Originally published October 2008 on Obit-Mag.com.
The term “bully pulpit” gets thrown around a lot in Washington. Generally it's in a figurative fashion, describing the position of influence, presidential influence, that wills other organs of governance to do its bidding. Rare does one get to use a real pulpit in such a capacity. But that was just what Francis B. Sayre Jr. did over the three decades he led the National Cathedral in Washington.
Rev. Francis Sayre (Washington National Cathedral Archives)
Rev. Sayre, an outspoken critic of Senator Joe McCarthy during his most virulent anti-communist days in the 1950s, and once leader of the nation’s largest cathedral, died on October 3, 2008. He was 93.
Senator McCarthy’s wayward nationalism wasn’t the only target of Rev. Sayre’s progressive activism. Well before Brown v. Board of Education, Rev. Sayre called for the end of segregation in schools. To Sayre, his position as dean not only afforded him the opportunity to be outspoken, but impelled him towards being an active force for what he believed in.
In an interview with the Washington Post four years before he retired from the cathedral in 1978, Rev. Sayre said, “Whoever is appointed the dean of the cathedral has in his hand a marvelous instrument, and he’s a coward if he doesn’t use it.”
This kind of bold leadership ran in Rev. Sayre’s family. He was born in the White House in 1915, the grandson of President Woodrow Wilson. His father Francis Bowers Sayre, Sr. was a professor at Harvard Law School and served as ambassador to Siam, and the assistant Secretary of State under Franklin D. Roosevelt. After Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, Rev. Sayre, Jr. served as a Navy chaplain in World War II.
Under his leadership the Cathedral itself, the construction of which had begun in 1907, reached 90 percent completion, including hundreds of carved angels and a spire that rises more than 300 feet.
Rev. Sayre was an era-defining dean for the National Cathedral. From civil rights to the anti-war movement, to the construction of the building, the largest cathedral in America and fifth largest in the world, he left his indelible mark.