Noted Washington photographer Fred Maroon took this photo during the Requiem Mass from the cathedral dome, that shows an overhead view of the president’s flag-draped casket before the sanctuary.
Noted Washington photographer Fred Maroon took this photo during the Requiem Mass from the cathedral dome, that shows an overhead view of the president’s flag-draped casket before the sanctuary.
On Nov. 25, 1963, a television audience of millions of people around the world prayerfully bid farewell to President John F. Kennedy, as his flag-draped coffin was placed before the sanctuary of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, during the president's Pontifical Requiem Mass.

Today, almost 50 years later, people come to the cathedral from across the country and around the world, with many wanting to stand at that very spot, where an inlaid marble plaque is inscribed with the words, 'Here rested the remains of President Kennedy at the Requiem Mass, November 25, 1963, before their removal to Arlington, where they lie in expectation of a heavenly resurrection."

On a recent weekday, Msgr. W. Ronald Jameson, the cathedral's rector, stood beside that plaque. "Many people who come here, come because of that," he said, noting that many talk about "the sense of hope that his presidency brought the nation."

"...They see the plaque, and it brings back memories," the priest said.

The Nov. 29, 1963 Catholic Standard, in an article written by reporter Valerie MacNees who attended the president's Requiem Mass, recounted the emotions of that day in spare language: "The heart of the entire world shared the grief of the American people in the loss of their president.

"An emperor, a king, a queen, princes, princesses, presidents and premiers of foreign governments joined the American people Monday in paying their last respects to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

"The great and the lowly of the world met on a common level in mourning the 46-year-old president who was slain by an assassin's bullet last Friday in Dallas."

Thousands of people crowded the streets leading to the cathedral, including Richard Schmidt, now the archivist and historian for St. Matthew's, who was then working as an administrative assistant for the Food and Drug Administration. He watched as the president's flag-draped casket was moved on a caisson drawn by six grey horses, with the Kennedy family members and U.S. and world leaders walking behind in a solemn procession along Connecticut Avenue to the cathedral. "The crowds were unbelievable. People just poured out to witness this," said Schmidt, who remembers the silence of the crowd, interrupted only by the sound of the drums and brass instruments solemnly played by military band members as the procession moved toward St. Matthew's.

Boston Cardinal Richard Cushing, a friend of the Kennedy family, was the main celebrant at the Requiem Mass. He had officiated at the wedding of John and Jacqueline Kennedy. Also in the sanctuary were then-Washington Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle and Washington Auxiliary Bishop Philip Hannan, who had been attending the Second Vatican Council in Rome and rushed back to Washington after learning of the president's death.

In a 1966 oral history interview for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Cardinal Cushing said he was in his residence when he had heard the tragic news about the president's death. "I was bewildered and shocked." The cardinal said, "The words of Christ on the cross of Calvary came repeatedly to my mind: 'Oh heavenly Father, why has thou abandoned me?'" Everyone then was asking "why, why, why?... My thought was that here is the most difficult 'why,' and I have no answer for it."

In his 2010 memoir published by Our Sunday Visitor, The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots, then-retired New Orleans Archbishop Hannan noted that he had heard the terrible news at his hotel lobby in Rome, after he had helped conduct a daily press briefing at the Second Vatican Council. He said he then went to his room, closed the door, and, "I wept silently and alone."

Then-Bishop Hannan was a close friend and confidant of the nation's first Catholic president, but he kept that friendship secret. The bishop had been a paratrooper chaplain with the 82nd Airborne during World War II. After the president's death, the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington soon learned that he would face one of the most difficult challenges of his life.

In his memoir, Archbishop Hannan wrote, "I was as numb and emotionally exhausted as every other American struggling to make sense of the stunningly brutal murder... My own grieving, however, would have to wait. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had asked that I deliver the eulogy for her husband - and my friend."

Working late into the night before the Requiem Mass, the churchman had decided that the eulogy should consist of key passages from the president's inaugural address, to "let the president speak for himself in his own stirring words... On the day ending his presidency forever, I would cite passages from the day it had begun."

The eulogy also included favorite Scriptural passages that President Kennedy liked to quote, which the family provided to Bishop Hannan.

As he walked up the steps to the cathedral's pulpit to deliver the eulogy at President Kennedy's Requiem Mass, Bishop Hannan looked out over the congregation that included the Kennedy family, President Lyndon Johnson, and former Presidents Harry S Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. World leaders in attendance included Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, President Charles de Gaulle of France, and Prince Philip of Great Britain.

When Bishop Hannan read part of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes: "There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens, a time to be born, a time to die...," and he could hear people sobbing in the congregation.

He concluded the eulogy with President Kennedy's clarion call to serve others from his inaugural address: "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own."

The responsibility for planning the Requiem Mass had been given to Sargent Shriver, the husband of President Kennedy's sister Eunice, who served as the founding director of the Peace Corps established by the president. Writing in the 2012 biography of his father, A Good Man, Mark Shriver noted, "I am certain that Dad's central focus was not creating a majestic national funeral as much as it was instilling the faithfulness and the peacefulness of an eternal homecoming for the assassinated president... He wanted first and foremost to ensure a proper Catholic burial for the first Catholic president of the United States. Proper passage to life with God was what his dead brother-in-law most deserved."

After hearing the news of the president's assassination and death, Sargent and Eunice Shriver and a few Peace Corps staffers knelt and prayed in his office. Mark Shriver wrote that his father then took on the responsibility of organizing the Requiem Mass and related arrangements with the same resoluteness, purpose and faith that marked his life of service to his country and his Church.

Later reflecting on the Requiem Mass in his oral interview, Cardinal Cushing said, "It was a very, very simple funeral, following as close as possible the services in memory of the martyred Lincoln. No fanfare, everyone bowed in sorrow, tears flowed in abundance. On the way out, I was preceding the casket, and I went over to Jacqueline and shook hands with her. I kissed little Caroline and shook hands with her. John John was getting a little restless, so he was down in the rear of the church. Outside at the end of Mass, John John saluted the flag, the most touching thing I ever saw."

Outside St. Matthew's Cathedral, that little boy's salute to his father's flag-draped casket, immortalized in a photograph by Stan Stearns of United Press International, remains perhaps the most poignant image from that day. In his memoir, Archbishop Hannan remembers what happened next: "Released from restraint, the crowds erupted in an earthquake of pent-up emotion: groans, yelps, uncontrollable sobbing."

On a recent weekday at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, its rector reflected on its place in history as the Catholic cathedral in the nation's capital, where crowds gathered in joy at the end of World War II in 1945, and for a Mass with Pope John Paul II in 1979, and in sorrow after the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and on the day 50 years ago when the Funeral Mass for the nation's first Catholic president was held there.

"This indeed is holy ground," the priest said.