Memorial Service for
The Very Rev. Francis B. Sayre, Jr.
The Very Rev. Francis B. Sayre, Jr., dean of Washington National Cathedral from 1951 to 1978, died peacefully in his sleep on Friday, October 3, 2008.
The loss of this indefatigable spirit is sadly felt not only by those who had the bracing experience of knowing and working with Dean Sayre, but also by those who have come to know and admire him through his sermons and through the stories that have become legend at this Cathedral.
Dean Sayre was a visionary who relished his role as chief iconographer of the Cathedral and whose tenure took the Cathedral to 90 percent of completion. His vision for the Cathedral can be seen in its ironwork, sculpture, stained glass, and wood carvings, as Sayre strove to share the story of the Christian faith and its Judaic origins with the nation and the world. During his tenure, the Dean oversaw the construction of the massive Gloria in Excelsis (Central) Tower, brought the Cathedral to the forefront of discussion about Americas social and political issues, and created a strong sense of community and welcome on the Cathedral Close.
Born in the White House in 1915, the grandson of President Woodrow Wilson, Francis Sayre spent his childhood in the wellspring of American leadership as this country was emerging as a world power. Sayres strong sense of our nations responsibility to serve as a moral leader through example drove him to speak truth to power. Whoever is appointed the dean of a cathedral has in his hand a marvelous instrument, he once said in an interview, and hes a coward if he doesnt use it.
Sayres outspoken support of the Civil Rights movement, his calls for a national resolution to eradicate poverty and substandard education in America, and his opposition to the Vietnam War and to the insidious tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthys investigation into communist activities in the U.S. did not always put the Dean in the good graces of the Cathedrals friends nor the general public. In January 1973, at the height of anti-war protests, Sayre invited Leonard Bernstein and the National Symphony Orchestra to perform Franz Josef Haydns Mass in Time of War at the Cathedral, on the same night and time as President Richard Nixons inaugural concert. A slew of angry letters descended upon the Cathedral in the weeks following Bernsteins concert, which was attended by an overflow crowd of thousands. One of the less vitriolic of the letters suggested, Why dont you get off your ego trip and go back to the business of promoting the ends of Christianity in this marvelous country of ours?
Sayre believed he was doing just that. In a sermon preached from the Cathedrals Canterbury Pulpit in 1957, as the Civil Rights movement was beginning to gain momentum, Sayre reminded worshipers of the Old Testament story about Elijahs challenge to his people, How long go ye limping between the two sides? and said that question, chilling in its candor, probes rather painfully; and Im afraid weve been doing a good bit of limping ourselves, and the testing may not be far off.
Francis Sayre was rarely a limper. Many long-time Cathedral friends recount the story that when faced with the decision to complete the nave or the more daunting goal of building the Central Tower, Sayre chose the tower, saying that it would stand as a visible sign throughout the city that the nations Cathedral was here for the benefit of all.
As impassioned as Sayre was about the serious challenges facing our world, he was also passionate about sharing Gods blessings of joy and laughter. He had the gift of gab, whether inspiring through his erudite and compassionate sermons or when greeting carvers and masons on his walk each morning through the Cathedral. His wit was very dry and his enthusiasm was infectious. Many a person afraid of heights but unable to decline Sayres invitation to see the towers construction first-hand (Hey, you want to go up?) would find him- or herself hundreds of feet above the ground, trying desperately not to look down while the Dean waxed poetic about the techniques used to set stone upon stone. And every year there was a party for the masons and carvers at the Deans private residence, because he found them as fascinating as they no doubt found him.
Raised in the environs of power, he understood its limitations and its temptations and spoke about the arrogance that could lead a nation into decline. He strove to make the Cathedral welcome to presidents and citizens alike. He had a storage area turned into the Cathedrals Good Shepherds Chapel so that those seeking Gods comfort would have a place to go when the Cathedral proper was closed. He walked down the center nave aisle with Queen Elizabeth and he walked with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma. (He invited King to preach at the Cathedral, which King did the Sunday before his assassination.)
Sayre traveled all over the world, presenting Washington National Cathedral as the juncture where long-held assumptions could be reconciled with new understandings, generating practical actions in the spirit of compromise. He believed the Cathedral could play a significant role beyond its walls. In a 1978 issue of Cathedral Age, he noted, I have felt that the Cathedral was an instrument in some sense beyond the confines of the church as an institutionan instrument that could be effective (in the nations capital) in the political centerin the arena of politics and public discussion and welfare.
A service to celebrate Dean Sayres ministry was held at the Cathedral in January 1978. Sayre had insisted that there be no long speeches, no (as he saw it) overpraising his 27 years of inspired leadership. The service opened with a bagpipe lament and a piper led the Dean out at the end. Following the Dean surely was the love and admiration of his Cathedral family, as well as that of the national and international community. Dean Sayres impact on this Cathedral and this nation cannot be overpraised.
A funeral service was held at the Cathedral on Saturday, October 25 at 1 pm. All are welcome.