Answer Man Leaves No Stone Unturned in Search for Cathedral Details

Washington Post columnist John Kelly finds out why there is a stone saying "GITMO" inside the National Cathedral, and learns about the history of its construction. Video by John Kelly/The Washington Post, Edited by
By John Kelly
Sunday, March 8, 2009

At Washington National Cathedral, on the wall of the stairwell leading down to the restrooms, there is a stone plaque that reads in large capital letters: "GITMO." What is its meaning?

-- Shirley Cherkaksy, Alexandria

It means Guantanamo Bay, as in the U.S. Navy base on the southeast corner of Cuba. In 1965, the officers and men of the naval base donated the gray, rectangular stone to the cathedral, which was then under construction. The gift was in appreciation for a visit in July 1964 from the dean of the cathedral, the Rev. Francis B. Sayre Jr.

Sayre served as a Navy chaplain during World War II so he might have had a soft spot for sailors and Marines serving far from home. Of course, back then, Guantanamo Bay didn't have the unfortunate associations it does now, and those five letters wouldn't have seemed quite so jarring in that sacred setting.

The commemorative GITMO stone is just one of many in the neo-gothic-style Episcopal cathedral.

"Over the years, we've been gifted with stone from different places, sacred as well as secular places," the Rev. John Runkle, the cathedral conservator, told Answer Man on a recent tour. "It's an exchange of something tangible."

The cathedral -- officially the Cathedral Church of Sts. Peter and Paul -- wasn't completed until 1990, 83 years after the foundation was laid.

There's a stone from St. David's Cathedral in Wales and pieces of both Westminster Abbey and Cologne Cathedral. There are stones from the Appian Way, outside of Rome, and from Mount Sinai in the Holy Land, where Moses is said to have received the 10 Commandments. A canon at St. Paul's Cathedral in London wrote Runkle and said his records indicated that a piece of that London cathedral had been sent to Washington. Runkle has yet to find any trace of it.

Most of Washington National Cathedral is made from Indiana limestone, but in the War Memorial Chapel there's a block of pinkish stone. It's Aquia Creek sandstone, the same material used in the White House. Harry S. Truman gave it to the cathedral when the Executive Mansion was being renovated in the 1950s. (The White House connection is fitting, given that the only president buried in Washington is interred at the cathedral. It's Woodrow Wilson, grandfather of Francis B. Sayre Jr., he of the GITMO stone.)

The foundation stone -- now obscured under the 150,000-ton cathedral -- lies beneath the Bethlehem Chapel at the eastern end of the church. It's actually two stones: a small rock quarried from a field adjoining the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem set into a slab of American granite. Stone for the cathedra -- the bishop's seat, near the altar -- came from Glastonbury Abbey, the ruins in southern England where Joseph of Arimathea supposedly visited. The Canterbury Pulpit is made from stones from Canterbury Cathedral, seat of the Church of England.

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