WASHINGTON — When Randy Hollerith was a young priest, he used to try to get the tower bedroom, a special nook in an enchanting old Gothic building, whenever he went to a training program at the College of Preachers.
Now, the College of Preachers has been closed for nearly a decade, since the 2008 recession hit hard at Washington National Cathedral, which shares a campus with the charming stone building. The Gothic structure has fallen into disrepair inside. Young Episcopal priests no longer come to the Cathedral for those training sessions.
And Hollerith, no longer such a young priest, is the dean of the cathedral — and has taken on the task of restoring the beloved building and creating a brand-new educational institution to live within its walls.
It will be called the Cathedral College of Faith and Culture, and it will convene retreats and seminars on subjects ranging from ethics in politics to liturgical art, along with the clergy training. Hollerith says it’s a place for the cathedral to influence discussion in Washington: “As we’ve seen from Notre Dame, [cathedrals] are places of great cultural meaning as well as religious meaning.”
The $22 million restoration of the 27,000-square-foot College of Preachers building, which has been stripped over the past two months down to its bare bones inside and will be rebuilt to meet modern accessibility and environmental standards, is being funded by two major donations. Virginia Cretella Mars, who was married to one of the heirs of the Mars candy fortune, donated $17 million in conjunction with her four daughters. Andrew Florance, a businessman who founded the CoStar Group and is the chair of the Cathedral’s board, donated $5 million more.
Mars called the project “very exciting and needed at this particular time.” A longtime parishioner and volunteer at the cathedral, dating back to her time as a tour guide for fifth-grade school groups in the 1980s, Mars has previously funded other projects at the cathedral, including the restoration of a chapel and the installation of air conditioning. Hollerith asked her to fund the renovation of the College of Preachers building, and she agreed.
“Bringing people together to carry on civil conversations, meaningful conversations, from different points of view — to be able to understand, listen and contribute, at least open up the doors to understanding — at this point in time, I think the world is lacking a little bit of really, truly understanding each other and listening to each other,” she said. “From a Christian point of view, love your neighbor. And who is your neighbor? Everybody.”
Hollerith’s vision for the new “college” — which won’t offer degrees but will instead host attendees in the building’s 25 guest rooms for multiday seminars — includes a wide range of programs. He speaks of retreats for veterans struggling with the moral implications of their time at war; of gatherings for clergy from multiple faith traditions; of intensive conversations among leaders about racial and social justice issues.
He hopes to raise still more money to endow the new college, which will eventually employ staff to run these programs.
After suffering serious financial instability after the 2008 recession, Hollerith said, the cathedral — the seat of the Episcopal Church in the United States — is on firm footing again. He says the cathedral has been in the black for the past three years and is growing its annual budget. It is entirely funded by private donations. Much of his time since he became dean in 2016 has been spent cultivating those funds.
One major ongoing fundraising effort, which has been kept separate from the rest of the cathedral’s budget: raising more than $30 million to repair damage from the 2011 earthquake. Almost half the money has been raised.
While those repairs move forward slowly, the College of Preachers reconstruction will go much faster. The cathedral hopes to open the new institute in late 2020, when Mars will be 90 years old.
Mars recalls writing her initials in wet cement when she was about 10 years old. Her father told her: “Fools put names in public places.”
“I’ve never forgotten it,” she said.
But at her daughters’ suggestion, this new institute will bear Mars’s first and middle name. It will be called the Virginia Mae Center.