The parish of St. Matthew the Apostle was the fourth established in the District of Columbia, on the northeast corner of 15th and H Streets, NW. It was dedicated on November 1, 1840 and served its parishioners through the 1890s.
In 1892, its then-pastor, Monsignor Thomas Sim Lee, purchased the land on which the current church structure is located on Rhode Island Avenue, NW. He commissioned the architect Christopher Grant LaFarge to work on the design of the new church structure. LaFarge had worked on the plans for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and the Cathedral of St. James in Seattle. His church design was accepted in 1893. The cornerstone was laid and blessed in 1893 and the first Mass celebrated in 1895. Construction continued in various stages with the dome put in place in 1913. After Monsignor Lee's death, the new pastor, Fr. Edward Buckey, completed the interior.
In 1947, Pope Pius XII separated Washington from Baltimore and made Washington an independent Archdiocese. At the same time, St. Matthew's was named the Cathedral and Mother Church of the new archdiocese. In 1974, the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
On November 25,1963, the funeral of the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy was celebrated in the Cathedral and is memorialized by a marble plaque imposed in the floor immediately before the gates of the sanctuary commemorating the place where his casket was placed for the funeral Mass and rites. Funeral services have also been held at the Cathedral for other notables, such as the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William Rehnquist and Associate Justice William J. Brennan.
In 1999, the Cathedral underwent a major restoration with major repairs to the exterior dome, along with extensive work on the interior to refurbish the mosaics and other artwork in the interior, to upgrade the lighting and sound systems and other functional parts of the interior. The extensive effort was completed in 2003 with a grand celebration on September 21st, the feast of St. Matthew. A plaque commemorating the Stewards who gave generously to the restoration is located at the entrance to the Baptistry.
Rector is an ecclesiastical term that is given to many who function in a variety of leadership roles. A bishop is a rector because he functions as head of an ecclesiastical institution (diocese) and of an ecclesiastical structure (his cathedral). In many dioceses, the bishop will delegate a priest to serve in his place as head of the cathedral and its parish as is the case with St. Matthew's Cathedral. In this case, the priest is typically also given the title of Rector. Pastor is a distinctly different title and is governed by separate provisions of canon law. Msgr. Jameson serves as Rector of the Cathedral.