Nourse’s Dream Became National Cathedral

Joseph Nourse (1754 - 1841)

Joseph Nourse dreamed of a church on his land. Two centuries later Washington’s National Cathedral was finished.

President George Washington and Pierre L’Enfant, who were planning the new American republic’s capital city, one day rode out from the thriving port of Georgetown to visit Treasury Secretary Nourse’s home atop the highest spot in the then-called federal district.

National Cathedral History

National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

That day Joseph Nourse told President Washington and planner L’Enfant that he dreamed that one day a church would be built on his acreage. Was this the conversation that eventually sparked the building of the National Cathedral, or is it the beginning of a legend? Historians say nobody knows.

In the mid 19th century the parish church of St. Alban’s was constructed on this site, stimulated by a bequest from Nourse’s great-granddaughter “for a free church on Alban Hill.”

Legacy for Washington’s Largest Church?

“These gold pieces were the first legacy for the vast structure, the Washington National Cathedral,” write Richard Feller and Marshall W. Fishwick in For Thy Great Glory, a 1965 cathedral history.

Finally, in 1898, President McKinley helped dedicate a “cross of peace” on Alban’s hilltop, signifying the intent to build a cathedral. President Theodore Roosevelt was present for the 1907 cornerstone laying.

National Cathedral an 83-year Project

During the fall of 1990, a crane lifted into place on the cathedral’s south tower, the finishing touch for this 20th century Gothic triumph. Stone-by-stone, it had been built by craftsmen from around the world, becoming the sixth largest cathedral in the world.

The cathedral’s flying buttresses, pointed arches, vaulted ceilings, and carvings in both stone and wood, are reminiscent of Europe’s finest cathedrals, especially those constructed in the Middle Ages. There are more than 200 stained glass windows.

Memorial stones in the National Cathedral have come from England’s Canterbury Cathedral, from a quarry near Jerusalem and from Mt. Sinai, as well as other places marked by Christianity’s historical events. Famous people are buried here and presidents worship here.

Today’s National Cathedral

The National Cathedral’s official name is the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and St. Paul. It is the primatial seat of the Episcopal Church. The United States has no state religion and no governmental funds were used for the cathedral’s construction. People of diverse faiths have long worshipped at the National Cathedral and many view it as a symbol of the nation’s freedom of religion and the faith of America’s people. The nation’s dignitaries and a television audience of millions joined in mourning at the National Cathedral service memorializing the 9/11 victims.


  1. Feller, Richard, and Fishwick, Marshall, For Thy Great Glory (Washington: 1965).
  2. Forgey, Benjamin, “Splendor in Light and Stone,” Washington Post Magazine, April 15, 1990.