At National Cathedral, altar florists set seasonal tones
Easter was less than four days away, and the purple-aproned women of the Washington National Cathedral Flower Guild had arrived at a kind of reckoning.
Their plan to cascade coral and yellow flowers down the towering bishop’s pulpit appeared to conflict with the ban on affixing any hooks or nails to the ornate limestone dais. The stuffed chicks that were to sit in tiny nests in another elaborate display had run out. And boxes of lilies, the classic flower of Easter, were coming out squished.
“Ooh, you’re not beautiful yet!” Linda Roeckelein, director of the 100-member guild, whispered to still-closed white lilies that had been placed in pots of water.
Such trials are old hat to Roeckelein, longtime head of one of the country’s largest and best-known flower guilds, volunteers who merge worship of God with flower-arranging. For such people, being invited to join Roeckelein’s crew is like a sonorous Mormon’s winning a spot on the Tabernacle Choir.
And Easter, with its theological power and its spring-flower timing, is the guild’s biggest day.
Roeckelein looks like Katharine Hepburn and sounds, as she flits through the cathedral, like the most enthusiastic tour guide you ever had. Designing flowers for the huge Gothic building is “a sort of adventure!” The trend toward more open, natural arrangements is described as “more lyrical!” This week, Roeckelein taped dozens of pieces of paper throughout the cathedral with instructions for her volunteers — what she calls her “recipes.”
Each year, hundreds of flower-arrangers — particularly those who work in churches — vie for spots in her training workshops, and she travels across the country to consult people on site. The guild designs hundreds of arrangements year-round for the cathedral, which has hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The cathedral has competed in and won awards at renowned flower shows.
But preparing for Easter is tricky, for reasons theological and horticultural.
Most churches don’t display flowers during the somber season of Lent, whose observance at the cathedral culminates with an evening service on Good Friday. And on Saturday evening, the celebration of Easter starts at the cathedral with a vigil service attended by about 2,000 people. That means the Flower Guild has just 24 hours to put Roeckelein’s recipes into place in nine chapels, not to mention on countless pillars, gates and pulpits in the cathedral, the nation’s second-largest.
The guild has to coax hundreds of lilies, roses, tulips and orchids to open at just the right time, sometimes by putting them in warmer water, and to display the flowers so their colors work well in the massive, dimly lighted cathedral. Purple, for example, is a popular symbolic color in Christianity, but Roeckelein doesn’t use much of it because in the building “it goes gray.”
Church flower-arranging has its own doctrines and theater. Because of the no-flower custom during Lent, Roeckelein uses branches that during this holy season begin to bud, ideally releasing “this hint of spring green” just at Easter, she says. “It’s quite moving, quite symbolic.”
During Pentecost, an important feast celebrated in May or June, Roeckelein uses oranges and reds. During Advent, a period of spiritual preparation leading up to Christmas, she uses only greens. These are common practices at churches, many of which have far-smaller “altar guilds” or may even rely on a local florist to adorn the altar.
Setting the tone
Roeckelein has set the tone at the cathedral for decades; she began as a volunteer in 1965 and became head of the guild in 1995. She prefers not to use fake flowers and to use sparingly the color gold or anything that looks too commercial.
When she picks members of the guild, she looks for people who share those values. What unites the group is the feeling that God — or something that engages the human spirit — can be felt through beautifully arranged flowers, particularly in the soaring space of the cathedral, the seat of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.
Guild members aren’t necessarily regular churchgoers or even Episcopalians. Roeckelein has enlisted atheists and Jews and people from all walks of life. The current bunch includes lawyers, yoga teachers, musicians, an elephant keeper and a store detective.
For the maestro of such an intense group, Roeckelein manages to maintain a devoted following. One the reason is her success; she has led the cathedral to several awards at the prestigious Philadelphia Flower Show. Another is her demeanor, complimenting her workers at every turn (“Those ribbons are so neat!”).
Her office looks like the dressing room of a tree nymph. Boxes everywhere overflow with tiny purses made of moss and leafy branches frozen in fall colors by a glycerine dip. On the floor, there are buckets with tall grasses.
Part of the power of the guild’s work is its short life. Most of the Easter flowers will be down by Wednesday, Roeckelein said, and then she can turn to the small garden she and her husband have on the roof of their apartment building.
“This time of year, I’m just thankful for the beauty around us,” she said.