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National Archives

Public Papers - 1990

Remarks at the Washington National Cathedral Dedication Ceremony

1990-09-29

Thank you all, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, Bishop Browning, and it's a great pleasure to be with you again. And a special thanks to Bishop Haines, and special thanks to Colonel Bourgeois and our wonderful Marine Band. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. And a warm welcome to all of you out there, standing and seated, in this splendid scene of bright unity across these gorgeous grounds -- the clergy and other interfaith leaders, members of this great Washington National Cathedral, representatives of our government and other countries, and the men and women who have worked on this magnificent structure, and all our friends.

Barbara and I feel privileged, privileged to be with you on this day of ecumenical thanksgiving. There's one man, mentioned by Bishop Browning, who has gone before us, yet who is in so many of our hearts today, the late Episcopal Bishop of Washington, John Walker. Like many of you here, I treasured his friendship, and I valued his counsel. And were he still with us, the stone setting would be the culmination of his life's work and his life's dream. But tomorrow, on the first anniversary of his death, the very first service will be held in the completed cathedral. I'd like to dedicate these remarks to his memory.

What an extraordinary moment this is. Eighty-three years ago this day, this hour, our predecessors here laid a cornerstone. Now, eight decades later, we look at Mount St. Alban and say: Here we have built our church -- not just a church, a house of prayer for a nation built on the rock of religious faith, a nation we celebrate as ``one nation under God,'' a nation whose founding President, George Washington, said: ``No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States.''

And so, we have constructed here this symbol of our nation's spiritual life, overlooking the center of our nation's secular life, a symbol which combines the permanence of stone and of God -- both of which will outlast men and memories -- a symbol that carries with it a constant reminder of our moral obligations. You know, whenever I look up at this hill and see the cathedral keeping watch over us, I feel the challenge is reaffirmed.

Woodrow Wilson's last public words, inscribed here on the wall next to his tomb, say it best: ``Our civilization cannot survive materially unless it be redeemed spiritually.'' To do that, we must govern by the imperatives of a strong moral compass; a compass based on the kind of purity and vision and values that inspired our early founders; a compass that would lead us to enter this building through its oldest door, ``The Way of Peace''; and a compass oriented to the words of St. Paul, who gazes down from our left: ``And now abideth faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.''

Our personal family compass has for many years led us here for public and private worship. We were neighbors when we lived in the Vice President's residence, and before that, our children went to school at St. Alban's. I was a board member at National Cathedral School, and Canon Martin baptized one of our grandchildren, and two sons were confirmed here. And Barbara's even read ``The Christmas Story.'' I'll stop in case each of you want to tell me of your family connection with this wonderful institution. [Laughter]

One of the high points of our inaugural weekend was the prayer service here, part of a national day of prayer across the country. I want to take a moment to say goodbye to Provost Perry, Charles Perry, who so beautifully organized that service and who is leaving tomorrow after a dozen years of devoted work.

I'd like to share with you some thoughts on why we find this cathedral so moving. To begin with, there is profound meaning in the physical beauty. The devout say they can see here the invisible hand of God in the visible handiwork of man. We all can see in this astonishing place of stone and light a massive 300-million-pound mountain of Indiana limestone created as an act of worship.

I want my grandchildren to come here. I want them to feel reassured that there always will be comfort here in the presence of God, and I want them to delight in the colors and the sounds and the tapestries and mosaics to the fine old hymns. And I want them to know a very special way of understanding this wondrous place -- studying the brilliant stained-glass windows. From where we now stand, the rose window high above seems black and formless to some, perhaps; but when we enter and see it backlit by the sun, it dazzles in astonishing splendor and reminds us that without faith we too are but stained-glass windows in the dark.

But the magnificent story of this place, then, is human as well as spiritual. The greatness of this masterpiece comes from the loving and sometimes lifelong dedication of the finest craftsmen. For some, it has been a multigenerational work, son following son throughout the birth of this house of worship. Many of these workers are now gone. For their memorial, simply look around you.

But most of the gifts that made this great American dream a reality -- gifts of funds, work, love, spirit, and prayer -- were from the people who were its congregation: the millions across America. They caught the exhilaration of the dream that seized those who envisioned this cathedral and yet who didn't live to see it a reality, men like Pierre L'Enfant, whose 1791 plan for Washington included ``a great church for national purposes,'' or Henry Satterlee, this city's first Episcopal Bishop, who yearned for a place ``forever open and free,'' and the Members of Congress who voted the 1893 Charter of Foundation.

There are some here who share that dream in a unique way. They were also here 83 years ago today for the laying of the cornerstone, and they remember sunlight shining through the rain while 10,000 watched and cheered. For instance, Elsie Brown is now 90, but was 7 when her mother took her to that event. Ninety-five-year-old Taylor Eiker was 12 when he donned his cassock to sing in the boys choir that noon. And Ruth Oliphant, now 98, walked over with her other 15-year-old Cathedral School classmates.

It was a very American ceremony. President Teddy Roosevelt spoke, and Bishop Satterlee tapped the stone with the gavel which George Washington had used to set the cornerstone of the United States Capitol. That was only right for a cathedral whose style is 14th-century Gothic and yet also very much American, a cathedral that's not just about faith but was also about a nation and its people: a cathedral where mosaics of the Great Seal of the United States and the State seals are set into the floors; where bays honor Washington, Lincoln, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee; where you can find an eagle, a bison, and even a stained-glass codfish; where needlepoint memorials are to Herman Melville, Alexander Graham Bell, Harriet Tubman, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy; where lie the graves of President Wilson, Admiral George Dewey, and Helen Keller; where the mesmerizing stained-glass Space Window includes a Moon rock given by astronaut Michael Collins, who went to school on these very grounds at St. Alban's; and where an unexpected shaft of sun can leave a stunning memory -- the statue of George Washington, strong and solid and earthbound, suddenly dappled by the brilliance of stained-glass light. It's a place where the history of the cathedral and of the country have been interwoven.

When we need to grieve, we come here. We held funerals for Presidents Truman and Eisenhower and Vice President Humphrey, the burial of President Wilson, and a fantastic memorial service for Winston Churchill.

When we want to understand, we come here. Over a 3-day period, at the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial, the names of 57,939 lost Americans were read in chapels. Other times, we listened to Bishop Tutu or Billy Graham or Martin Luther King.

When we want to celebrate, we come here. When the hostages were freed from our Embassy in Tehran, there was a service of thanksgiving. Later, a national prayer service for the 50th Presidential inauguration. And bells peal out on the national holidays.

When we want to express our concern, we come here: to hold a memorial for victims of the American Embassy bombing in Beirut; a service of reflection on the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima; and even now, prayers for our brave young service men and women in the harsh, distant deserts.

And so, today, we prepare to raise that final 1,008-pound grand finial to its spot on one of the great pinnacles of St. Paul's Tower, the last step in an eight-decade-long journey.

Now that our national treasure is complete, how will it fit into our lives? I would love to see the entire country discover this cathedral as America's resource, refuge, and reminder, somewhere to strengthen the Nation's heart. We should consecrate this place in the words of Isaiah: ``For mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.'' All people. All America. And we should come here to pledge ourselves to the work of Martin Luther King, envisioned from the splendid Canterbury pulpit in his last sermon, 3 days before he died. And he said: ``We will bring about a new day of justice and brotherhood and peace. And on that day, morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.''

For eight decades, the dream of a completed cathedral dominated this hill, and now Dr. King's words should become our new vision. Eighty-three years ago on this spot, President Teddy Roosevelt said: ``God speed the work begun this noon.'' And today I say: God speed the work completed this noon and the new work yet to begin.

God bless all of you, this magnificent cathedral, and the United States of America. Thank you all very much.

Note: The President spoke at 12:31 p.m. in front of the cathedral. In his remarks, he referred to the Most Reverend Edmond L. Browning, Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States, and the Right Reverend Ronald H. Haines, Bishop of Washington.

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