Friday, August 7, 2009

Shrapnel, swords and bayonets crown Christ’s head in the small side chapel, tucked between the expansive Gothic nave and another small room, the Children’s Chapel. Stained-glass figures of war heroes - from Richard the Lion-Hearted to Nathan Hale - look down on Linda Strating as she addresses her tour group on its last stop, the War Memorial Chapel of Washington National Cathedral.

“I think it’s so appropriate that the soldiers are protecting the children. Even the way [the builders] juxtaposed everything. … Everything has a meaning,” she says.

It was this meaning that inspired Ms. Strating, a volunteer docent at the cathedral, to craft the military-themed tour called Service and Sacrifice.

The Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Northwest functions as a church and place of prayer for the nation. It is the site for presidential funerals and memorial services for famous Americans - including Presidents Reagan and Ford and in May, former Rep. Jack Kemp. Also, every president since Mr. Reagan - with the exception of Bill Clinton - has attended Inauguration Day services there.

Ms. Strating started giving the Service and Sacrifice tours in May and has trained about seven other docents to give them as well. They are available upon request.

“The people that built this place had that [military theme] in their minds. I’m really just picking it up and showing it to people,” she says.

Ms. Strating, whose father was an Air Force colonel and Korean War veteran, found her first inspiration for the tour in the cathedral’s large stained-glass window honoring the Air Force. Building on her docent training and some of her own research, she created the hourlong tour that seeks to honor soldiers and the military.

The Washington National Cathedral is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world. Its first stone was laid in 1907, with President Theodore Roosevelt presiding. Two world wars and the Great Depression halted construction temporarily. The last stone was laid with in 1990 with President George H.W. Bush in attendance. It was built stone upon stone, with no structural steel, using the same methods medieval workers used. The only difference was help from cranes and trucks. Some plaques remain blank for future generations to commemorate future leaders and heroes.

The Service and Sacrifice tour highlights the cathedral’s military connections in its history, sculptures, carvings and needlepoint kneelers. Ms. Strating starts at the oldest part of the cathedral, Bethlehem Chapel, where Adm. George Dewey is buried. Dewey served on the original planning committee for the cathedral and was first to suggest that the building be constructed in the Gothic style. Ms. Strating also points out that the chapel, completed in 1912, served as a place of prayer for many soldiers heading to the battlefields of World War I.

Ms. Strating also thoughtfully dwells on another member of the military who heartily supported the effort to build the cathedral: Gen. John J. Pershing. He helped raise $16 million for the cathedral in the first half of the 20th century - a key contribution, as the building was completely funded by private donations, not the Episcopal Church or the government.

“It’s simply one huge present,” Ms. Strating says.

In the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea, Ms. Strating points out a mural’s depiction of St. John. The saint’s face was modeled after that of a young, thin student who worked to gain enough weight to join the Marines and died on the last day of the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima.

The tour traces these threads - touching everything from the Civil War to Sept. 11, 2001, to the enormous cost of war itself - throughout the cathedral.

Military chaplains, veterans and families of soldiers soon to be deployed have all requested the tour. Ms. Strating remembers taking one man - a Walter Reed patient wounded in the head by a roadside bomb in Iraq - through the tour. They ended at the War Memorial Chapel, where the young war veteran was struck by the image of Christ as the ultimate heroic sacrifice, crowned with symbols of the devastation of war.

“His eyes opened up, and he was blinking, nodding his head. His mother started crying and said, ‘He understands. … This is the most peace I have felt since this happened.’ ”

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