In a city of monuments, the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle is a landmark of faith in the nation’s capital. Its copper-plated dome, rising about 200 feet high, is a familiar part of Washington’s skyline.
The cathedral is known for its majestic art and architecture and its soaring liturgies, but it is also a downtown Washington parish, offering the sacraments and an array of faith formation and social outreach programs for its parishioners, visitors and members of the community.
The parish was established in 1840 and the present church was designed by the noted architect Christopher Grant La Farge. It features mosaics and murals designed by Edwin Blashfield, who is famous for painting the murals on the dome of the main reading room of the Library of Congress.
St. Matthew’s became the cathedral church for the newly established Archdiocese of Washington in 1939, and both its title and patron saint reflect its identity and special role.
The word cathedral comes from cathedra, the Latin word for chair. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, noted in an interview that the cathedral is the site where “the bishop’s teaching chair is placed” and where he presides at holy days and special liturgies “as the shepherd of the flock and teacher of the faith.”
Reflecting on the cathedral and its diverse congregation, the cardinal said, “It’s right there in the center of this thriving metropolis, the capital city of the United States, and people from all walks of life come to the cathedral. There they all come before the Lord, before his altar, all equals… The cathedral is a reflection of everything the Church is supposed to be, everybody coming together around the altar of the Lord.”
Msgr. W. Ronald Jameson, the rector of the cathedral, noted that it is named, fittingly, for St. Matthew, a tax collector who is the patron saint of civil servants. Many of its parishioners work for branches of the federal government or for the District of Columbia.
But he noted another aspect of the parish’s patron saint. Jesus invited St. Matthew to “come and follow me,” and Msgr. Jameson said that is the mission of the cathedral, as it is for any parish, to invite people to “come and be able to follow Jesus more closely.”
St. Matthew was also an evangelist, with one of the four gospels attributed to him, and the cathedral is likewise known for its evangelization efforts. At this year’s Easter Vigil there, 26 people will become full members of the Catholic Church.
Volunteers handed out information about the parish’s Lenten programs at nearby Metro stations, and St. Matthew’s has hosted the archdiocese’s Light the City street evangelization efforts involving young adults.
St. Matthew’s parishioners come from 2,200 households, and in addition to government workers, they include employees of international institutions and national associations located in Washington. The cathedral draws visitors from across the country and around the world, and its outreach programs serve the poor in its neighborhood.
Being a caring and welcoming community “to those around us and those who come from afar is a key element of what it means to be a cathedral parish,” its rector said.
The Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle has witnessed history over the years. Crowds gathered to pray there in joy at the end of World War II, and in sorrow after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Funeral Mass for John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first Catholic president, was held at the cathedral after his 1963 assassination.
Msgr. Jameson, St. Matthew’s rector for the past 22 years, was ordained to the priesthood there in 1968. The priest helped plan St. John Paul II’s Mass at the cathedral during that pope’s 1979 visit to Washington, and he embraced Pope Francis at the cathedral’s entranceway during that pontiff’s 2015 visit.
But, the rector said, his greatest blessings at the cathedral have involved serving people there as a parish priest, including preparing couples for marriage and helping people facing difficulties – meeting them where they are.
“(It’s) being with each person, day in and day out. No two days are alike, because there are all kinds of different people coming with different needs, different questions,” he said.
The cathedral’s social justice ministry is central to its work in downtown Washington. That outreach includes a Monday morning breakfast for and Bible study with homeless men and women, back-to-school collections for needy children, holiday gifts and food collections for families, an English as a Second Language program supported by young adult volunteers, and a respect life program.
“The greatest blessing in our social justice ministry is that one-on-one encounter with the people we serve,” said Norma Canedo, the cathedral’s coordinator for social justice, who said she is inspired by the generosity and goodness of the parish’s volunteers, and also by the hope and faith demonstrated by the people who come there for help.
Those encounters, she said, have taught her “everyone matters, and the Lord loves all of us.”
Canedo grew up in St. Matthew’s, receiving the sacraments there at what she calls her “second home” and her “spiritual home.” After graduating from college, she began volunteering at the cathedral. That service led to her current job there.
“I never planned to work at my parish. It was the Lord calling me. It was his plan, and here I am. It’s been a blessing, a huge blessing,” she said.
In addition to its service to those in need, St. Matthew’s Cathedral is also known for its beautiful liturgies and music. Msgr. Jameson said that as the archdiocese’s mother church, it strives to be a model for parish life.
The music program there – which includes the cathedral’s principal choir, the Schola Cantorum, and also a Spanish-language and contemporary choir – “helps raise our hearts and minds in praise of our Lord Jesus,” Msgr. Jameson said.
The pastoral associate for liturgy and the director of music ministries at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Thomas Stehle, also directed the choirs for Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 Mass at Nationals Park and Pope Francis’s 2015 Canonization Mass for St. Junípero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Stehle said the music ministry at the parish seeks to enhance the liturgies and offer a transformative prayer experience for the worshippers there, drawing upon the Catholic Church’s heritage of music.
As it is at every parish church, the Easter Vigil offers the highpoint of the liturgical year at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Stehle described how moving it is at that vigil, when the deacon chants the Exultet, a hymn celebrating the risen Christ. The people in the darkened cathedral hold candles that had been lit by the Easter candle, as the deacon chants, “The Light of Christ.”
“It’s a very special night when you visually look around and see all the flickering of lights from the candles being bounced off the mosaics,” said Stehle. “It’s really spectacular, along with that ancient hymn (acknowledging) Christ as the light of the world. Through his death and resurrection, we have light.”
At the Easter Vigil at the cathedral, the dramatic Exodus story is sung, accompanied by a violinist. But the high point of that liturgy comes with the sacraments of initiation, as people are baptized, receive their First Holy Communion and are confirmed.
“The initiation rites all have their own musical moments, where we draw the assembly in to praise and thank God for this new life that is being brought into the Church,” said Stehle.
Cardinal Wuerl said the Holy Week and Easter liturgies at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, as they do at every parish, invite “everybody into that mystery of new life in Jesus Christ.”
Stehle said the goal of the St. Matthew’s liturgies is for the people there to be fed with the Eucharist, the word of God and the music there, but then to “leave the cathedral more emboldened, more courageous and more committed to live the Gospel… that they want to go out and be the body of Christ in the world.”