First cathedral carving, Bishop Cretin’s letter among archivist’s favorite finds

| February 26, 2015 | 0 Comments
Celeste Raspanti, cathedral archivist, is the centennial’s chairwoman. Dave Hrbacek/ The Catholic Spirit

Celeste Raspanti, cathedral archivist, is the centennial’s chairwoman. Dave Hrbacek/ The Catholic Spirit

Every morning, Celeste Raspanti walks through the Cathedral of St. Paul’s “secret door.”

The brown slab of metal is not visible from the street or even the sidewalk marking the perimeter of the grand edifice.

Situated near the northeast corner of the church, it leads to the balcony of Msgr. Ambrose Hayden Hall, where decades of cathedral history are stashed in dozens of cardboard boxes that Raspanti works feverishly to sort and organize.

Five years into the task, Raspanti now knows the cathedral and its storied history like the back of her hand.

Interesting and sometimes obscure details roll off the tip of her tongue, making clear that this 86-year-old parishioner is the right person to be organizing the archives.

Some of the items she is now organizing will be on display starting March 15, in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the first Mass celebrated at the cathedral on March 28, 1915. She serves as the year-long centennial celebration’s chairwoman.

In 2010, this former School Sister of St. Francis, retired University of St. Thomas professor and playwright of works including “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” plunged into the task of managing the archives for Father Joseph Johnson, then rector of the cathedral. He asked her to take on the job in preparation for the centennial anniversary of the first Mass, celebrated by Archbishop John Ireland.

She was well qualified, having served as a cathedral tour guide for 15 years prior to that.

A volunteer, she devotes 40-plus hours a week.

The altar used at the first Mass is on display in a centennial exhibit. Dave Hrbacek/ The Catholic Spirit

The altar used at the first Mass is on display in a centennial exhibit. Dave Hrbacek/ The Catholic Spirit

Fascinating discoveries

Some people would have been intimidated by what they discovered in the cramped balcony of Hayden Hall. Not Raspanti. She saw not mountains of chaos, but boxes brimming with opportunity.

“The most fascinating and interesting part of this is the organization [of historical materials] and finding the history of the cathedral,” she said. “Monsignor Hayden, who was a historian, kept everything. We have letters from [Archbishop] Ireland, we have letters from Archbishop [Austin] Dowling, we have letters from [Archbishop John] Murray. I can’t tell you what an excitement it is to open [the boxes].”

One of her favorite finds was a letter signed by Bishop Joseph Cretin, the first bishop of St. Paul who came in 1851.

She also goes beyond the boxes and Hayden Hall to acquire historical objects.

“The best was this gavel that was carved from one of the logs from the original chapel of St. Paul, 1841,” she said. “I started five years ago tracking this thing down.”

With the help of another volunteer, Larry Summer, who has professional historic preservation experience, she connected with Minnesota Historical Society staff, which found it in the Minnesota History Center basement and agreed to loan it to the cathedral for the centennial display.

Another find was a small metal bank given to children during the construction of the cathedral. Dozens were handed out, with children encouraged to fill them with change and donate the contents to the construction of the cathedral.

Raspanti is giddy when talking about the cathedral. She can toss out facts few, if any, others know.

“One day, I decided I was going to count all the saints in the cathedral, and all the angels,” she said. “We have 1,028 angels, and I know where every single angel is in the cathedral.”

She also noted there are 93 saints in the building. When she passed along these important details to a staff member, the response was, “Celeste, you need to get a life.”

No, she insisted, she already has one. It is lived in the basement of the building she loves, and she would have it no other way.

“I’ve got a good life,” she said. “My head is good, my heart is good, my knees are bad. Two out of three isn’t bad.”

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Category: Cathedral Centennial