Keep­ing faith with a pil­lar of the Na­tional Cathe­dral

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - JAMIE STIEHM Jamie Stiehm is a Cre­ators Syn­di­cate colum­nist.

Washington Na­tional Cathe­dral is on a fast track to the fu­ture, with the news that gay wed­dings are on the hori­zon there. The Epis­co­palian lead­er­ship re­cently di­ver­si­fied with the coming of the lo­cal dio­cese’s first elected fe­male bishop, the Rev. Mar­i­ann Edgar Budde. The new dean, the Rev. Gary Hall, is al­ready a me­dia star for cham­pi­oning gun con­trol in the wake of the New­town, Conn., school shoot­ing.

Amid such so­cial progress, it’s sad that the Na­tional Cathe­dral is in dan­ger of leav­ing be­hind a piece of its past. The Herb Cot­tage gift shop, long housed in a vin­tage bap­tistry full of char­ac­ter and charm, may be per­ma­nently dis­placed by a cafe. This plan was just ap­proved by cathe­dral of­fi­cials, and a re­quest for pro­pos­als has been is­sued. Mean­while, the 1904 build­ing stands empty on the cathe­dral close.

Cathe­dral lead­ers fail to honor the shop’s place in the com­mu­nity’s heart, but they may know not what they do. They have not con­sulted widely, to put it mildly, which would risk an out­cry.

The cur­rent plan is not mu­chofa thank-you note to the All Hal­lows Guild, the women’s vol­un­teer or- ga­ni­za­tion that runs the gift shop to ben­e­fit the cathe­dral gar­dens and grounds. Love, money and work have been given over time to make the flow­ers and gar­dens a gen­er­ous gift to the spirit of all com­ers. I’m not re­li­gious, but the Bishop’s Garden a short walk away gives me plea­sure and so­lace. We have the kind­ness of women to thank for that.

What most peo­ple don’t know: It wasn’t the 2011 earth­quake that closed the cot­tage. It was a crane, do­ing work on the quake-dam­aged cathe­dral, that crashed down on the edge of the struc­ture amid heavy rains, tak­ing with it a statue of Pan, a fig tree, the fra­grant corkscrew vines and the lush land­scape.

A cheery place for the neigh­bor­hood, con­gre­ga­tion and vis­i­tors, the gift shop was re­lo­cated to a space in the park­ing struc­ture dur­ing the re­pairs — a loss to the cathe­dral’s vi­brancy. Ini­tially, the com­monly shared plan was for the shop to re­turn to its home space in the cot­tage, though this was not cod­i­fied or bind­ing; the build­ing be­longs to the Cathe­dral, not the Guild. But now the Guild is be­ing of­fered an­other venue, the Church House garage. Not so nice com- pared with the cot­tage, where the shop has op­er­ated since the 1930s.

But for the crane in the rain, the shop would still be there for those seek­ing a wed­ding present, can­dles, note cards or pa­per pearls made in Kenya — not to men­tion for school­boys coming in for rock candy, only 75 cents. It is a women’s shop, but there’s a chair for hus­bands. Peo­ple visit it from all over the world. I know, be­cause I have worked there and still lend a hand when needed. When I came to Washington from Baltimore about four years ago, it was an invit­ing en­clave, with a bit of ev­ery­thing.

The dis­rup­tion, de­lay and un­cer­tainty have hurt the mo­rale of the All Hal­lows Guild. It has been too po­lite to break the pub­lic si­lence that sur­rounds the sub­ject of the empty cot­tage. (Not be­ing a mem­ber, I speak freely.) It’s hard to put a price on the guild’s vol­un­teer work in or­ga­niz­ing the fundrais­ing spring fair, the Flower Mart. Com­posed mostly of older ladies, the guild pro­vides a link to a gra­cious era by putting on an English tea in the tow­ers twice a week. Don’t tell me there’s no time for that any­more.

Think of it this way. The Gothic ar­chi­tec­ture is the mas­cu­line com­po­nent of the cathe­dral, while the gar­dens are the women’s de­sign com­po­nent, based on an orig­i­nal Olm­sted land­scape map. The first dean’s wife, Florence Brate­nahl, is leg­endary be­cause she cre­ated an en­chant­ing Gothic garden, the Bishop’s Garden, to ac­com­pany the stone cathe­dral in a kind of a duet. A woman of vi­sion, she wrote away for trees and blos­soms, col­lect­ing plant­ings from all over. She also founded the All Hal­lows Guild in 1916 to carry on the mis­sion.

Ever since, gen­er­a­tions of women have kept that faith. Their civic life­work must not be dis­placed by a stealthy plan started by the crane in the rain.

COURTESY OF JAMIE STIEHM

The Na­tional Cathe­dral plans to per­ma­nently move the All Hal­lows Guild’s Herb Cot­tage shop from the build­ing it has used for decades.

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