Washington National Cathedral, still bearing quake scars, reopens

November 13, 2011

Bells pealed, the choir sang and tourists snapped pictures — of scaffolding and cracked limestone. For the first time since the August earthquake, Washington National Cathedral opened to the general public Sunday, although it was still clear the earth had moved beneath the national landmark.

More than 2,000 worshipers gathered for the first service with the Episcopal church’s new bishop of Washington, Mariann Edgar Budde. Also present were dozens of curiosity seekers and tourists eager for a look at the quake-damaged cathedral, which had been closed since Aug. 23.

“We’re thrilled,” said Kathleen Cox, the cathedral’s executive director. “Everybody is just wearing an ear-to-ear grin with the joy of being back.”

Sunday’s service was among a week’s worth of activities to celebrate the reopening of the cathedral, which calls itself the “spiritual home for the nation” and is sometimes the site of solemn memorial services and presidential funerals.

Although it draws nearly half a million visitors a year, the cathedral struggled in the economic downturn and went through a series of layoffs and budget cuts. Officials managed to balance the budget in the past fiscal year, but now they face millions of dollars in repairs of quake damage. The repairs could take more than a decade to complete.

“It’s too early to know how long it’s going to take and how much money, but we know it’s at least $15 million,” said Richard Weinberg, the cathedral’s spokesman.

Cathedral officials showed off a new visitors entrance and exhibit dedicated to recent events called “Though the Earth Be Moved.” The fallen limestone angel that became the iconic image of the earthquake is prominently displayed there.

Other signs of the damage remain, including black netting that stretches the length of the nave — to protect visitors from falling stone chips — and two limestone pinnacles parked outside the front entrance.

The building remains structurally sound but needs extensive repairs, notably to the damaged portions of pinnacles from the soaring central tower. The cathedral’s stonemasons and engineers have stabilized the building and have contacted the Indiana quarries that provided the limestone for replacement materials, Weinberg said.

Budde, who was installed as the first female bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington in a service Saturday, said she was taking the helm at a “decisive moment of opportunity and challenge.”

Budde said her first priority is the spiritual renewal and revitalization of congregations at a time when Episcopalian ranks are thinning across the country. She was chosen in part because of her successful revitalization of a congregation in Minneapolis, where she served as rector for 18 years.

In her remarks, Budde touched on personal themes, describing how she had been buoyed by her faith at times when she thought she “didn’t matter much at all.”

And she got a big laugh when she told the story of how she met her husband, Paul Budde, a “redheaded, bearded seminarian” who was studying to be a priest. She recalled that when he told her over dinner one night that he had decided against the priesthood, she thought: “Too bad for the Catholic Church.”

Sunday’s celebration also marked the return of the cathedral’s congregation of 1,000 members, who have had to worship in borrowed spaces, such as a nearby synagogue and school gymnasium, for the past 11 weeks.

“We’ve been wandering in the desert!” said Jane Stuart, 56, an occupational therapist from Arlington County. “It’s nice to be home.”

Harriet McCombs, a government analyst from Silver Spring, sat with two friends in the nave before the services. They admired the way the colored light from the stained glass played over the swath of black netting overhead.

“I wanted to join in the celebration,” McCombs said. “It’s a national symbol, and it’s been displaced. . . . Now it’s like the nation can return to its spiritual home.”

Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.
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