Stuart Kenworthy was Rector of Christ Church Georgetown from 1991 until his retirement, November 2, 2014. He also served as a chaplain in the Army National Guard from 1994-2007. As a resident of Georgetown for more than 20 years, he speaks eloquently of the unique aspects of Georgetown as a small, supportive village in the midst of an internationally influential city. This interview is a testament to the sense of community and the exceedingly strong neighborhood spirit that has marked Georgetown as a uniquely wonderful place to live not only in the past but in the present.
Stuart Kenworthy In his office at the Washington National Cathedral, June 8, 2016
Interviewer is Henry Courtney.
Henry Courtney: Thank you, Stuart. This interview for the Oral History Project of the Citizens Association of Georgetown occurs on a bright and cheerful Wednesday morning on June 8, 2016. The Reverend Stuart Kenworthy has graciously welcomed me to his office at the National Cathedral. I am Henry Courtney.
The oral history project is interested in your particular Georgetown experience, in your work as a priest and chaplain, your family, and your participation in the Georgetown community. What drew you to Georgetown? What has held you? What do you remember most fondly? Let’s begin with 1991. Christ Church Georgetown is quite historic and will celebrate its bicentennial next year. I think you were rector number 21.
Stuart Kenworthy: Number 20
Henry: Number 2O. That’s good to know.
Stuart: Number 20, the third longest tenure as rector.
Henry: Did you have any perceptions of Georgetown before you came? I’d like to know how things felt in the beginning?
Stuart: I had perceptions of Georgetown going way back when I would visit here. But they were just very fleeting of the historic nature of the neighborhood…of the old homes…but it was just simply a service level look. When I came to visit Georgetown in the interviewing process for coming to Christ Church as the Rector, I had a little bit of a closer look. I remember walking through the neighborhood with my predecessor, Sanford Garner, who was the Rector for 17 years. He ended in 1990. He came in 1973 and left in 1990. But the experience I had walking in the neighborhood with him was that we went about seven or eight blocks out and came back another route. On every block we would cross other pedestrians and they would greet him. And this happened on almost every block we walked, and I thought to myself, “How is it that he knows so many people?”
[bells tolling at the National Cathedral for Tuskegee Airman, Malvin Whitfield, “Marvelous Mal,” three time Olympic Gold Medalist.
Stuart: And this of course was in the 16th year of his rectorship. That made an impression on me. I was in New York City while I was interviewing to become the Rector of Christ Church Georgetown. When I arrived in Georgetown, there were an unprecedented number of applicants under consideration for the position. A number I have never heard of before. Apparently there were 230 names being considered which is just an unheard of number. Anyway they got down to the last 6 and we all were brought in one by one.
Eventually I was elected as the 20th Rector in May of 1991.
Stuart: So, that’s how I arrived. I had been at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York as a curate, which is a church term for an assistant. There was a rector and 4 assistants. It’s a midtown church at Fifth Avenue at 53rd Street with one of the finest men and boys’ choirs in the entire world and the only resident boys choir school affiliated to a church in the United States.
Stuart: The Choir School is a 15 story vertical campus over by Carnegie Hall.
So that’s from where I came, a great church, choral tradition, into Christ Church Georgetown. Christ Church was this gem of a building tucked into the neighborhoods, quietly sitting there at 31st and O Streets and when you walked into it, you had an immediate sense of the sanctity and holiness of the space. For many people it reminds them of a small, miniature cathedral with the interplay of wood and stone that characterizes the building.
Stuart: It also elicits a sense of holiness that people recognize. I have had so many people who walk in there for the first time say to me this constant refrain, “It reminds me of my home church.” And that’s because there is a certain welcome about that space of Christ Church Georgetown and warmth to it that’s physically there and it evokes memories in these people. I had the similar feeling of the sanctity of this space when I walked in there for the first time.
Henry: How big was the Kenworthy family when you moved to Georgetown?
Stuart: There was my wife, Fran, and our two children. We celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary the month I arrived at Christ Church. And we had two children, our daughter Alison who was 8 year old and our son Stuart had just turned 5.
I have a vivid memory of our daughter Alison at 8 years old as the moving trucks finished up their last loads. There is a steep staircase that goes up to the rectory as a result of the grading project that happened in the late 19th century when they lowered the streets and everyone had to build steps. So, she was hanging off the outside of the railing over the pavement below, over the bricks, leaning back, declaring, “I want to go back to New York.”
Stuart: At 8 years old! Well, she is now back there. She’s been there 3 years as a producer for ABC News. She got her wish. She is a “strap hanger.” She is a New Yorker through and through and she did return.
Henry: While you are talking about Alison, how about young Stuart? He is in New York also, isn’t he?
Stuart: He is and he just turned 5 when we came here. It’s funny what goes though children’s minds at 4 years old when we told him we were moving to Washington. His only understanding of Washington was from television—the White House pressroom. He thought the pressroom was where we were moving.
We went from a very vertical life in New York, because we lived at the St. Thomas Church Choir School just off Central Park South, on the 11th floor. We went from the canyons of midtown Manhattan to this village of Georgetown, in a larger city, yes, but a village and I’ll speak more about that later. And our world went from vertical to horizontal with open sky. We felt from the very beginning that it was a wonderful place to raise our children. And then subsequently, about a year later, we had our third child, Margaret Grace. She was born here and raised in Georgetown and now she has just graduated from college and is making her way into life.
Henry: Were there any family rituals things that you always did that are fond memories of Georgetown? What was it like having a young family coming from New York and living in Georgetown? Where did you like to go? Where did you like to shop?
Stuart: Yes… to Georgetown? Now, I could talk about rituals because our lives were built around the pulses and the rhythms of the church.
Henry: Of course.
Stuart: So they weren’t necessarily unique to Georgetown, but things like Christmas in Georgetown is very special. It was also very special in midtown Manhattan but in more of a village kind of way in Georgetown.
The Rectory we had here at Christ Church Georgetown is adjacent to the church. You could not have had a more beautiful and gracious home. It was a Federal home probably built around 1805, maybe a little later. The front two rooms, the drawing room and the library had 13-foot ceilings with just the most beautiful crown molding. The floor above it with the bedroom and the room beyond the bedroom we called the family room also had those ceilings. There are 3 fireplaces, wide plank wood floors, and a very large front door. The width of it was oversized from anything you would see today. All of these historic features of this house…within that house the Kenworthy family celebrated all the holidays, Christmas, Easter.
Halloween in Georgetown was always a storied affair. Our children insisted that we had to decorate the outside of the house and be ready for trick or treaters. We would, on any given Halloween, have somewhere between 75 and 125 doorbell rings.
Stuart: One little ritual we had which I insisted on was to get all the cobwebs and witches and other things off our front porch at the end of the evening because the next day was All Saints Day. So everything had to come down immediately. Unlike some people who left the pumpkins hang around another week, I said, “Halloween is one thing but All Saints, the Feast of All Saints which is one of the seven principal feasts of the Christian year. That eclipses everything else so everything must come down for the celebration of All Saints. We celebrated it in church.
[Interview continues on November 17, 2016. Interviewer is Henry Courtney]
Henry: Thank you, Stuart. Are there other rituals important to the Kenworthy Family?
Stuart: We are talking about rituals. Today is November 17th. So let me start with this time of year. It is a very special time in Georgetown. It is, with quotes around it, “the holidays”, Thanksgiving through Christmas. The thing about Washington is that autumn really truly arrives in November. Up until then you can get really warm days. Once you get to the middle of November it is truly autumn, consistently autumn. The leaves are beautiful palettes of gold, yellow, and reds leading up to the wonderful Thanksgiving celebration that we always enjoyed at Christ Church Georgetown. It included a web of participation in various food-drives with other churches.
Henry: You have spoken of how the pulses and rhythms of Christ Church in a way were part of your family life.
Stuart: Absolutely. One wonderful memory is that we would have a Thanksgiving Day service at 10 o’clock in the morning. We usually had about 130 – 140 people there. Once the service was over, I would greet everybody at the door of the church. I would go home, change my clothes and get in the car. Every year when the children were young, I and my wife Fran and our 3 children would drive up to the Philadelphia area to spend Thanksgiving with my brother. It was very special.
Then you move into December and the season of Advent, those four Sundays leading up to Christmas. There were special musical things that were beautifully done at Christ Church. We had a really fabulous choir, a professional choir of 12 members. Lessons and Carols, things like that, the really beautiful music was part of the season.
Henry: Lets now explore the places you liked in Georgetown. What did the Kenworthy family like best? Where did you like to eat?
Stuart: Well, a couple of restaurants stand out. Long time Georgetowners all know this place called La Chaumiere down at 28th and M Street. It is sort of hidden there across from the Four Seasons Hotel and very visible. It is not a tourist place. I always said it was the annex to all the Georgetown dining rooms. The owners know the neighborhood residents when they come in. The food is wonderfully prepared, French-American country cooking. It has a beautiful hearth and fireplace. It’s the favorite of everyone in the fall and winter.
There’s that and of course the other one is Martin’s Tavern which everyone knows. It is a storied kind of place. We enjoy going in there mostly to get a cheeseburger and join family or friends for dinner. It is very special at Christmas. They decorate it so beautifully and festively. People come just to have dinner or lunch to see those decorations.
Henry: That’s nice…I didn’t know that about Martin’s Tavern.
Stuart: They come from all over the Mid Atlantic region to go there.
Henry: And a long history in Georgetown?
Stuart: Indeed it does!
Henry: Now that we know how much the church has been a part of your life and your family life, what changes in churches and ministries did you witness in your time at Christ Church?
Stuart: When I came to Christ Church, and I suppose every rector can say this to some degree, it was a fairly stilted, buttoned-down, proper place. And it’s still true people dress up to go to church there.
Henry: It’s very East Coast tweedy.
Stuart: There it is. Well put, Henry. And there were a lot of patrician families still there in Georgetown who came to Christ Church and expected certain standards to be met. Well, the change that happened is I buried a lot of those people over the years as time rolled on and there was an influx of young families into the parish. When I arrived there in 1991 there were 25 kids in the Sunday school. At the height of my ministry there in about the 13th or 14th years there were 238 children registered in the Sunday school. That’s not just a testament to the vibrancy and faithfulness of Christ Church Georgetown. It speaks to the demographics. I think of the neighborhood that changed.
The other change that took place was September 11th with the attack on America. Christ Church on that day and the day after held prayer services and filled the place. People were in shock; they were confused; they were afraid. Christ church filled itself out with people who came to it seeking peace, solace and answers and meaning and all the churches we noted took an uptick, an increase in church attendance. Those are some changes that I can point to.
Historically though, this has not changed. There is a richness and diversity amongst religious traditions and denominations across the community of Georgetown. There are lots of places of worship, synagogues and churches. They are all over Georgetown. They are centers of meaning and peace and refuges and places to seek truth. The architecture and the bells you hear ringing across Georgetown all have a richness and a diversity and a beauty about them that points beyond themselves to a greater truth and a greater good and that is a very important part of the fabric of the community, of the village of Georgetown, which is a village in the midst of a large, metropolitan city.
Henry: Would you talk a bit about the church’s efforts towards Georgetown’s homeless? Your predecessor, Sanford Garner, and others helped to form Georgetown Ministry Center, and to this day Christ Church is very much a participant. It seems that there’s that and other changes you may have seen in the urban landscape not just places coming and going but problems coming and going. Talk about that please.
Stuart: You are absolutely right, Henry. Anecdotally speaking, The Georgetown Ministry center was born out of Sanford Garner’s office.
Henry: That’s what I have heard.
Stuart: I don’t even know how many years ago that would be…probably 30 some years ago.
Henry: Yes, it was in the 80s during the Reagan administration that St Elizabeth’s Hospital…
Henry: …and people were hungry and needed a place.
Stuart: Right. A lot of those people, and I put this in quotes, who were “warehoused” in mental institutions were turned out into the streets. The churches in communities all across Washington and the United States began to respond to this. So thus the Georgetown Ministry Center was created of which we at Christ Church were one of founding members. It continues to be a very important force for good in our community. And I am going to put this in quotes as well. “It doesn’t just throw sandwiches at people and say I hope you get some good luck.” The Georgetown Ministry Center deals with homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. And it changes lives. It is fully staffed with professionals and they are not passively waiting for people to come to them. They go out there looking for people.
The churches and synagogues work cooperatively to support the center financially, with board membership and with hands on ministries. And one way, very quickly, is through our homeless shelter that rotates from church to church over five cold weather months in Washington. It is not just a Band-Aid approach. It changes lives.
I remember for years a woman down in front of the City Tavern Club at Wisconsin and M Streets with signs. She was schizophrenic and ranting up and down the sidewalks every day. At one point the Georgetown Ministry Center reached out to her, helped her find the right medication, worked with her with counselors, psychiatrists, social workers, and she went on to become a volunteer for the Georgetown Ministry Center. She helped other people. Nobody ever thought she could ever get better as she was so far gone. They changed her life. It is an example of what the GMC does.
Henry: It’s also a splendid opportunity for people to feed the hungry, to cook for them, to sit with them, to cook their breakfast, be a sleeper. It is a wonderful program where a physician, a social worker, and a psychiatrist meet with our guests, work to get benefits for them, and at the end of the year, they can move to some sort of transitional housing. You are absolutely right. It moves people out of an awful situation in our city.
Stuart: It makes them independent. It gives them their lives back, their dignity. And that is the greatest gift you can give to them, a sense of their worth, their belovedness. At Christ Church, when we hosted that shelter, I was overwhelmed with the warmth and generosity the different teams exhibited as they greeted the guests, prepared dinner, dined with them, found about their lives, shared stories with them, every night. It was a hospitality writ large and it was very moving.
Henry: Stuart, you played several important roles in Georgetown. You have talked about your role as priest. The readers of the interview will enjoy knowing about your role as a chaplain, and the bonds that you forged there as an Army chaplain in combat and the men that you served.
When I arrived in Washington in 1991 I came into a parish and into a city with a strong military presence. I was kind of surprised. After I got here I realized why it is, but I was not prepared for it. It set off bells in my mind that I wanted to try one more time to do my part and to be a part of the military and offer my service to this nation. I made an inquiry and was given a waiver for age and was taken into the District of Columbia Army National Guard. I served as a battalion chaplain after my officers basic course for a little more than 13 years. It meant drilling once a month usually down at Fort A.P. Hill. Every year we went away for two weeks at A.P. Hill in Virginia or to Fort Dix, once to Panama and once to Italy.
But once 9/11 came, everything changed. Everything changed! By the time I got out nine years ago the DC Army National Guard and Air National Guard had done over 25 deployments. Some of those were in smaller elements of personel but my deployment post after 9/11 was to Iraq. I went with the 372nd Military Police Battalion as their chaplain. We were at Camp Liberty in West Baghdad. I had troops all over the country though, in Fallujah, Ramadi, Taji and several FOBS. That is an acronym for Forward Operating Bases. A battalion is generally 1000 to 1200 troops. By the time I left Iraq I had over 1800 troops in my care spread out around the country.
Besides wanting to fulfill my inner sense of obligation to this country in serving as a chaplain in the Army National Guard, it also had to do with the demographics and culture of Washington. I was in Georgetown, which is one of the most affluent, educated, and influential places in the Untied States.
Henry: I wanted to ask about your soldiers. They were largely from the District of Columbia.
Stuart: And suburban Maryland. So, what I want to say is, it was the flip-side socioeconomically of Georgetown.
Henry: Racially also?
Stuart: Racially. When I went into the DC Army National Guard, 90 percent of my troops were African American. By the time I left that demographic was shifting to a smaller percentage of African Americans, as the Latino population became part of that equation and even the white population. I can’t put numbers on that but I can say those demographics shifted.
But it was really important for me, Henry, as the Priest, Pastor and Rector of this very affluent, educated and influential congregation in Georgetown to connect with a wider Washington, with a more diverse Washington. In a sense when I would go down to the armory that was accomplished. I was connecting with troops coming out of Wards 7 and 8, and Prince George’s County and other places. It provided a diversity and richness to my experience in Washington that I would not otherwise have had. It was a great honor to serve God and serve our nation in this way and I’ll always be grateful for that.
Henry: Thank you. The chief of the oral history project has reminded me of the national stage and your role in the funeral of Nancy Reagan. I know that people will want to hear about that.
Stuart: I did preside and preach at the funeral of Nancy Reagan, wife of President Ronald Reagan. I can tell you how this came to be. As I was about to retire from Christ Church Georgetown on November 2, 2014, after 23 years, I was approached by three people; Robert Higdon, who had been a personal assistant to both Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Fred Ryan whom they call “The Publisher,” another term for the CEO of The Washington Post, and Peggy Noonan who had been a speech writer for Reagan and is now a senior columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
Robert brought me into connection with them. They are all on the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library board. They are founding members of that board. As Mrs. Reagan’s health declined, the board realized that they did not have the box checked as to who would preside at the funeral. Robert Higdon, Fred Ryan and Peggy Noonan recommended me to the board. I was brought out to California right after I retired, within about 10 days.
Henry: Did these three people have a connection to the parish?
Stuart: Robert Higdon was a member of the parish but the other 2 were not.
So, they brought me out to California, to Los Angeles, where I met with Mrs. Reagan, twice. We had lovely conversations. Then I met with the board, had dinner, toured the library, and attended various functions over 2 ½ days. They made the decision, ”He’ll be the one who will do it.” So I knew when I left there that when the day came and she would depart this life, I would be chosen to preside and preach at her funeral service. So that’s what came to be.
Then it was a year and a half later that her health declined and I was give about a five day notice. They said she had gotten worse and they were not sure she was going to survive this latest medical turn, and indeed, she didn’t.
I will say this too. I was working at that point at the Washington National Cathedral where I was the interim Vicar for a little over a year. This was in my quotes, “retirement.” It was coming on Holy Week when I got this news that she had taken a turn for the worse. So I called Robert Higdon and said, “Holy Week is coming. Do you have anyone else in mind who can do this funeral?” And there was a pause and he said, “No. You’re the one. We’ve checked that box.”
At that point, I called the Bishop of Washington, Mariann Edgar Budde, and my colleagues at the Cathedral, to inform them all that if indeed Nancy Reagan died, I would have to depart immediately to do this funeral. She died two days later. I headed out to Los Angeles where I spent three days in preparation and then the funeral itself on the fourth day, Friday.
There were a thousand people or more at that funeral. It was held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. I am just so grateful that it went well because there’s no guarantee on that, Henry. There were still some i’s to dot, some t’s to cross when I got out there. We worked really hard for three days ahead of time to put everything in place. There were a lot of details to cover, let alone, still trying to put my sermon together. I had a lot of editing to do. But it all did come together. It’s all archived. You can see it online. I have a lot of memories from that time.
Henry: And you knew you were picked in advance through solid connections and things went as smoothly as they could. You’d want that for anything of this magnitude.
Stuart: Of course you would. But you know something, Henry? I was so focused on having this go right and having it done with excellence, and beauty and dignity and also preparing my funeral homily, my sermon. It wasn’t until about a week or two after I got home that I understood and felt the gravity of what I had done…which was to bury Nancy Reagan, the wife of President Ronald Reagan, a beloved president of this country. Then it hit me what I had been a part of which only increased my gratitude for the fact that things had gone well.
Henry: You have used the phrase village life. Think of some of your favorite experiences of village life connected to the church, to your work and to your family.
Stuart: Well it’s both the community of the village, and if you will, the atmosphere of the village that all sort of completes that picture. I may be repeating myself here. When I first came to visit Christ Church and my predecessor Sanford Garner, we would walk down the sidewalk and people were greeting him everywhere we went. I thought, “This is amazing. Everyone knows him.”
Well after I was here 5, 6, or 7 years and for the next 20 years, I had the same experience. I could not move down sidewalks without having multiple conversations in every block with neighbors and friends. That’s the wonder and beauty of Georgetown. You’re in this large metropolitan area. You almost forget the White House is a mile and a half away, the Congress is another mile and a half and K Street is less than a mile away. The influence of people working at the highest levels of government are so geographically close by, and here we are in this village! You forget it is all right beyond the tree line.
The village I refer to is about The Georgian and Federal homes, the beautiful architecture and the unmistakable sense of community. I’ve had this experience for over 20 years. Every time I walk around Georgetown I see something I have never seen before. It could be an entire house. I would have walked that block for years but suddenly notice “that “ house. And there is so much character and so many idiosyncrasies to the architecture and the way people work on their homes and present them to their neighbors. I always appreciated that part of the village life. It’s about connectivity. People care for one another. They look out for one another in this village. That’s a strong memory I have.
Henry: You have talked about some scenes that have stuck in your mind. Tell me a few of those.
Stuart: The two I am going to tell you about now are focused on the word “quiet.”
One of the most wonderful experiences I had, it could have been any season but I’ll put it in the summer. I would get up maybe at 5:30 to get ready for the day. And then go outside by about 6AM and walk to the corner of 31st and O Streets. The light of the sun was just coming up and hitting the church tower. You could hear a pin drop. Utter quiet. I would wait for that moment when there was no jet airplane from National airport going over, no traffic noise on the street, no ambient noise. You could sense the stillness with the sun coming up and the quiet beauty of an early summer morning.
The other memory I have is of many Christmas Eves. Christmas Eve. We finished the late service, greeted all the faithful who had come out and all the other neighbors who had come maybe just on that night to the beautiful Christmas Eve service. And then I would go home about 12:45 or 1 o’clock in the morning and pour a glass of sherry. I would then make the yearly trip from the Rectory to my office, all of 75 feet away, to begin to bring the gifts for the children home that had been stored in my office closet.
Henry: You were Santa!
Stuart: I was Santa but my memory is hearing only the click of my heels on the bricks of the sidewalk. A chilled dark night with stars sparkling in the sky and again, utter quiet, silence. It was not Thursday night, Tuesday night, or Friday. It was Christmas Eve, early, early morning. There was a stillness, fullness, loveliness about it and I would pause and look at the moon and stars and think about what we had just come through, just celebrated, and it was poignant for me. I always cherish that memory. So one has to do with the dawning light of a summer morning in the quiet of Georgetown, and the other in the stillness, quiet, starlit beauty of Christmas Eve in Georgetown.
Henry: That’s wonderful. Thank you. You have used such lovely and evocative language to talk about Georgetown and your love for Georgetown is clear. Does anything surprise you as you look back at your experience in Georgetown? You have spoken about the hinge of a changing era. Is there anything surprising you see on the horizon for Georgetown?
Stuart: That’s a really good question, Henry. I’m not sure “surprise” would be the word. When I said I was at a hinge-point I guess you could come at any point into the community and see it as a hinge. That is a subjective perspective. I did have an institution, a church where I saw these changes taking place.
It strikes me that when people move to Georgetown for the first time they do sense that they have moved into more than just a new house or street where they know a few people. They have come into a community and into a neighborhood. And I think people are steadfast in wanting to pay attention to the quality of life that the village and community offer. They want to pitch in and be a force for good. People are drawn into the community and then are devoted to it and invested into making it a good place to live. I think that characterizes the good people of Georgetown, who are Washingtonians but also have their own village.
Henry: The Oral History project of the Citizens Association of Georgetown is exceedingly grateful for the time and the care that you have given this interview. I hope that you know that it has been a pleasure to talk with you…to hear your memories and this spirit and decency that you associate with Georgetown.
Stuart: Thank you, Henry, for allowing me to be a part of this.
Transcription by Catherine Farrell