Whatever our beliefs, the Cathedral of St. Paul is in some way or another ours.
Graceful and imposing, the structure has been an orienting presence on the landscape, drawing locals and tourists of all faiths to its doors, for a century.
A yearlong centennial celebration included Sunday’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the first Mass celebrated under the dome of the beloved “cathedral on the hill” — one of the so-called seven hills of the Saintly City.
On the hill — also known as St. Anthony Hill — “there’s no better site to put a monumental structure,” Twin Cities architecture expert Larry Millett said in a recent edition of the Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “The cathedral is much more visible in St. Paul than the Capitol.”
It was “designed as a monumental, muscular display of faith,” said Millett, also a former Pioneer Press reporter.
And so it remains.
A century ago, the dreams of an archbishop and his generous flock were realized in the first mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul.
For Palm Sunday, the polished floors of the Cathedral of St. Paul shine in mirror-like brilliance, reflecting a blaze of multicolored light streaming through the massive stained-glass rose windows.
Voices rising from the choir loft are accompanied by the triumphant blast of pipe organs as 1,000 or more worshipers gather under the copper-clad dome to celebrate mass.
It’s here, high atop a hill overlooking downtown St. Paul, where Catholics have come for the past century to worship and wed and pay tribute to those who have passed on.
And it’s here, over the next year, where they will return again and again to celebrate the 100th anniversary of a spiritual shrine through concerts and food drives and even a softball tournament.
At the heart of all the hoopla and history, however, the cathedral stands as an active community of faith.
The first homily at the first “Cathedral” of St. Paul — then, just a rustic chapel — was a stoic experience.
No heat, no water, in a 25-by-18-foot log cabin that could hold fewer than a hundred.
The first homily at the fourth cathedral — the “Cathedral on the Hill,” a more recognized landmark than the Capitol building across from it — was surprisingly stoic as well.
There were pews, and little else. A single, bare electric bulb hung from the Cathedral’s high dome. That first Mass — to be commemorated by Archbishop John Nienstedt in a centennial homily Sunday, and in events and exhibits throughout the year — was absent of any accoutrement.
And yet each of the five Masses scheduled that day — which some worried would be too barren, too spacious to be intimate with God — were standing-room only.
The speaker, 77-year-old Archbishop John Ireland — a former infantry regiment chaplain who had served in the Civil War — would die three years later.
He’d spent his final efforts finishing a project many decried as folly. Too expensive, too ambitious, too far away from Rome.
“Archbishop Ireland wanted people to know that Catholics had arrived in America. (With the construction of the Cathedral), he wanted people to see that ‘we are Catholics, but we are Americans.’ That there was no contradiction whatsoever between the two,” said the Rev. John Ubel, the Cathedral’s current rector.
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