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Cathedral Cleaner Uses Toothbrush and Light Touch

Edwin Cardenas, preservation technician at the Washington National Cathedral
Noah Adams, NPR
Edwin Cardenas, preservation technician at the Washington National Cathedral

Edwin Cardenas brought his family to America from Peru in 1985. In 1990, he started work as a janitor at the Washington National Cathedral. His determination was quickly noticed and he soon became the cleaning technician -- the preservation expert. He now works with solvents and even a toothbrush to remove decades' worth of grime from the building's limestone and marble interior.

Built in this century, but in the grand Gothic tradition, the cathedral stands high above the District of Columbia. It attracts tourists and busloads of students on Spring Break. And Easter week for a cathedral is like Christmas for a department store.

On a recent visit, Cardenas was not intimidated by a 16th century Flemish tapestry, gathering dust on the wall.

"But I had to do it so delicately so as to not mess with the stitching," he says. "I had to go little by little by little... to get the dust out."

Cardenas cleans while on knee pads. This is the sort of work he's been doing for 20 years since he moved to the United States, hoping to become an accountant. His accounting education was not to be, but Cardenas and his wife have one daughter who is a schoolteacher, another daughter who's a U.S. Army Second Lieutenant serving in Iraq, and a son who may go on to law school.

Cardenas' church-cleaning has become a business. He shows up at the National Cathedral each morning at six; but he has people out working for him.

"Right now, I'm cleaning eight to 10 churches," Cardenas says, "and my goal is to have 100."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Noah Adams, long-time co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, brings more than three decades of radio experience to his current job as a contributing correspondent for NPR's National Desk., focusing on the low-wage workforce, farm issues, and the Katrina aftermath. Now based in Ohio, he travels extensively for his reporting assignments, a position he's held since 2003.