By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Some of the most powerful people in America, and dignitaries from around the world, gathered in the echoing, awe-inspiring chamber of the Washington National Cathedral on Dec. 5 to honor the life of former president George H.W. Bush. The funeral service was packed with politicians and former presidents — and one young woman from Alexandria.
Much of the week Shannon Ayres is just another senior attending the National Cathedral School, but on Sundays and during special national events like the funeral for former President Bush, she dons the white robes and considerable responsibility of an acolyte at the National Cathedral. One of the oldest positions in the church, acolytes are young men and women who carry candles, lead processions and generally help services go off without a hitch.
Ayres has been an acolyte since sixth grade, when she first started carrying candles at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Old Town. What started out as a way to make Sunday service fly by quickly turned into a huge part of Ayres’ life. In eighth grade, Ayres started mentoring younger acolytes. She was already demonstrating traits that would help distinguish her at the National Cathedral, a unique combination of strong leadership, compassion and ebullience.
“You leave an encounter with Shannon happier than when you started the conversation,” the Rev. Oran Warder, St. Paul’s rector, said. “She’s just that kind of infectious, joyous, happy person.”
After attending the National Acolyte Festival with her St. Paul’s peers, Ayres said she saw the beauty and power of the National Cathedral and wanted to be a part of it.
“I love coming to the cathedral every week,” Ayres said. “It’s a place where you can escape the rest of the world. I just enjoy the ritual part of coming every week and the feeling of serenity it gives me.”
She started attending National Cathedral School in 2015, and at the end of her freshman year applied for the acolyte program.
Headed by the Rev. Canon Rosemarie Logan Duncan in the cathedral’s Worship Office and helmed by head verger and acolyte master Dr. Torrence Thomas, the program is competitive. According to Thomas, who interviews the applicants, students must have very specific qualities in order to successfully carry out the duties of an acolyte.
“They have to be very responsible,” Thomas said. “The type of young person who really excels in this program is the rare type of person who combines rare natural ability with the willingness and eagerness to work hard.”
The latter is vital. The responsibilities of an acolyte demand an extraordinary amount of time and effort. Students have to learn the appropriate speed to lead the procession and how to set a communion table. They have to work five-week rotations, serving three hours during Sunday services — and two more hours if they serve at Evensong — four out of those five weeks on top of special services or events.
When Thomas interviewed Ayres, he said he quickly realized she was an outstanding young woman who was kind, hardworking and possessed the leadership skills necessary to succeed in the program.
“I can honestly say that during my time here Shannon has been one of the better, if not the best, appointments that we have made to the program,” Thomas said. “She is remarkable.”
Over the past three years she’s shown incredible dedication to the cathedral — even as it’s tested her.
“Last year Holy Week fell on our spring break and I was on the crew team, so we were in Tampa for training,” Ayres said. “I flew back Saturday to D.C., did a service that evening and a service in the morning and then came back to Tampa Sunday night.”
On top of her time at the National Cathedral, Ayres somehow still finds time to help out at the occasional St. Paul’s service — and enjoy the less obvious benefits of serving at the National Cathedral. Ask her about her favorite memories as an acolyte and she’ll fondly recall exploring the tunnels underneath the National Cathedral with friends.
This year Ayres has had less time to go exploring. As of this past spring, she is one of three head acolytes who help train, organize and mentor the young men and women who serve in the cathedral. Her leadership qualities — the ability to lead “from in front and behind” as Thompson called it — are now even more valuable.
The position came with several perks too, including the opportunity to serve at national events like the funerals for Sen. John McCain in August and Bush earlier this month. With that opportunity comes an enormous amount of pressure, and Ayres was not without her share of nerves going into the funeral service for Bush.
“It’s really nerve-wracking,” Ayres said. “Especially at the Bush funeral. I was so sick. I didn’t go to school the Tuesday before because I was trying to get better. It’s also really warm in there, so I just felt really ill.”
Despite her condition, Ayres and her two fellow acolytes led the service with such grace that a former command sergeant major contacted Thomas afterward, writing, “They almost looked like they were actually members of the joint service funeral detail. Their movements were crisp and well executed.”
For Ayres, the whole day was overwhelming. She was sick, photos were constantly being snapped and she was surrounded by a who’s who of American politics.
“I just felt very honored to be there,” Ayres said. “It’s kind of incredible walking through because there’s all these people, and they’re all there for the same reason. Everybody isn’t divided over something because they’re just there to celebrate somebody’s life.”
Ayres was recently accepted to Colgate University, and although her path leads away from the cathedral and Alexandria, the mark she’s left on those around her will remain. Ayres’ dedication, energy and spirit give Warder and Thompson hope for the next generation of churchgoers.
“One of my mantras is that the youth and children of the church are not the church of tomorrow; they really are the church of today,” Warder said. “I wish that all of our children were as engaged as Shannon. It brings me a real sense of joy and hope for the future.”