Spiritual D.C.: The National Cathedral and More

The Great Tours: Washington, D.C.—Lecture 18 GUIDE

The nation’s capitol is home to 850 religious institutions offering something for people of all walks of faith including Christian, Muslim, and Jewish, and some of these buildings are quite spectacular. This guide visits some of Washington, D.C.’s most historic houses of worship and looks at the many contributions these institutions have made to Washington life.

In particular, we’ll focus on:

  • St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square
  • St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Rock Creek
  • St. Patrick’s Catholic Church
  • The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
  • Jewish congregations
  • Islamic congregations
  • The Washington National Cathedral

Watch the video introduction below, then let’s get started!

A City of Faith

Over the years, people of many faiths have made their homes in Washington, D.C. and have established places of worship.

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For example, on the six-mile stretch of 16th Street NW, between Lafayette Square and the Maryland border, there are 44 religious institutions—including mosques, temples, synagogues, churches, and religious education centers. That is just a tiny fraction of the more than 850 religious institutions in the city—about one for every 750 residents.

Along with Jewish, Christian, and Islamic places of worship, D.C. also features Hindu and Buddhist temples, Shinto and Daoist temples, Sikh gurdwaras, Baha’i temples, and many more. All of these communities are part of the vital tapestry of life in Washington, D.C.

St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square

St. John's Episcopal Church, Washington D.C.
St. John’s opened its doors in 1816 and every person who has held the office of president since James Madison has attended at least one service there.

St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square was not the first house of worship in D.C., but it is the one most closely associated with the presidency. It is just one block away from the White House, at the corner of 16th Street and H Street NW.

St. John’s opened its doors in 1816, and every person who has held the office of president since James Madison has attended at least one service there. Pew 54, James Madison’s original pew, is still reserved for the president’s use. The 18th-century prayer book found in the pew has been autographed by many presidents.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Rock Creek

St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Rock Creek Washington D.C.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Rock Creek

The oldest religious institution in Washington is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Rock Creek, between the Petworth and Fort Totten neighborhoods. Although the church on this site has been rebuilt many times over the past three centuries—most recently after a fire in 1921—the parish has been in existence since 1712. More famous than the church building itself is the adjoining parish cemetery, opened in 1719. It is known for its beautiful landscape and its fantastic and eclectic grave markers.

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church

St. Patrick's catholic church, Washington D.C.
During the time period of the famous invasion when the British burned the White House to the ground, British troops attended St. Patrick’s Catholic Church for Sunday mass.

Washington’s oldest Roman Catholic parish is St. Patrick’s Catholic Church at 10th Street and G Street NW. The original wooden church on this site was constructed in 1794 and the second brick structure was built in 1809.

That brick church was a major witness to the British sack of Washington, D.C. in 1814. During the time period of the famous invasion when the British burned the White House to the ground, British troops attended St. Patrick’s Catholic Church for Sunday mass. The present-day church is much newer, constructed during the 1870s and 1880s.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Interior ceiling of Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Washington D.C.
The shrine stands out for its unique blend of Romanesque and Byzantine architecture.

Although Saint Patrick’s is the oldest Catholic church in D.C., the largest and most prominent is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, found in Northeast D.C. near The Catholic University of America. It is not a parish church but a national one, dedicated to the patron saint of the United States: Mary, the mother of Jesus, under her title of the Immaculate Conception.

The shrine stands out for its unique blend of Romanesque and Byzantine architecture—styles that date back to the first few centuries of the Christian era. The interior contains more than 75,000 square feet of mosaic artwork as well as sculpture, painting, and textile art, making it one of the largest collections of contemporary religious artworks in the world.

Jewish Congregations

Autumn in Chinatown neighborhood with Sixth and I Historic synagogue, Washington DC.
The Sixth and I Historic synagogue, Washington, D.C.

The first Jewish congregation in Washington, D.C.—called the Washington Hebrew Congregation —formed in 1852. Today, it is D.C.’s largest Reform Judaism congregation, located in upper Northwest D.C. The second congregation in D.C. was the Adas Israel, an offshoot of the first congregation, formed in 1869.

In 1876, they erected a synagogue, which now houses the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum. It is the oldest surviving synagogue structure in the city. Additionally, Adas Israel built what is now called the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue for its growing congregation in 1908. This beautiful building served the Adas Israel congregation until shortly after World War II, when, like so many places in the United States, Washington’s urbanites were becoming suburbanites, and their religious institutions followed them.

For the next 50 years, the building became the home of the Turner Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church. After that church in turn followed its members to the suburbs in 2003, the building was restored to its original state and was rededicated as the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, with an expanded mission. In addition to regular religious services, they also host cultural, educational, and social events for the entire D.C. community—everything from book readings to comedy and musical performances.

Islamic Congregations

WASHINGTON DC Islamic Center mosque
The Islamic Center mosque

The first Islamic congregation in D.C. was the Masjid Muhammad, founded in the 1930s. Many of its members were the descendants of African American slaves. The congregation struggled in its early years. Due to both prejudice against the unfamiliar religion and the racial segregation in D.C. at the time, they had difficulty finding a permanent place of worship.

They gathered in private homes or rented spaces until 1960, when—with the help of Malcolm X—they raised the funds to build the first mosque in D.C., in the Shaw neighborhood, where it is still in use today. Over the years, its congregation has broadened to include Muslims of all ethnic backgrounds, and it has been a leader in interfaith dialogue in the D.C. community.

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Another of D.C.’s famous mosques is found on Massachusetts Avenue, at the heart of Embassy Row, and has long served the Muslim diplomatic community. This is the Islamic Center of Washington. The center was the brainchild of Egyptian ambassador Mahmood Hassan Pasha and was dedicated by President Eisenhower in 1957.

The building was designed by an Italian architect, and it was based on the architecture of 15th-century Mamluk Egypt. Though Egyptian on the outside, the interior is pan-Islamic, including materials and design elements from all over the Muslim world. The center not only serves the community as a place for prayer but as an education and research center.

The Washington, D.C. Temple
Although technically located in Kensington, Maryland, one of the most striking parts of D.C.’s skyline is the Washington, D.C. Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is the tallest Mormon temple in the world.

The Washington National Cathedral

Washington National Cathedral with birds flying in sky background
The National Cathedral’s charter, written in 1893, declared that the church would be both an Episcopal see and “a House of Prayer for all people, forever free and open.”

Washington, D.C. planner Pierre L’Enfant envisioned a national, ecumenical place of worship. The church that would eventually take on this role was the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, better known as the Washington National Cathedral.

From the moment in 1891 when the American Episcopal Church proposed creating a Washington, D.C. diocese and a cathedral for that diocese, the church’s leaders linked this cathedral to L’Enfant’s idea of a national church. The cathedral’s charter, written in 1893, declared that the church would be both an Episcopal see and “a House of Prayer for all people, forever free and open.”

In 1898, Washington’s first Episcopal bishop, Henry Yates Satterlee, purchased a few dozen acres of land in northwest Washington for the construction of the cathedral. The land was just up Wisconsin Avenue from Georgetown, on the spot called Mount Saint Alban—the highest point in the city.

Construction formally began in 1907, when Bishop Satterlee oversaw the laying of the foundation stone, known as the Bethlehem Stone, with 10,000 spectators and President Theodore Roosevelt in attendance. The president who dedicated the cathedral was George H. W. Bush, in 1990. The planning and construction had taken more than 90 years.

Important events happened at the site before its dedication, though. For example, on March 31, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his final Sunday sermon here, just four days before his assassination. The cathedral has a memorial statue to him.

The cathedral’s Pilgrim Observation Gallery offers visitors some of the best views of Washington, D.C. to be found anywhere in the city.

You will also find a number of exhibits there relating to the cathedral’s construction and history.

If you want to visit the cathedral’s central bell tower, you will need to arrange a tour with the cathedral staff. The climb is not for the faint of heart, but it gives a unique look at the cathedral’s bells as well as the interior structures of the church.

Generally speaking, if you are interested in a guided tour of the National Cathedral, it is strongly recommended that you book online a few days in advance. They can fill up quickly, especially during the peak of the tourist season in the spring and summer.

Use these online resources to help plan your trip.
Sixth & I Historic Synagogue
National Cathedral Tours
Washington, D.C. Temple

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