St Matthew's Cathedral, Papal destination and Washington institution

On Wednesday September 23, 2015, Pope Francis will visit the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, at 1725 Rhode Island Avenue NW, for a private prayer service. He will be the second pope to stop at St. Matthew's (Pope John Paul II said mass here in October 1979). Though much attention has been focused on the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which bills itself as "America's Catholic Church," St. Matthew's is the principal church of the local Catholic archdiocese and has far deeper roots in the city's history.

(Photo by the author.)

The church's origins stretch back to the 1830s, when Washington City was home to some 7,000 Catholics who had but two churches to attend, St. Patrick's (downtown at 10th and F Streets NW) and St. Peter's (at 2nd and C Streets SE on Capitol Hill). In 1837, Father John P. Donelan, an assistant at St. Patrick's, was put in charge of the effort to establish a third church for the burgeoning community. Donelan purchased a site for the new church on the northeast corner of 15th and H Streets NW, where the Southern Building now stands. In the late 1830s, this was a prime site for a church, being close to the White House and the fashionable residential section of town that was then developing around Lafayette Square.

Rev. John Philip Donelan (Source: Library of Congress).
St. Matthew's Church, an elegant Greek Revival structure typical of American church design, was designed by Georgetowner Matthias Duffey and constructed between 1838 and 1840. The stately Doric columns of the front portico echoed the design of St. John's Episcopal Church two blocks to the west as well as Arlington House across the Potomac. In time, the design came to be seen as uninspired, and something more grand and unique would be desired. The interior, though tastefully decorated was dark. "The interior is permeated at all times by a mysterious twilight that is not without its peculiar solemnity," The Washington Post would write in 1895.

The original St. Matthew's at 15th and H Streets NW (Source: Library of Congress).
The new church held its dedication ceremony on November 1. The grand occasion "drew together one of the largest and most respectable audiences ever congregated in this district, amongst whom [was] His Excellency the President [Martin Van Buren]," according to The National Intelligencer. It was apparently a very moving service. "The deep-toned organ, the spirit-stirring chaunts of the choir, the eloquence of the preacher [the Right Rev. Dr. Moriarty of Philadelphia], and the presence of those ministering spirits, the Sisters of Charity, with about forty of the little orphans, neatly and comfortably clad, was sufficient to interest the coldest heart...," The National Intelligencer observed.

Lorenzo Johnson, who surveyed all of the city's churches in 1855 and 1856, was particularly struck by the music at St. Matthew's: "But the music—the music! It would be difficult for an uninitiated hearer not to acknowledge that it formed a large share of the attraction," he wrote in The Churches and Pastors of Washington, D.C. 

The church served its congregation at this location for more than fifty years, witnessing the drama and uncertainties of the Civil War years, tolling its bell for the death of President Lincoln in 1865, and becoming engulfed in the rapid development of the city in the later 19th century. By the 1890s, the congregation had outgrown the staid old church, and a campaign began, under the Right Rev. Thomas Sim Lee (1842-1922), to find a location for and build a replacement. Once again, the decision was made to move to the west, to a fashionable residential area (Dupont Circle this time) where prominent parishioners lived in elegant, spacious homes. In 1892, Father Sim Lee selected a plot of land on Rhode Island Avenue from among several suggested sites.

In early 1893 architect Christopher Grant LaFarge (1862-1938) was chosen to design the new church. The son of noted Victorian painter and stained glass designer John LaFarge (1835-1910), Grant LaFarge was a rising church and institutional architect whose firm had recently won the competition for the design of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. He joined Father Sim Lee in a trip to Europe in December 1892 to gain inspiration for what was intended to be a commanding new structure unparalleled in Washington.

Postcard view of St. Matthew's Cathedral from the 1960s (author's collection).
LaFarge's design, an eclectic mix of Italian Renaissance, Byzantine, and Romanesque elements, was accepted by the church in 1893. Unlike the limestone and marble facades of many of the city's landmarks, St. Matthew's features a red brick finish trimmed with brownstone and terracotta. The copper-clad dome rises 190 feet above the ground and is perched on a stately octagonal, columned drum. The building's flat, sparsely decorated facade is deceiving; inside the ornamentation of the church's vast main hall is as elaborate and sumptuous as any in the world. Years of work by many artists, done painstakingly and incrementally, brought the building to it current state of magnificence.

Construction began in November 1893, and within two years the transept and chancel walls were up. A first mass was held in the unfinished building in June 1895. The stark interior featured bare brick walls and an ivory-stuccoed ceiling. The columned drum was apparently in place above the center of the transept, but the dome was still missing. Much work remained to be done, although even at this early stage, the church managed to have excellent acoustics. "The broad expanse of the lofty walls and solid arches seem to be resonant and to hold and strengthen the sound of both voices and organ without the accompanying echo that so often interferes with music in a building of great extent," the Post reported.

Old St. Matthew's Church after removal of the steeple, circa 1905. Note also that the slim stained glass windows along 15th Street were added at some time after the earlier photo was taken. (Source: Library of Congress).
The last regular mass in the old weather beaten church on 15th Street was held at the end of May 1895. The newspapers wrote doleful accounts about the end of "one of the most noteworthy of Washington's church edifices," a place "where some of the most noted men in public life have worshipped in their time, and where some of the most impressive pageants of marriage, as well as death, have taken place in the National Capital." The grand organ was moved to the new church, and "workmen are busily engaged in tearing out the upper pews and decorations of the interior and removing them to the new church." Old St. Matthew's was slated to be demolished within weeks and the property sold. "Being situated on one of the most desirable corners in the city, it has a high value, and the intention is to devote the proceeds of the sale of the property to the construction of the new St. Matthew's," the Post explained. But it would not turn out to be quite as easy as it sounded.

The old church stood empty for more than ten years, despite the fact that the neighborhood was rapidly developing and would reign as home to the city's most powerful banks and investment firms in the first decade of the 20th century. Construction on the new church screeched to a halt while the old one lingered on the market and rapidly decayed. By 1902 the wooden steeple superstructure was found to have rotted, and engineers decided it had to be taken down. In January 1903, The Washington Post reported that F.S. Sutherland, known as "the human fly," had won the contract to remove the steeple. In the days before hydraulic lifts, the only way to get as high as the St. Matthew's steeple was to climb it, and Sutherland had made a name for himself scaling steeples across the country using suction pad gloves of his own invention. Sutherland wanted desperately to be permitted to climb the Washington Monument and complete the repair job needed on its apex, but as he waited to hear about that project he took on the St. Matthew's job—despite having just spent several months in the hospital with a spinal injury from falling off a church steeple in Columbus, Ohio. For several days in January 1903 Sutherland delighted gawkers on 15th Street with his antics as he hung from a rope and gradually dismantled the old tower piece by piece.

Rubble from the recently demolished St. Matthew's Church is seen in front of the old Shoreham Hotel in this view from 1910 (Source: D.C. Library Commons).
Rev. Lee had taken out a substantial loan on the old building to begin work on the new one, and as it languished he perhaps grew impatient to be rid of it. According to press coverage in 1913 of a congressional hearing into the matter, Lee was offering the site at $21 per square foot, a reasonable price for the prime location at the time, but by 1909 had received no offers. He was then persuaded by his real estate agent to sell the site for $18 a foot, after which the agent supposedly turned around and resold the property twice, making exorbitant commissions in the process. In any event, the old church was finally torn down. Its historic bell was sold to millionaire John Roll McLean (1848-1916) for his Friendship estate in upper Northwest DC. The church's handsome stained glass windows went to Mary Foote Henderson (1841-1931), who presumably installed them somewhere in her castle on Meridian Hill. Soon the Southern Building, a prestigious office building designed by renowned architect Daniel H. Burnham (1846-1912), rose on the corner of 15th and H. The marble and granite-clad building, reportedly the largest office structure south of Philadelphia, cost an eyebrow-raising $1.5 million.

Meanwhile, with the proceeds from the sale finally in hand, Father Lee restarted work on the new building. In April 1913, just a few months after the Congressional inquiry into the sale of the old church, the new St. Matthew's was consecrated in an elaborate ceremony attended by Rev. James Cardinal Gibbons (1834-1921) and other high Church officials. After circling the building several times in a cold wind, the dignitaries entered the church and gave a blessing to the large crowd of worshippers. A bright sun poured through the windows, The Evening Star noted, lighting the still sparsely decorated interior. Only a few pews had been delivered at that point, and chairs were used to make up the difference. Still there were hints of the rich decorations yet to come. The elegant marble altar, hand-carved in India, was a prime example.

Interior of St. Matthew's Cathedral (photo by the author).
Gradually over the ensuing decades the church's interior grew increasingly embellished with an astonishing assortment of sumptuous marble panels and inlays as well as colorful mosaics and murals, many of which were designed by Edwin Howland Blashfield (1848-1936), who had decorated the dome of the Library of Congress. Blashfield's grand mosaics of St. Matthew and the Angels of the Crucifixion were installed above the main altar in 1917. Italian craftsmen created mosaics of the four apostles based on Blashfield's designs that were installed in the pendentives under the dome in 1926. Much of the decorative work in the side chapels was completed in the 1920s and 1930s, although it has continued to the present day.

Postcard view from the funeral ceremony for John F. Kennedy, November 25, 1963.
From the start, Rev. Lee and other leaders of St. Matthew's had planned the new church to be on a grand scale fitting for a cathedral. In October 1939, the church finally achieved that designation when the new Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. was created. The Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle would henceforth be the site of many of the archdiocese's most important events and celebrations. In addition to the visits from Popes John Paul II and Francis, the cathedral was the site of President John F. Kennedy's funeral mass in November 1963.

The front entrance to the cathedral as it appears today (photo by the author).
The historic cathedral was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. By the 1990s, the oldest parts were over 100 years old, and as the roof began to leak and bits of plaster began to fall from the ceiling, it became clear that a major restoration was in order. Engineers found that mosaics were separating from the walls, and antiquated electrical wiring throughout the building posed a hazard. Under the guiding hand of Mary Oehrlein, one of the city's most experienced preservation architects, a thorough restoration began in 2000 and continued through 2003, including a new copper roof, cleaning and regilding of crosses and ornaments, and painstaking restoration of the numerous mosaics and murals throughout the church. Modern lighting and acoustics were installed throughout, resulting in one of the most stunning church interiors in the country and one of the most striking of Washington's great landmarks.

* * * * *

Sources for this article included Lorenzo D. Johnson, The Churches and Pastors of Washington, D.C. (1857); National Register of Historic Places nomination form for St. Matthew's Cathedral and Rectory (1974); Helene, Estelle, and Imogene Philibert, Saint Matthew's of Washington 1840-1940 (1940); Richard L. Schmidt and Cathey Meyer, A Landmark Restored: The Cathedral of St. Matthew The Apostle (2003); Richard Schmidt, et al., Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle: Its History, Art and Architecture (2008); Pamela Scott & Antoinette J. Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia (1993); William W. Warner, At Peace With All Their Neighbors: Catholics and Catholicism in the National Capital, 1787-1860 (1994); Henry F. and Elsie Rathburn Withey, eds., Biographical Dictionary of American Architects (1956); and numerous newspaper articles.

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