Hilda Griffith, an Arlington widow, has loved the Washington Cathedral since her father took her and her sister, Cora, to see the first stone laid 83 years ago. Holly Tabor, a Rockville pediatrician's daughter, has loved it for only seven years.

But differences of generation, geography, even income hardly matter when each catches a glimpse of that English Gothic edifice towering over the nation's capital from a hill in Northwest Washington. Like few other monuments in this city, it aspires to be a uniting presence, to challenge people to take a minute and reflect on the virtues of patience and beauty.

After decades of building in fits and starts, the nation's second largest cathedral (after St. John the Divine in New York) will be completed today. Several thousand people, including President and Mrs. Bush, are expected for the placing of the final pinnacle at noon.

It is no mean celebration, given the rocky construction history of the Cathedral of SS. Peter and St. Paul, the official name given by the Episcopal Church USA. A cathedral is built as much on faith as on stone, and when money ran short and critics questioned whether scarce dollars would be better spent somewhere else, faith faltered. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression slowed construction; building stopped altogether from 1977 to 1980.

The Right Rev. John T. Walker, Washington's Episcopal bishop from 1977 to 1989, eventually raised enough money to repay an $11 million debt and finish the financing before he died last fall. He also pressed the church to truly become "a house of prayer for all people," serving with programs and resources more than the upper-income membership historically associated with the Episcopal Church.

"Our challenge is no longer how do you build a great cathedral, it's how do you be one," said the Rev. Leonard Freeman, canon at the cathedral.

The cathedral's intricate carvings, elaborate woodwork and brilliantly stained glass tell the story of a city and a country in progress, and of a people whose lives were touched by the building.

Riggs Bank President Charles Glover helped secure the cathedral's birth certificate in 1893: a charter from Congress empowering the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation to establish a cathedral and institutions of higher learning.

In 1900, the District opened its first kindergartens, and four years later, the National Cathedral School for Girls opened, followed by the National Cathedral School for Boys (later St. Albans School for Boys). Both sit on Mount St. Alban next to the cathedral.

The schools turned out several leaders: members of Congress such as Rep. Beverly B. Byron and Sen. Albert Gore Jr., prominent research scientists and priests. Always, the headmasters and headmistresses stressed morals as well as academics, and they found Friday morning services in the cathedral an appropriate setting in which to do that.

For some of the students, the cathedral "is a counterbalance to their natural egocentrism," said the Rev. Mark Mullin, St. Albans headmaster. "To live next to that building is to see that there is something more important than you."

Tabor, the pediatrician's daughter and a Harvard freshman who graduated from the girls school last spring, commented on the cathedral and Walker in a piece she wrote for a school publication:

"As I was walking between classes I stepped out the door and immediately felt uncomfortable, as if something was wrong or something was missing. Suddenly I realized that the cathedral was encased in fog and that not a single stone, from the base to the pinnacles, was visible. Only when I could no longer see it, when it seemed to have completely disappeared without warning, did I realize how much spiritual support and comfort I received from its mere presence."

In 1907, the year Union Station was completed, President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cathedral's first stone, a piece from Bethlehem set into American granite.

Griffith said her father told her at the ceremony, "I hope you live long enough to see this finished, but I doubt you will." The cathedral, although the longest-running construction project in the city's history, was erected more than three times as fast as its European ancestors.

Through the mid-1900s the cathedral's constituency grew with the building, at first almost entirely Episcopalian, later more ecumenical.

In 1949, Luanne Vaky, an Episcopalian, first visited the cathedral. Later, her first son was baptized in its Children's Chapel by a Unitarian minister. She and her husband, Viron Peter Vaky, a Foreign Service officer, traveled around the world for a while and returned to Washington in the late 1960s.

The world had turned upside down by then, as illustrated by an imaginative cathedral carver, who chiseled into the stone a war protester and a militarist. Vaky, who went to work in the cathedral's herb cottage, remembers that she had to stop selling bottles of vanilla extract ("the kids dipped toothpicks in there and sucked it").

Jean Rogers, a Chevy Chase resident, brought her first friend to the cathedral in the late 1960s. "I'm not Episcopalian," she said. "I'm not even particularly holy. I just think it's a beautiful building."

In the spring of 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last Sunday sermon at the cathedral. Nine years later, John Walker became the Washington church's first black bishop.

The cathedral, as envisioned by its founders, had to answer to three masters: the nation, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and the Washington community. At the time of Walker's consecration, it was primarily serving the first two.

Walker turned much of his energy to the Washington community. He demanded that half of the cathedral's operating budget of about $5 million be spent on programs, not construction. He approved a memorial service for Anwar Sadat and started a 444-day prayer vigil for hostages in Iran. He endorsed food distribution for the poor and founded the Interfaith Conference that includes Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Moslems and Sikhs.

It was Walker who invited communications lawyer Derrick Humphries to be an usher at the cathedral, one of about 1,000 volunteers. Humphries, now head usher and a key cathedral executive, is one of the highest-ranking blacks there. It was also Walker who encouraged Thomasine Brown, a Baptist from Capitol Heights, to work at the cathedral in 1987.

Brown, who runs the cathedral snack shop, meets "people from everywhere" in her job.

But when she told her neighbor in Capitol Heights where she worked, her neighbor responded, "The cathedral? What cathedral?"

The cathedral is as long as two football fields, weighs 300 million pounds, seats 4,000 people and boasts 200 stained glass windows, more than 100 gargoyles and 320 carved angels. But its real work, it would seem, has just begun.