“Austin Askew”–Chapter II– Sermons in Stone: St. Mary’s Cathedral, Heart of Austin Catholicism, Renovated, Rededicated

“Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars.” —Proverbs 9:1

On Saturday, January 29th, Bishop Gregory A. Aymond of the Catholic Diocese of Austin rededicated the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, seat of his Diocesan authority, 131-year-old downtown landmark, and heart of Austin Catholicism. The ceremony concluded a $2.5 million dollar renovation of this historic architectural treasure and beloved Church home to thousands of parishioners.

In the beginning in Texas were the Native Americans. Then came the Spaniards–explorers and conquistadors and missionaries. A chain of missions–settlements with farmland, living quarters, a church, and a garrison–spread out all over Texas, though the best-known were in San Antonio.

Amazingly, some of the old mission churches are still homes to active parishes, which is pretty remarkable considering they are close to 300 years old. Of course one mission, the Alamo, became the single most iconic building in Texas, thanks to the heroic actions of men like William B. Travis, Jim Bowie, and John Wayne.

But compared to San Antonio, Austin came rather late to Catholicism. At first, locals had to make do with three small missions which were set up along Barton Creek and occasional visits from priests from Bastrop or San Antonio, but by 1852, the Most Reverend J. M. Odin, first Bishop of Galveston, decided there were enough Irish in Austin to warrant a full-time priest. And so the following year, Father Michael Sheehan, late of County Cork, Ireland, was sent to Austin, where he immediately initiated construction of a Catholic church at the corner of Brazos and Ash (now Ninth).

I’ll give you three guesses what they called it.

By 1866 the parish consisted of more Germans than Irish. The Germans wanted the church named after one of their saints and the Irish wanted it named after one of theirs, so Father Nicholas Feltin wisely changed the name of the church from St. Patrick’s to St. Mary’s of the Immaculate Conception, a name that pleased everybody.

But soon the congregation outgrew the little church, and in 1874 the fashionable Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton was retained to draw up the plans for a new church to be constructed at East Tenth and Brazos. Clayton was the first professionally-trained architect in Texas and he would later go on to design the Old Main Building at St. Edward’s University, as well as the Walter Gresham house in Galveston–now known as the “Bishop’s Palace” and generally considered one of the finest examples of Victorian residential architecture in the United States.

Also in 1874, a school building was erected on East Tenth on the site of the current St. Mary’s Cathedral School.

Construction wasn’t finished on the building until 1884. Part of the delay was due to the fact that the first foundation that was laid proved to be sub-standard, and it had to be broken up and replaced. The building’s initial cost was estimated at $30,000, but wound up costing over $100,000. The church was dedicated to the service of God on Easter Sunday, April 20, 1884, by the Most Reverend N. A. Gallagher, then-Bishop of Galveston.

Two years later the northeast tower was redesigned to accommodate a 2,000 pound bell, donated to the church by Michael Butler. The bell was cast by the McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore (winner of “Highest Awards for Church Bells & Chimes” at fourteen state and world’s fairs–could there have been that much competition?), engraved with the names and birth dates of Mr. Butler’s children, and blessed and hung on July 4th, 1886.

The bell was so huge that when schoolboys rang it to announce funerals or Mass they were often lifted off the ground by the bell rope. Later a smaller second bell was added. But the problem of airborne bell-ringers was so persistent the church eventually switched to an electric ringing system.

A Tracker pipe organ, built in 1882 in Ohio by Carl Barckhoff, was installed in time for Easter in 1893. The great Irish tenor John McCormack sang to the accompaniment of this organ, as did the opera singer Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heinck. Pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski played this organ several times as well.

Originally the organ blocked the view of the church’s Rose Window, but the instrument was modernized and moved out of the way in 1948, and electrified two years later.

The structure, designed on the basilica plan, without transepts, is 125 feet long, 52 feet wide, and 50 feet from floor to ceiling. It is built of native rusticated, broken ashlar rubblework limestone in the Transitional Romanesque style with English Gothic details. The roof was originally covered in Pennsylvania blue slate with crosses worked into it.

The principal northern façade, which actually wasn’t completed until 1906, has a 70-foot high gable, topped with a cross and pierced with a Rose Window twenty feet in diameter. The tower on the northwest corner is 90 feet tall, while the bell tower on the northeast rises to 175 feet. The main doorway is ten feet high and fifteen feet wide, with recessed ribs, short Romanesque columns, foliated capitals, and a pair of massive wooden doors.

(By the way, on the western side of the building, along Brazos, you can still see iron rings embedded into the stone curbing, just in case you need a place to tie up your horse and buggy before Mass.)

Inside, the narthex is separated from the nave by a Gothic screen made of elaborately carved wood. The ceiling of the nave is barrel-vaulted according to the pattern of a trifoliated arch. It is supported by wooden trusses, which in turn rest on corbelled pilasters, which preventing the need for interior columns and keep the view to the altar unobstructed. At the south end of the church is a semi-octagonal apse.

Eventually, two levels of balconies were added, one of which included a soundproof “cry room” for mothers with restless babies. Seating was ultimately about 550 on the main floor, with 100 in the first balcony, and 50 to 60 in the second, though the floor seating was cut when the sanctuary was enlarged between 1948 and 1949.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, sacred truths and religious concepts were often taught to pre-literate and illiterate peoples through the use of symbols and rituals. The elaborate sacrifices of the Jewish Tabernacle and Temple, for instance, prefigured the coming of the Messiah, and St. Patrick explained the concept of the Trinity to the Irish by showing them a shamrock. Similarly, people who knew nothing of theology or who couldn’t read the Bible could learn the underpinnings of Christian doctrine through the decorations in their churches.

This is where stained glass comes in handy. In the sanctuary at St. Mary’s are four windows depicting the Four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, along with the traditional symbols by which the faithful have always been able to recognize them: the Angel, Lion, Ox, and Eagle. In the apse are windows depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Queen of Heaven, St. John the Baptist, bearing a Lamb, St. Joseph with the Rod of Aaron, St. Peter with the Keys to the Kingdom, and St. Paul with the Sword of the Gospel.

The sanctuary windows were made in France by Carmelite nuns, cost 4,200 francs, and were installed in the 1890s. The other windows were made in Germany and were put in place in 1900. Needless to say, these windows are irreplaceable, as the glass from which they are made isn’t manufactured anymore.

In 1948 the Diocese of Austin was created, with the Most Reverend Louis J. Reicher named first Bishop. St. Mary’s was declared the Cathedral of the Bishop of Austin by a bull issued by His Holiness Pope Pius XII.

Most of us think of a cathedral as a huge, elaborate church, but in truth it is the chief church of a diocese, where a Bishop is Pastor, and where he has his throne or “cathedra.”

In honor of St. Mary’s being named a Cathedral, a renovation was undertaken, and the old wooden altars were replaced by limestone ones, and still later, by altars of marble. Carved on the side panels of the wooden canopy over the main altar were Texas bluebonnets and cacti.

Several other renovations have been made in the last few decades. One to the tune of $210,000 in 1979 addressed, among other things, limestone erosion brought about by impious pigeons. Also at that time a fire alarm system and lightning rod were added, the latter a little too late, since in the 1950s lightning struck one of the spires and caused a piece of rock to fall off and damage the roof.

And what of this latest renovation? Well, space does not permit a detailed accounting of all that has been done. The tile floors were replaced with marble and the sacristy got a new bulletin board. New confessionals were built, the stained glass windows were restored, and the ceiling was re-stencilled. The roof was replaced, new pews were purchased, the wainscoting was re-stained, and various decorations that have been covered up over the years were uncovered and made new.

Father Bud Roland, current Rector of the Cathedral, said, “We have come to realize what a labor of love [the construction] was for the original builders and [the renovation] has becomes a labor of love for us as well.”

Some people might think it pretentious and unnecessary to spend millions of dollars on a “mere building”–money which would best be spent elsewhere–but they are entirely missing the point. A church building is not an end in itself; it is the culmination of the highest aspirations of a group of diverse individuals who share a common faith. It is the manifestation in stone and glass, wood and plaster, of the love of a community for their God and for one another.

Bishop Gregory Aymond said, “St. Mary Cathedral is our spiritual home, for both Catholics and other Austin residents. As the cathedral, it holds a special place in the life of the diocese. It represents who we are as Catholics, deeply rooted in the Gospel message of Jesus Christ, yet firmly placed in the midst of many worldly activities.”

The fact that the congregation of St. Mary’s is still vital and its church still sturdy and beautiful well into its second century testifies to all that is best about the spirit of Austin.

—February 3, 2005

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