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In 1900, Henry Yates Satterlee, the first bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, founded the National Cathedral Altar Guild. Lucy Mackrille, head of the guild for 40 years, gathered volunteers to prepare the materials needed to adorn and support the worship of the yet-to-be-built Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Washington National Cathedral. According to the Cathedral’s bylaws, the guild was to assist the clergy “in the ordering of services…tend[ing] to flowers and linens and other seemly service, that the worship of God’s House may be performed decently and in order.” 

Today the guild’s work is divided into three teams: Flowers, Silver and Linen, and Liturgical Fabrics. For 120 years, the charge of “seemly service” has remained, with nearly 200 volunteers laboring in our Lord’s vineyard week in and week out. 

COVID-19 Service

This year has been unlike any other in the Cathedral’s history. As the COVID-19 pandemic intensified, we closed our doors on March 12, less than a month before Easter. While many aspects of Cathedral life were cancelled or postponed, one was not: worship. Throughout these months, the guild’s teams continued their work in new circumstances. 

Like the morning of the Resurrection, Easter 2020 dawned softly, quietly, and without pomp. While the celebrated floral decorations were noticeably absent, a small physically distant group had prepared linens, mended vestments, and polished silver in preparation for the great feast. 

In the months following, the building has remained closed, even as Sunday worship and pastoral offerings have continued uninterrupted online under the leadership of Very Reverend Randolph Hollerith, Cathedral Dean. The commitment to a robust online presence has necessitated the guild’s continued operations — albeit in much-reduced circumstances, in line with the guidance of diocesan, government, and public health officials. 

Special Projects

Additionally, we have taken the opportunity to carry out some long-term projects, prioritizing those that can be completed in accordance with health and safety guidelines. These projects include updating and digitizing our older inventories of linens, paraments, vestments, and metalwork. We have also had several pieces of our regularly used pieces repaired. This is normally difficult to accomplish when the building is open and in constant use. 

As the new liturgical year approaches, members of the guild have begun our traditional preparations. They have brought the antique Sarum blue frontals, vestments, and altar appointments out of storage and examined them for repairs or cleaning needs. The flower team’s seasonal arrangements are being planned, and candles for the Advent wreath have been ordered. The 50-piece crèche is being examined in preparation for display, and members of the Liturgical Fabrics team have continued making fair linens, corporals, and purificators from their homes. 

Holiday Services

This year the Cathedral’s holiday services are being primarily offered online. Taken together, they will seek to convey the traditional seasonal joy after a uniquely difficult year. At the same time, we will acknowledge that for those who are not physically able or emotionally ready to fully join in acts of celebration, this will be a difficult period. In the words of Saint Paul, we must “rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15) 

Working under the direction of the Reverend Dr. Rosemarie Logan Duncan, the Cathedral’s Canon for Worship, members of the guild will consider the functional and visual aspects for several services. Many of these considerations are new, ranging from the safe reception of the Sacrament, to the size and placement of floral arrangements, to the shininess of certain fabrics under lights. As ever, the work of the altar guild must point toward the sacred, not the work itself. As we approach these holy seasons during this difficult year, may the work of all altar guilds across the Church continue to show forth the wonderful and sacred Mystery of the Incarnation through “seemly service.”

Dr. Torrence Thomas is the head verger at Washington National Cathedral. He has completed studies at Duke University, New York University, and the University of Oxford and holds a Ph.D. in medieval history from Yale University. 

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