Gloria In Excelsis: National Cathedral's Climb of the Spring Restored

The central tower of the National Cathedral with its scaffolding on top.
Robert Devaney
The central tower of the National Cathedral with its scaffolding on top.

Saturday's misty morning seemed nature's soft rebuff to Friday's 80-degree day at the Tidal Basin under the cherry blossoms. A sunny walk near the monuments around the cherry trees with petals at their peak was to be followed by the next day's climb along the stones into the monumental tower of Washington National Cathedral.

A one-day event was announced by the cathedral for a "tower climb" on March 24 to show that the central tower -- its ecclesiastical name is Gloria in Excelsis Tower -- was "deemed to be structurally sound and safe for visitors. The tower climbs have been a semi-regular tradition for many years." It was the first time since the Aug. 23, 2011, earthquake that visitors were allowed into the central tower, the highest geographical point in Washington, D.C. Four teams of about 80 persons took separate morning climbs.

With volunteer guides to direct and comfort, we began our 45-minute tour in the cathedral's crypt at the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea and ascended approximately 333 steps to the tower's bell ringing floor. The stairs, whether of stone or metal, spiraled and challenged some a bit. And whether physical or mental -- "I have issues," said one woman -- all made it.

There were stops to look out narrow windows, doors or balconies to see the sides of the one of the largest churches in the world with some of its pinnacles missing and masonry cracked because of the earthquake. Our heavenly view was constricted by the fog to the cathedral's close and parts of Wisconsin Avenue and Woodley Road, but we were touring through the holy hollow of master work that went on for 83 years. Only in 1990 was the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, a national sacred place of many celebrations and memorials, considered officially completed, its final stone set. Now, with the earthquake damage, the cathedral estimates that it will take 10 years and $20 million dollars to fix the cracks and replace lost finials, pinnacles and other stonework. Only $2 million has been raised for the restoration.

In the bell room, ringers of the Washington Ringing Society showed us the ropes to the massive peal bells above us, heard often up and down Wisconsin Avenue. Spiral stairs above that room are now closed but were used to get to the observation deck years ago. Nevertheless, out on the balcony the view could go down to the Potomac -- though not on this drizzly day. Descending to the cathedral’s carillon room, carillonneur Edward Nassor put on another show. Happily, he did not ring the largest bells, closest to the floor and bigger than his visitors.

Moving through the transept, we looked down on the netting that protects worshippers from falling mortar or dust and the rose window unobscured and prepared to climb to the ground floor. Soon enough, we were back on earth, our glimpse of heaven within and without veiled in the fading mist.

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