Capitol Hill’s stalwart ‘Jesus Lady’ dies at 92

Rita Warren was a part of the fabric of life for lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists

Rita Warren, known on Capitol Hill as the “Jesus Lady,” sets up her Jesus mannequin on the House side of the U.S. Capitol building on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rita Warren, known on Capitol Hill as the “Jesus Lady,” sets up her Jesus mannequin on the House side of the U.S. Capitol building on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 8, 2020 at 4:59pm

Rita Warren, a committed faith activist more commonly known on Capitol Hill as Jesus Lady, died Sept. 1 at the age of 92.

Beginning in 1979, Warren regularly hauled a life-size Jesus mannequin to the steps of the Capitol to share her message of faith with passersby.

Her decades-long crusade made her a fixture of faith-based activism in Washington. If it was Thursday, you could count on Jesus Lady to be camped out just a stone’s throw from the House chamber, with her statue of Christ in tow.

For more than 40 years, Warren was a part of the fabric of life for lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists entering the Capitol from the south entrance.

“My mother was her happiest when she was on Capitol Hill,” Warren’s daughter, Teresa Pepin, told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday.

She had love for the countless Capitol Police officers who spent some of the most time with her over the years. Their shift station is mere feet from where she erected the Jesus mannequin each week.

Tourists and students on school trips would flock to take photos with her and Jesus. She is undoubtedly featured in thousands of vacation photo albums, all over the world.

“It’s a comfort to me that she lives on like that,” said Pepin.

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Warren was no stranger to controversy, sparring with the House sergeant-at-arms over demonstration rules and making public pleas to former Speaker John A. Boehner.

She wrote to demand that the Ohio Republican address her plan to have British actor Robert Powell recite the sermon on the mount scene from “Jesus of Nazareth” for congressional lawmakers in the House chamber.

“When I get done with Boehner, he won’t have much of a choice but to say ‘yes,’” she predicted to Roll Call in 2015.

But Boehner did not respond to her demands, and the star of the 1977 TV miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth” did not address the 114th Congress.

As the security posture ramped up on the Hill over the years, it affected Warren’s demonstrations and led to drawn-out disagreements with House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving.

Students pass Warren, in gray, and her Jesus display on the east front of the Capitol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

For decades, Warren conducted a reenactment of the condemnation, execution and resurrection of Jesus over Easter weekend that began in Lafayette Square, wound its way down Pennsylvania Avenue and culminated at the Capitol.

In 2015 she was informed that vehicles would not be permitted on the East front plaza, but she alleged that she was told she was prohibited from bringing the oversized cross she uses in her annual procession onto the campus.

If I have to get arrested on Good Friday … we will be making history,” she told CQ Roll Call at the time, about her plans to erect the giant wooden cross.

“It takes two or three men to carry it,” she noted.

“You think I’m going to find a new spot for Jesus? You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Warren.

Warren stands in front of her display on the East Front steps. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

She blamed Irving for her ailing health in a 2016 interview with CQ Roll Call.

“The Jesus Lady had a heart attack — which is true — from the stress put upon her by the sergeant-at-arms,” said Warren.

She was arrested 20 times, but only once on Capitol Hill. She protested the closing of the Capitol steps to build the Capitol Visitor Center, spray-painting “JESUS” on them and chaining herself to a gate. The charges were later dropped.

“Most people understood that she was exercising her freedom by being out there, just expressing her faith and her tremendous faith and love for her love for country,” said Pepin. “She appreciated this country because she knew what it was like to live under the Nazi regime.”

Warren was born in Italy, came of age under Mussolini’s regime and had close encounters with Nazi troops as a child, which she credited with shaping her understanding of the power of Jesus and the roots of her deep faith.

“My mother lived during a time in Italy under dictatorship, and you couldn’t do anything. I think the only way you can really appreciate your freedom is someone who didn’t have it,” said Pepin.

She came to the United States in 1947 as a war bride, but the marriage eventually ended in divorce.

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., hugs Warren as he leaves the Capitol following the final votes of the week on Dec. 5, 2013. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Her first foray into politics was in working to bring prayer back into Massachusetts public schools in the 1970s. She believed that the restriction on prayer infringes on First Amendment rights.

Her first event in D.C. was a “funeral for America” in 1979. She rented a hearse, put an Uncle Sam doll in a coffin and drove around the Capitol.

“America was dying,” Warren told Roll Call in 2016 about that first demonstration. “I did what I was told to do, by Him.”

In recent years, Warren had to take breaks from her activism to deal with her health. But even a heart attack in early 2016 barely slowed her down. A month later she returned to the Capitol with Jesus in tow.