The Very Rev. Francis B. Sayre Jr., former Dean of the Washington National Cathedral, grandson of the late President Woodrow Wilson and the last baby to be born in the White House, died at home in Vineyard Haven on Oct. 3.
He was 93 and had been a well-known figure on the Vineyard, from his role as former chaplain at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital to a poet who penned seasonal verses that were published in the Vineyard Gazette. In his day he was also a passionate political liberal who spoke out against Sen. Joseph McCarthy, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., and led protests against the Viet Nam War.
When he made the decision to enter the ministry in the spring of 1936, an item in the Gazette took note of his stated reason: “[Because of] the deplorable absence of moral codes in society and the present day lack of positive faith in whether God exists.”
In an interview in the Gazette in January of 2000 on the occasion of his 85th birthday, Dean Sayre offered another view of the church, this time seasoned with the wisdom of a long life.
“The church is a deadening institution,” he told reporter Chris Burrell. “The way it’s split up and how it has to raise money and preserve its organization, which is overly complex. And we’re separated into so many churches due to some quirk of theology.
“Theology is not an exact science. It’s a thing that comes to each person who has any of it but they adapt it to their own lives, to their own needs, thoughts and meaning. That’s all right. This is part of a person’s freedom and that freedom ought to be central to our faith.”
Francis Bowes Sayre Jr. was born in the White House on Jan. 17, 1915, the son of Francis B. Sayre Sr. and Jesse Wilson Sayre, President Wilson’s daughter. His father had a varied career that included professor of law at Harvard University, assistant U.S. Secretary of State, and several foreign service posts. He was raised in Cambridge, France and Thailand. He graduated from Williams College in June of 1936. Following graduation he attended Union Theological Seminary in New York city and the Episcopal Divinity School.
During World War II he served as chaplain aboard the U.S.S. San Francisco.
“She had quite a war record. Two and a half years through battle, hell and damnation,” he told the Gazette in the 2000 interview.
Following the war he served as industrial chaplain for the Diocese of Ohio and as rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in East Cleveland, Ohio. His experiences with the blue collar unions in Ohio later informed his work as Dean of the National Cathedral, a post he held from 1951 to 1978. He helped to oversee the iconography, funding, and construction of the cathedral building, which had been begun in 1907 and was completed in 1990. In his study at home on the Vineyard he had a poster depicting its interior, looking down from vaulted ceilings to marble floors. The poster was produced by the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen.
He became actively involved in the cause for civil rights. On the Vineyard, where he had been a summer resident at West Chop since childhood, he helped organize a bus trip to Selma, Ala. in the early spring of 1965.
He had a permanent twinkle in his eye and a deep voice that resonated from the pulpit.
During his years in Washington he wielded his own brand of power, attending Cabinet meetings at the White House and arguing before Congressional committees on Capitol Hill. And as a member of the high Episcopal clergy, he was noted for his ecumenical ways. “The Lord Jesus Christ was not an Episcopalian,” he was quoted as saying more than once.
“Frank Sayre tries to be a link between the spiritual world and the political world of this town,” wrote the late New York Times columnist James Reston. “He tried to make his service at the cathedral relevant to our goofy world by crying down into the town the moral implications of actions — or lack of actions — by the political citizens of Washington.”
President Eisenhower appointed him as U.S. liaison to the United Nations World Refugee Year, and President Kennedy named him to the first Equal Opportunity Commission. He was also chairman of the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Commission, a member of the board of governors of the National Space Institute and a Trustee of Howard University. He received honorary degrees from many colleges and universities including Lehigh University, Queens University Belfast, Northern Ireland, Virginia Seminary, and Williams College.
In June of 1946 he married Harriet Taft Hart, the daughter of U.S. Sen. Thomas C. Hart of Connecticut, a retired Navy admiral. They had four children. They were married for 57 years; Harriet Sayre died in 2003.
In the early 1980s the Sayres moved to the Vineyard full-time, and immediately became involved in Island affairs. Among other things Dean Sayre served as chaplain and president of the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital while Mrs. Sayre was active in Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (she cofounded the Possible Dreams Auction).
And as he prepared for his 85th birthday party at the Black Dog Tavern eight years ago, Dean Sayre mused out loud about the state of society.
“Take the average American who I meet in my parish,” he said. “I ask them what means a lot to you? My family, my wife, my kids and my money. They see Americans getting rich and they’re getting rich, too. I think this corrupts them. They’re more for their style of living than they are for other things they used to be moved by.
“The length of prosperity has set records already, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. People are making an easy living without killing themselves, but some people are still killing themselves doing it. As a minister, I ministered to those people.”
He is survived by his daughters, Jessie Sayre Maeck and Harriet Sayre-McCord, by his sons Thomas Hart Sayre and Francis Nevin Sayre, by the spouses of his children, and by eight grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at Grace Church in Vineyard Haven tomorrow at 10 a.m.
A funeral service will be held at the Washington Cathedral on Saturday, Oct. 25 at 1 p.m., followed by interment in the cathedral.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the Washington National Cathedral, Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues, NW Washington, DC 20016-5098 or to Grace Church, Box 119,7 Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.