By Neva Rae Fox
An old, outdated, unused building in critical need of upgrades and renovations is being transformed into a premier educational, community, and spiritual haven and state-of-the-art conference center. When completed next year, the College of Faith and Culture at Washington National Cathedral will be a showcase for learning, spirituality, and civic events with lodging available for more than 30.
“It will be a place of conversation, a place of learning, a place of encounter,” said the Very Rev. Randolph (Randy) M. Hollerith, cathedral dean. “We’d like it to be a think tank and to offer an entrepreneurial spirit. It will be Episcopal, ecumenical, interfaith.”
The College of Faith and Culture will be housed in the former College of Preachers, originally built in 1929 and located on the campus of Washington National Cathedral in the heart of the nation’s capital. The College for Preachers served the Episcopal Church for many decades and closed amid the 2008 recession.
In its place will be a refurbished facility, the College of Faith and Culture, a multimillion-dollar project offering conferences, seminars, symposiums, and in-person retreats.
“When the College for Preachers closed, it was a huge loss for the cathedral and a huge loss for the church,” the dean said. The overall plan is to provide “a place to build community, once again to be a hub in the church, where larger work can be done.”
Offering this kind of center is not usual for the cathedral, the dean said. “Washington National Cathedral has served historically as a place for the nation to gather in sorrow and in happiness.”
When completed, the building will be named the Virginia Mae Center, in honor of Virginia Mae Mars, a longtime cathedral chapter member and benefactor. While the college will be based in the Virginia Mae Center, the cathedral’s other facilities will be used for programs as well.
“The College of Faith and Culture will be larger than the building,” Hollerith said. “The College of Faith and Culture is the programming arm of the cathedral.”
The programs fall into three major areas: the Institute for Music, Liturgy, and the Arts; the Institute for Ethics and Public Engagement; and the Institute for Spiritual and Leadership.
There will also be programs designed specifically for youth and young adults.
Events include the well-known Honest to God discussion series. Kevin Eckstrom, chief communications officer, said the cathedral’s newly named canon historian, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jon Meacham, will talk in the spring about the late Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis. Another conference will feature the U.S. House and Senate chaplains addressing leadership in a divided congress.
Eckstrom said some of the other varied programs are choral camps, flower arranging seminars, and an ever-popular Acolyte Festival.
Eckstrom described the former College of Preachers building. “It’s a five-story building, built into a side of the hill.” One of the biggest issues with the building — and top on the list to correct, he promised — is that the building was not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Construction began on the 27,000-square-foot project more than a year ago, but the pandemic halted the construction, as well as most activities at the cathedral.
With work on the building beginning again, Eckstrom described the current scene. “Right now, water lines, heating ducts, foundation things are being worked on. The inside is ripped down to the studs. There’s not much there but an empty shell.”
Fundraising for the construction and an endowment is well along, including two gifts yielding $22 million.
“It is important when the building is open that it is fiscally responsible and doesn’t drain on the cathedral,” the dean said.
The operation will not require many new employees. “We are not hiring large amounts of staff; no housecleaning or kitchen staff, as we will outsource those services.”
He added: “When the building is not occupied, we can shut the doors and not have overhead. We are doing this responsibly.”
Hollerith seeks collaboration in all areas. “We want to partner with institutions, academic and otherwise, to present the best programs.”
Hollerith stressed the diversity planned for the new venture.
“The College of Faith and Culture and its work is intended to be not only a service to the Episcopal Church, but a wider ecumenical and interfaith place,” Hollerith said. “The cathedral is a house of prayer for all people, and we either mean it or we don’t, and we mean it. All people are all people.”