October 12th in the New York Times
The Very Rev. Francis B. Sayre Jr., who in his 27 years as dean of the National Cathedral in Washington raised his sonorous voice against McCarthyism, segregation, poverty and the Vietnam War while presiding over construction of the cathedral’s majestic Gloria in Excelsis Tower, died Oct. 3 at his home on Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts. He was 93.
The death was confirmed by Elizabeth Mullen, a spokeswoman for the Episcopal cathedral, one of the most influential religious institutions in the nation.
Dean Sayre, a lanky, elegant man whose grandfather was President Woodrow Wilson, first climbed into the pulpit of the monumental cathedral, in northwest Washington, in 1951. Soon after, and well before the United States Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, he was calling for an end to school segregation.
Discrimination was a recurring theme for Dean Sayre. In a 1957 sermon, as the civil rights movement gained momentum, he urged his parishioners to join the struggle. He invoked the Prophet Elijah’s Old Testament challenge, “How long will ye go limping between the two sides?” Then he said, “That question, chilling in its candor, probes rather painfully; and I’m afraid we’ve been doing a good bit of limping ourselves, and the testing may not be far off.”
In March 1965, Dean Sayre joined the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
When Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin was railing at purported Communist influence in the country in the 1950s, Dean Sayre was not afraid to denounce him. In a 1954 sermon, he called McCarthy one of a crew of “pretended patriots” and said, “There is a devilish indecision about any society that will permit an impostor like McCarthy to caper out front while the main army stands idly by."
Francis Bowes Sayre Jr. was born in the White House on Jan. 17, 1915. He was the fourth grandchild of President Wilson and the first-born of the president’s daughter Jessie. His father was a Harvard law professor who later became an assistant secretary of state.
Francis Jr. graduated from Williams College and received his divinity degree from the Union Theological Seminary. He was a chaplain in the Navy in World War II and later had a parish in Cleveland.
Dean Sayre married Harriet Hart in 1946; she died in 2003. He is survived by two daughters, Jessie Maeck and Harriet Sayre McCord; two sons, Thomas Hart Sayre and Nevin Sayre; and eight grandchildren.
In his nearly three decades presiding over the cathedral, the cornerstone for which was laid in 1907, Dean Sayre oversaw phased construction that brought the Gothic structure, known officially as the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, to 90 percent completion. The cathedral’s 300-foot tower — with nearly 400 carved angels soaring on its four turrets and 32 balustrade pinnacles, and 73 bells inside — was completed in 1964.
Dean Sayre retired in 1978. Four years earlier, in an interview with The Washington Post, he 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.”