A great restoration @CathedralStPaul

The Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, MN, is in my estimation a candidate for “grandest cathedral in these USA”.  It is also the National Shrine of St. Paul.

One of the advantages of this cathedral is that is wasn’t badly ravaged by the liturgical vandals that swept across the Church with their jackhammers and whitewash and sentimental gewgaws.   There was one casualty, however: the cathedra, the bishop’s chair, the symbol of his authority.

In the ancient Roman churches, the cathedra was placed in the center of the apse.  The bishop would preach while seated in the stylized chair.  Over time it was generally moved to the “Northern” wall of the sanctuary and surmounted by a canopy.  In the Roman Rite, when the bishop was present at Mass or celebrant, it would also be draped in the color of the vestments.  Moreover, like a classic Roman altar, it was elevated by an odd number of steps and it had a platform wide enough so that the bishop could be flanked by deacons.

Today I saw at LAJ that a priest friend of mine, the Cathedral’s penultimate rector Fr. Joseph Johnson [NB: Originally I thought that this was more recent, under the present rector Fr. Ubel], managed to restore with splendor the cathedra‘s furnishing to something very like their original form.

Back in the bad days, when the mania to downsize the grand to the stingy in the name of “simplicity” and reduce everything supernatural to the natural, the furnishings surrounding the cathedra had been removed.   If memory serves, however, traces remained: there were still fastenings left in the wall.

Here is the cathedra back in the day.

This is what was done to it.

And this is what the rector achieved.

Fr. Z kudos.  That was a great project.

Now it’s time to get rid of the table altar!

BTW… I linked, above, to the Cathedral’s site.  They have a 360º virtual view which is pretty interesting.  If you try it, make sure to check out the ambulatory behind the sanctuary.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Malta says:

    Oh my gosh that’s a beautiful Cathedral!

  2. Ave Maria says:

    Now there’s a Cathedral to be proud of. Even the fan was removed…
    Kudos indeed!

  3. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:


  4. NH Knight says:

    I agree with you Father that Cathedral in St Paul is spectacular and on a scale that I have never seen before. Magnificent artwork as well.
    Was just in MN for a family wedding, won’t get into how terrible that NO Mass was, but we went to the Cathedral on a Sunday afternoon around 1:00 pm. It was a very bittersweet experience because Mass had just gotten out and by the way people were dress you would have thought you were at the Mall of America. Here you have this awesome, truly Catholic sacred space and people walk around like they are in a museum and not the house of God. I couldn’t take it, had to sit outside.

  5. Semper Gumby says:

    Thanks Fr. Z and LAJ, these photos are superb. And also thanks for the ordination photos of the previous post. Fiat Lux.

  6. APX says:

    I don’t think I’ll stop kicking myself for not going inside when I accidentally stumbled upon this place one summer driving back front Hamilton, ON. I was getting towards Day 2 of my drive and because I had the city entered into my GPS as a via point it took me to the Capitol Building, which is somewhat close to the Cathedral. I remember seeing it and trying to figure out how to get to it to take pictures of it because I had never seen a church so huge before. It was Saturday afternoon getting close to the 5:00 pm Vigil Mass, but being on a three day drive I wasn’t exactly dressed to go into a church, especially something so grand and didn’t want to be judged by people for wearing yoga pants in church. I should have just went inside. I have copious pictures of the exterior of the church, though. I had to lay on the ground to get the whole thing in a picture.

  7. plaf26 says:

    The cathedra restoration was done while Fr Joseph Johnson was rector. Also, I seem to recall after Vat II, something came out from Rome that bishops’ cathedras should not resemble thrones. That’s when and why the canopy was taken down, sometime prior to 1972 (when I was assigned there as an assistant).

    [Thanks for the correction!]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  8. jaykay says:

    Yep, they did that to my local pro-Cathedral, back about nearly 40 years ago. We had a very similar throne and canopy, beautifully carved, for the Cdl/Archbishop. Y’know, carved by craftsmen, who would have been paid very little by today’s standards – but their craftsmanship was superb, and their families would have taken great joy in seeing what their relations had done. And of course it was paid for largely by them, people who would have been paid very little by today’s standards, but who took pride in contributing to God’s glory. Some of my ancestors among them – they were stone-carvers, whose skill can still be seen in the local cemeteries and in the Church itself.

    Yet, in an act of false humility (pride?), all that was just thrown out, circa late70s. The result? A desecrated Sanctuary (thank God, the best still remains, albeit in need of much restoration). Those who did that are now long passed. Whatever, de mortuis etc. And still, we have no “new springtime”. And a largely ignorant clergy and people who don’t even realise what they lost. We who remain struggle to maintain it.

  9. KateD says:

    Many older churches could SO easily be returned to their former glory. I love walking into one where you can see they’ve tried and tried to mess it up, but the architecture itself thwarts their success. Something to consider if ever building one. Two words: bas relief…And one more word: rebar!

  10. Archlaic says:

    Although I’d been to the Twin Cities previously I had my first opportunity to visit this glorious cathedral when I flew out for the Confirmation of one of my Goddaughters. She was highly amused that I insisted on dragging her hither and yon after the ceremonies were finished, to explore and take photos. Everything you say about its magnificence – and not incidentally its almost completely intact state – is true. I certainly noticed the cathedra but I was unaware it had been so recently restored. I’m curious whether this restoration was accomplished under the current bishop or his predecessor… the incumbent administered the Confirmations and my impression – based upon his style of “presiding” – was that this sort of thing wasn’t his sort of thing… just wondering.

    I would note that although I am a cheapskate and inveterately immune to tourist-trap(py) schlock, I bought not one but *both* of the commemorative books in the gift shop. FWIW my recollection is that one of them specifically mentioned that the free-standing altar was *not* permanent and cited something to the effect of it only being used for certain liturgical functions! Sounded quite crypto-traddie and I got quite a kick out of it. ‘Twould be glorious for some sort of liturgy to be celebrated there on a regular basis which would demonstrate the wisdom of whomever made that decision!

    p.s. yes, do not miss the ambulatory when you visit, either in-person or virtually! Keep an eye out for the swans…my first thought was that they were “pious pelicans”(!) and even though they look nothing like pelicans I can’t help but believe that is one of the impressions the artist wanted to give!

  11. hwriggles4 says:

    I think this is the same Cathedral that I visited circa 1997 after a job interview in St. Paul. As I have grown deeper in my faith (I am a revert) I find I prefer the churches that do not look like bank buildings or flying saucers.

    Three years ago, I attended a retreat at Techny in Chicago, home of the Society of the Divine Word. Beautiful large old style sanctuary. I didn’t attend confession the night before I got on a plane, and there was a priest on staff who regularly hears confessions Friday afternoon. I find my prayer time is more productive in a more traditional setting.

    Years ago, I toured the Basilica in Baltimore, which is beautiful, and I have attended Mass in New York at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It’s a shame how the Cathedral in Milwaukee was gutted in the early 1970s, and it’s a shame how many minor seminaries (several with well thought out architecture and many that were constructed between 1946 and 1962) were leveled to the ground by 1983.

  12. JoshuaJ says:

    I grew up with this as my Cathedral and have always been impressed with its beauty. Many years later, at a convention with a bunch of friends, I took them to the Cathedral as well. They were in awe. All of this was before the restoration. I hope it is as marvelous a gift to God as I remember it being. He Who was born in a bed of straw depends on US to bring Him our finest.

  13. Kathleen10 says:

    It’s beautifully inspiring, the whole cathedral, it’s amazing. The restoration is wonderful!
    I note the little benches for deacons to sit on, next to the bishop. You can see them in the original photo, but they’ve been moved out of their place for the deacon’s chairs. There are many considerations I’m sure, but it seems a shame not to keep them there, since they seem to have at least one.

  14. TonyO says:

    Many of these old cathedrals would (and should) qualify for “heritage” status and have protection on them under civil law. You can bet that if they were Native American buildings they would have been protected. But since it’s theliberals who want to destroy them, why no, there is no cultural heritage that needs to be preserved. Nothing to see here, move along.

    That is to say, the wreckovations should have been, in some cases, violations of civil requirements, with the state in the mix to preserve them. But the liberals in complete control of the civil apparatus of shoving “cultural heritage” down our throats don’t give a rat’s arse about traditional heritage, and in fact they not only find it offensive, they think that their finding it offensive somehow means that it doesn’t get equal protection under the law. So much for the law being neutral.

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