The trip to see one of the Cathedral’s most significant donors from the past two years takes us to Kensington, Md., one of the leafy inner suburbs ringing Washington, D.C. We are met in the living room of a charming, low-slung home by Mrs. Barbara W. Caldwell, the contributor in question, who ushers us immediately to a sunny, screened-in porch looking out on fruit trees and blue hydrangea bushes in a well-kept lawn. It’s a colorful, peaceful setting that makes clear the importance of home to Mrs. Caldwell, who has lived here for decades. That in turn makes more significant her gift of her parents’ former house to the Cathedral.
Growing up, Mrs. Caldwell and her family lived on 34th Place, N.W., close to the Cathedral in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Some of Caldwell’s earliest memories are of a newly completed Bethlehem Chapel (it was finished in 1912) and the construction site where neighborhood boys such as her younger brother, Charles, would play. “I walked by it every day on the way to school!” she says. “Everybody that lived in Cleveland Park—all the children—used to go by Woodley Road and look over there where they were building.” On the steep trek up Newark Street after visiting the ice cream man, the mostly unfinished Cathedral site already inspired curiosity and wonder.
In retirement Mrs. Caldwell’s younger brother served as a dedicated Cathedral volunteer, first in the bookstore and later as a greeter. He passed away at he age of 91 in August 2010, having made thoughtful bequests for the Cathedral’s preservation and its grounds. Mrs. Caldwell, in turn, made a gift of nearly $713,000 in his honor: the family house their parents built in the late 1930s. (They moved in following the Pearl Harbor attacks, she recalls, sharing a victory garden with the neighbors.) “I didn’t want another house, believe me!” Mrs. Caldwell explains, laughing. “I used to say to him, ‘I don’t know about you, but if I have the house it’s going to go to the Cathedral.’ And I’m sure he felt the same way.”
The proceeds from the house sale will help to preserve the Cathedral. “My brother was the one who chose preservation,” Mrs. Caldwell observes. “He was very specific about it, and in fact he used to say to me, ‘That’s where they need it. You have to keep that going.’ He traveled a little bit, and he loved going to the cathedrals in Europe. And he used to speak about that in connection with the Cathedral here.” Both siblings, after all, had seen the National Cathedral being built over their lifetimes: towers rising, gardens growing and changing across countless seasons. “You could just watch it go,” she says, marveling a little, memories still vivid of seeing such a place being built practically in her back yard—and now, with her help, being restored for new generations to appreciate. Moreover, Mrs. Caldwell emphasizes that nothing could be easier. “All I had to do was sign my name,” she says, “and I knew that it would mean a lot to him.”
Few if any can consider the Cathedral’s construction from Mrs. Caldwell’s exact perspective, but anyone can appreciate the question that it raises: what memories will today’s children have of their National Cathedral a century from now? Thanks to generosity like hers, there will be an answer.