Representatives from the entire Close community—Washington National Cathedral, its affiliated schools, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and the Cathedral Foundation—gathered in “fine English weather” to witness the rededication and reconsecration of the Cathedral’s iconic Bishop’s Garden on October 9. The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of Washington, presided with the assistance of the Very Rev. Gary Hall and other Cathedral clergy.
The occasion for the ceremony was the successful finish to a restoration project, spanning more than three years, centered on the best-loved and most historic landscape area on the Cathedral Close. When the garden was begun, in the early 1920s, its site was taken up by a large mountain of dirt excavated from the top of Mount St. Alban for the laying of the Cathedral’s crypt and the rest of its substructure. With Cathedral Dean George C. F. Bratenahl occupied by planning the iconographic program for the as-yet-unbuilt Cathedral interior, the task of beautifying the barren plot on the prospective building’s south side fell to his wife, Florence Brown Bratenahl: an individual of uncommon talent and ambition who quickly gathered a team of equally dedicated amateur horticulturists—All Hallows Guild—around her. Working with landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., as a resource, Mrs. Bratenahl created a boxwood-delineated space that would serve as a “garden for the ages.” Paved with stones from founding fathers’ estates and adorned with stone art from medieval France, planted with herbs and “Old World” vegetation, both its contours and content matched the great Gothic edifice being planned only yards away.
By the middle of the last decade, time had begun to take its toll. The historic boxwoods, never trimmed in the manner of topiary but allowed to keep a natural shape, had lost their “billowing” quality and were overtaking the garden’s paths. A series of crippling snowfalls had also seriously damaged many of these essential plants, which grow slowly—at a rate of perhaps one inch per year. The coup de grace took place on September 7, 2011, when a crane that was raising huge steel beams to stabilize earthquake damage to the Cathedral’s central tower collapsed along South Road, obliterating all the vegetation and much of the stonework in its path. Sensing a silver lining in this sudden damage, an opportunity to return the garden to Mrs. Bratenahl’s original plans, All Hallows Guild Garden Committee chair Peggy Steuart was perhaps the first to spring into action, aided by acclaimed landscape architect Michael Vergason and other members of the guild led by two-term president Carol Kelleher.
Today, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Steuart and the rest of All Hallows Guild, the Bishop’s Garden flourishes once more—and not a moment too soon. A federal government shutdown paralyzed many historic sites in or near the District of Columbia from October 1 to 16, and the Cathedral (whose operations are not funded by taxpayer dollars) remained open to visitors who could not change their plans.
The Bishop’s Garden, for its part, soon became an oasis for nearly 30 couples otherwise scheduled to be married outside monuments or at other federally funded sites, as coordinated by Cheryl Daves Wilburn, associate for pastoral care and canonical acts for the Diocese of Washington. The bishop’s gracious pastoral act of opening the garden for this purpose underscored a commitment, across the Close, to offer even stronger ministry to the nation in moments of great need. Sightseeing visitors to the Cathedral also dramatically increased, filling every space with all the energy of discovering one of their new favorite places in Washington, inside and out.