A National Grief: NCS Choristers and Acolytes Take Part in the Funerals of Two Beloved Statesmen

For a couple dozen NCS students, the 2018–2019 school year started early, as acolytes and choristers were called upon to serve at two funerals in the Washington National Cathedral, honoring the passing of Sen. John McCain in August and former President George H.W. Bush in November.

Students said the opportunity to help soothe the nation’s grief, at a time when American politics often seem so contentious, was a powerful reminder of how our country’s values transcend party lines.

“These services, unlike much in our polarized world, made me feel like an American,” said chorister Julia Poggi ’21, adding that they “made me realize a more profound sense of patriotism.”

“Eulogies and tributes from across party lines focused on the person or friend McCain or Bush was, not their political agenda,” Poggi said. “My faith in diplomacy, bipartisanship, and the coexistence of disagreement and respect were restored. These men’s legacies were their relationships and their steadfast love of their country, even through the most trying times.”

Head Acolyte Shannon Ayres, meanwhile, said she was moved by the diversity of political opinions represented among the mourners in the Cathedral. “It was amazing to see a lot of the prominent figures in D.C. come together for a singular purpose,” she said.

Choristers and acolytes spend much of their week in the Cathedral, both preparing for and participating in worship services. Still, these two services in particular helped them see more clearly what these contributions mean to others.

Chorister Maddy Murnick ’22 said, “Singing at these two high-profile funerals and other memorials with the choristers has reminded me that song is a means to help people through grief and that singing provides a service to others.”

“George W. Bush started crying when we sang a piece, and as I was watching the recording on TV, I thought, Wow, I really can make a positive impact on people with my voice,” said Eddie Miller ’22. “This is why I sing—to help people find their happiness and comfort.”

The Cathedral Choir sang a half-dozen pieces in each funeral, and Eliza Poggi ’19 recalls singing “America the Beautiful” and the Navy Hymn (“Eternal Father, Strong to Save”) at McCain’s funeral as a particularly memorable experience at the start of her senior year. “Doing something we love felt like a fitting way for the choristers to honor McCain and his legacy,” she said.

The acolytes, meanwhile, performed their essential role of leading processions, carrying candles, and assisting the vergers in facilitating the services.
“It was an amazing experience,” Ayers said, “and I’d really like to stress how much of an honor it was to serve and be there to represent the school and Cathedral on such momentous days.”

The Cathedral—with its tall limestone arches, polished stone floors, and vibrant colors pouring through elaborate stained glass windows—is not only a staple in life on the Close but also a fixture in this nation’s capital. It can be easy to lose sight of the privilege that NCS students and faculty have in gathering in this grand house of worship every seven school days. But these times of national mourning, as the world’s attention turned to the Cathedral, helped remind us of that great honor.
    • NCS choristers, center, and acolyte Shannon Ayres '19, bottom left, help lead the recessional at Sen. John McCain's Sept. 1, 2018 memorial service. (Photo provided by Danielle E. Thomas, Washington National Cathedral.)