walk through the knave with my naked eye, just looking up at the vaulted ceiling,” he said in a video posted to the cathedral’s website. “I didn’t see anything just from the floor but that’s my big concern.”

This Episcopal Church facility is highly symbolic, of course, because of the cathedral’s reputation as a “spiritual home for the nation.” However, in terms of news, the larger story is likely to center on efforts by the local diocese and the national church to raise money for repairs.

Why? Because of the financial struggles that surrounded the resignation of the Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III earlier this summer as the dean of the cathedral. As the Post noted at that time:

… (After) his first three years of rapid expansion, Lloyd and the church confronted the 2008 economic slowdown. Faced with a rapidly dwindling budget and endowment, he instituted several budget cuts, reducing the 104-year-old church’s staff from 170 to 70 and slashing its spending from $27­ million to about $13 million.

The church closed its popular greenhouse; reduced choir performances, lectures and classes; and outsourced its gift shop. It even hinted that it might sell its rare-book collection to the Folger Shakespeare Library, although in the end it did not.

His colleagues noted that Lloyd has led the organization back to firmer financial footing in the past two years, balancing its budget and returning its endowment, which had fallen by 25­ percent, to $67.6 million.

Now the parish has, literally, been hit by an earthquake. How big will the damages be? Who can pay the bills? These questions will eventually be asked.

While it is obvious that the damage at National Cathedral is a major story, I have been struck by the lack of coverage of the possible impact of this earthquake at the city’s largest and, arguably, most important cathedral-sized sanctuary. I am referring, of course, to the massive Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which the Catholic hierarchy calls “America’s Catholic Church.”

What is the status of that soaring 329-foot campanile, or bell tower, next to the Romanesque-Byzantine sanctuary? At the moment, I can find nothing online — in news or the wider web — that even mentions this often-overlooked sanctuary.

I mean, how many Episcopalians are there in this country? That would be about 2 million and falling.

How many Roman Catholics are there in this country? That would be about 64 t0 68 million, depending on who is doing the counting and how they define who is and who is not a practicing Catholic.

Anyway, do the math. Someone should give the basilica press office a call. Anything shaking out there? Did any tiles fall out of the mosaics?

UPDATE: It appears that the embed code for the excellent National Cathedral video about the damage has been changed or disconnected. The video can be seen here. This still photograph is from the cathedral’s home page.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    impact of this earthquake at the city’s largest and, arguably, most important cathedral. I am referring, of course, to the massive Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which the Catholic hierarchy calls “America’s Catholic Church.”

    Since a cathedral is a church that holds a Bishop’s throne and a basilica is an important church building, I have to ask if it’s correct to call it a cathedral as you do because there’s a Bishop’s seat there?

    I also wonder about that “America’s Catholic Church” designation since the web site itself said

    “In 1990, Pope John Paul II elevated the National Shrine to the status of a minor basilica…”

    So there’s a question in my mind about how that church is represented and whether that designation is an accurate reflection of Catholic position or a web-site with a bit of puffery?

  • Richard Barrett

    It would also be good if journalists could learn the difference between a “knave” and a “nave”.

  • Ivan

    Also they misspelled “nave” as “knave.”

  • Richard Barrett

    And no, Ivan and I are not the same person, but we follow each other on Twitter.

  • Ty

    The RCs apparently built the basilica with concrete and steel, whereas the Episcopalians built the national cathedral stone on stone in authentic medieval style. Far more tasteful, IMHO (the basilica has been disparaged as the tatooed something-or-other-alliterative) but impractical. In California they would be required to post signs “Warning: unreinforced masonry may be unsafe in an earthquake”

    The basilica is not the RC cathedral. The “cathedra” or bishop’s throne (which is what makes a building the cathedral) resides in St. Matthews near Dupont Circle. Beautiful church. Hope they haven’t sustained any damage.

  • Julia

    St Matthews is the Catholic cathedral in DC; it is not a basilica.

    The National Shrine is not the archbishop’s seat, but it is a basilica.

    On the other hand, the St Louis Cathedral is both the archbishop’s seat and also a basilica. And,incidentally, is supposedly the model for the Shrine in DC.

    And on yet another hand, the Old/former cathedral of St. Louis is not very big, but is a basilica because of its historic stature as the first Catholic cathedral West of the Mississippi River.

  • Julia

    The DC cathedral and the St Louis cathedral are built in similar style as Westminster Cathedral in London. The Byzantine and Romanesque styling of these cathedrals is older than Medieval Gothic.

    From the website of the Westminster Cathedral:

    It was to buildings such as Hagia Sophia, San Vitale in Ravenna and St Mark’s, Venice, that Bentley turned for inspiration.

    the foundation stone of Hagia Sophia was laid on 23 February, 532 AD

  • Julia

    Forgot to say that the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in DC was also built in the Byzantine style with Romanesque elements.

  • john m

    A minor basilic is a basilica outside of Rome. The term “minor” has nothing to do with the national stature of the building.

  • tmatt

    Thanks for the input.

    Copy tweaked to say what I actually meant.

  • Martha

    There doesn’t seem to be any news online about anything happening at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, so either (1) Our Lady was protecting her shrine :-) or (2) there wasn’t extensive damage because not being hipped on historical reconstruction the building codes sufficed or (3) the news outlets just weren’t that interested.

    Anyone know better if something did happen?

  • Dave

    I am referring, of course, to the stunning amount of damage at the highest point in Washington, D.C. — the National Cathedral. Does this event have theological content [...]?

    A tall building can be snapped like a vertical whip in a quake. You can blame geophysics for the damage to highest point.

    I’m glad no one was seriously hurt.

  • Peggy R

    There must not be much damage to the National Shrine since the interfaith service for the MLK shrine (er monument) that was to be at National Cathedral is moved to the National Shrine on Saturday. I first heard this on WMAL. From WashTimes–>

  • C. Wingate

    I doubt there was any damage at the shrine to report, whereas one of the reasons that the WNC news came out so quickly was that the fallen pinnacles were visible for many blocks around. Damage to a parish church in Balto. was by contrast reported all over the country courtesy the AP.

    Also, the only dimension in which the shrine is bigger than WNC is the height of that campanile– well, and in number of chapels. WNC is longer, wider, and has more floor area and volume, and I would guess that its vaults are taller.

  • bob

    I’ve wondered for 30 years why this cathedral, with the ever enthusiastic help of the press, gets to be called *The* National Cathedral, as though it…..Were. It would be accurate to call it the Episcopalian National Cathedral but that distinction is never EVER made. People have mentioned the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception which I expect fills this purpose for Catholics. The Orthodox Church in America has a cathedral there, St. Nicholas, but neither of the last two are likely to be called by the name only the Episcopal edifice is granted.

  • Bern

    bob: very good question.

    Could have something to do with the affiliation(s) of the founders and first legislators–implied by the number of Presidents who have identified as Episcopalians?

    And also that any number of Presidents, affiliated or no, have chosen to on occasion worship there.

    Which aside from the dramatic visuals could account for the extensive coverage.

  • Catherine Lucia

    So far as I know, the Shrine is fine, although in a creepily apocalyptic way the cross atop St. Peter’s church on Capitol Hill did fall during the earthquake.

  • C. Wingate

    bob, there are actually some answers to that question. Its official title is “the Cathedral Church of Saints Peter and Paul” which is almost never ever used by anyone. (Memo to some reporter out there: St. Alban’s is a parish church which sits next to the cathedral.) However, it is “national” in two senses. First of course it is the national church cathedral as well as that of the diocese, which is why it has two thrones in it. In that sense “Washington National Cathedral” is accurate because it is both cathedrals in one.

    However, the second reason it attracts the name “national cathedral” is that it was intended from the beginning to fulfill L’Enfant’s intent that a church “for national purposes” be built. Thus it routinely is used for state funerals and memorials (the MLK service being an example), and has thus been used ever since it was big enough to be used at all.

    (The third reason of course is that the its official name is so cumbersome.)