‘It is your home’

| February 26, 2015 | 0 Comments

John McCormack was better suited than most to judge the countenance of Archbishop John Ireland 100 years ago on March 28 when thousands came to attend the first Mass at the informal opening of the fourth and current Cathedral of St. Paul.

As the McCormack of Clark & McCormack, the company that provided the granite for the cathedral, he would have had many opportunities to be with the St. Paul archbishop during the near decade of planning and construction of the “new cathedral” on the brow of what St. Paulites then called St. Anthony Hill.

He wasn’t the only one to notice something special about the visionary archbishop of St. Paul that day in 1915.

Msgr. Lawrence A. Ryan helped Archbishop Ireland vest for that first Mass at 6 a.m.

“We noted as he began Mass he seemed full of unusual joy,” Msgr. Ryan, who was rector of the cathedral, would write afterward. “But when he turned around for the ‘Pax Vobiscum’ the scene before him was too much for him. The vast cathedral crowded with people, the golden light of dawn coming through the rose window in the choir loft thrilled him. When he went over to the missal to begin the oration, he actually broke down and sobbed.”

March 28 was Palm Sunday in 1915, and, in order for Holy Week and Easter services to be held in the new cathedral, there was bustling to make that deadline, with crews laying tile flooring and installing the pipe organ and altar furnishings.

Doors were put on just the day before.

At 5 a.m. that Palm Sunday those doors were opened, and soon after, The Catholic Bulletin reported, “every seat in the vast edifice was occupied.”

Back then, of course, Mass began with the priest facing the altar. When Archbishop Ireland turned around to announce “The Lord be with you” in the Latin of the day, he saw not just the pews filled but also “the aisles and ambulatories were filled to overflowing,” eliciting his emotional reaction.

Each of the cathedral’s five Masses that day — held on  the hour from 6 to 10 a.m. — were packed.

A St. Paul daily newspaper the next day estimated that 18,000 people had attended Mass at the 2,700-seat cathedral on its informal opening day.

The Catholic Bulletin reported:

“The sun shone from an unclouded sky, the atmosphere was crisp and invigorating and on every hand there was evidence of the departure of winter and the near approach of the springtime. Under such favorable conditions it is no wonder that street car, automobile and carriage were overcrowded with people whose objective point was the new Cathedral of St. Paul on the day of its informal opening.”

‘It’s your cathedral’

The cathedral where crowds worshiped that Palm Sunday was hardly the one people worship in today.

There was no decoration. The walls were bare, white-washed brick. There were no statues, no bronze grill behind the altar, no stained-glass windows along the side walls, no baldachino covering the altar.

Still the thousands crowded in.

The 10 a.m. Mass was the High Mass, as was the custom.

Archbishop Ireland officiated at the blessing of palms, but while he had both presided at and preached at the first Mass at 6 a.m., Bishop John J. Lawler, an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese, was the celebrant for the High Mass.

Archbishop Ireland reserved to himself the honor of preaching.

He called the new cathedral “a great, a noble edifice,” described it as “regal” and “the supreme monument” of the faith of the people.

He asked the throng before him, “Does it not wrest to itself . . . your admiration, your praise, your exultation of mind and of heart?”

In the floral and repetitious rhetoric of his time, he belabored the point of to whom the cathedral belonged.

“Catholics of the Diocese of St. Paul, it is your cathedral,” Archbishop Ireland said. “You built it: you paid for it: it is yours . . . it is your home, purchased with the fruits of your toil, of your Christian self-denial.”

It was appropriate recognition for tens of thousands of lay people from parishes across the archdiocese who had made donations small and large — but mostly small — to fund the $1.6 million that it took to build the cathedral, the equivalent of $37 million today.

Since the ground-breaking in 1906, Catholics had been asked to “subscribe” to pay for the cathedral, regularly sending contributions. They were recorded in huge ledgers that now are on display in the cathedral.

As generous as parishioners were, early in 1915 the project was in debt to the amount of $137,872.01, according to The Catholic Bulletin.

A campaign was started to pay off the debt, and at the beginning of March that year The Catholic Bulletin posted a “scroll of honor” on its front page each issue listing those who had made a donation during the previous week: $10 from Miss Theresa Ubel of St. Paul; $25 from August Meier of Maple Lake; $12.50 from Lloyd Finn of Minneapolis, and on and on.

By April 11, when the formal dedication and blessing of the new Cathedral of St. Paul took place, the debt had been paid off.

Archbishop Ireland’s fondest dream, first envisioned in 1904, had taken two years to get off the ground and nine years to build, but the exterior at least had become a reality. It would require another 25 years for the interior to be finished.

Yet on March 28, 1915, the massive granite-walled church crafted in the “classical Renaissance” style by architect Emmanuel L. Masqueray, stood atop what is now called Cathedral Hill, overlooking both the “money-changers,” represented by downtown St. Paul, and “Caesar,” as represented in the Minnesota State Capitol just blocks away.

In a 1988 biography of Archbishop Ireland, historian and archdiocesan priest Father Marvin O’Connell wrote that the cathedral and the co-cathedral, the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, were “permanent statements in stone, more eloquent than all his [Archbishop Ireland’s] innumerable speeches combined, which proclaimed that the Catholics had indeed arrived, had put down their roots, and had assumed their rightful place in the American secular city.”

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Category: Cathedral Centennial