As the influx of Catholics over the decades has swelled congregations and spawned new parishes throughout Eastern North Carolina, the Diocese of Raleigh has maintained its cathedral in a former parish church downtown that can seat only about 300 people.
That changes on Wednesday, when the diocese formally dedicates Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral on a hilltop about two miles west of downtown. The new mother church for the 54-county diocese will seat about 2,000 under a copper dome that has already become a landmark in the city.
With a ceremony that will draw Catholic dignitaries from around the state and beyond, the diocese will go from having the smallest cathedral in the continental United States to one surpassed in size only by those in San Francisco, Newark, New York and Los Angeles. The building’s size and elegance stir pride in many Catholics but embarrass others who think the church should have invested its treasure elsewhere.
The dedication will be the church’s chance to throw open the doors to the finished cathedral for the first time. While it eagerly welcomed press coverage and shared photos and videos of the building as it rose off Western Boulevard, the diocese became careful not to give away too much of the grandeur taking shape inside its brick walls.
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“We want it to be a surprise,” Monsignor David Brockman told a group of Catholics who got an early tour of the cathedral late last month, just after he asked that no one take any pictures.
The dedication ceremony also marks the return of Michael Burbidge, who conceived of the new cathedral as bishop of Raleigh and was its biggest champion. Last fall, as the building took shape, Burbidge was named bishop of a larger diocese based in Arlington, Va. He will be joined Wednesday by his successor, Luis Rafael Zarama, who was appointed by Pope Francis earlier this month. Burbidge will lead a Mass and deliver the homily.
When Burbidge unveiled the first plans for Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in September 2011, it was expected to anchor a 39-acre campus that included a separate gathering hall and a three-story parking garage. It would cost, Burbidge said, between $75 million and $90 million.
The new cathedral would be more fitting for a diocese that had grown to more than 200,000 registered Catholics – and as many as 500,000 active Catholics when you counted everyone, including Latino immigrants.
But the decision to build a large new cathedral and leave the old Sacred Heart Cathedral downtown was not without controversy. Some members of the Sacred Heart congregation did not want to leave their historic church, completed in 1924, or hold their weekly services in the huge new space on the edge of town. Meanwhile, other Catholics thought the money being spent on a grand new building could be better used for other church missions, such as helping the poor.
“This kind of grandeur is way out of line, financially and morally in this 21st century,” Marge Bryant of Raleigh wrote to The News and Observer shortly after the plans were unveiled. “I and many of my fellow Catholics urge Bishop Michael Burbidge to reconsider this plan.”
The diocese responded by increasing its fundraising and programs for the poor and by scaling back the cathedral project. The bell tower was shortened, and the gathering hall, the parking deck and a planned basement were all eliminated.
Burbidge often said that the Raleigh diocese would build the cathedral that “God’s people will let us build.” In the end, Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral cost $45.7 million, all coming from donations from about 26,000 people. There will be no long-term debt or mortgage.
Here’s a quick guide to the cathedral:
The site of the cathedral has been owned by the Catholic Church for more than a century. The Rev. Thomas F. Price, the first native North Carolinian to be ordained a priest, acquired hundreds of acres west of Raleigh in the late 1890s to establish an orphanage for boys. Some of the land was later used for Cardinal Gibbons High School, which moved to West Raleigh in 1999, and the diocese offices, which moved to North Raleigh in 2013.
The dome rises 171 feet from the base of the cathedral, not including the cross on top, and can be seen from miles away. It was assembled on the ground and weighed 162 tons when it was hoisted atop the steel frame of the building in the spring of 2016. The copper skin was shiny then, but has weathered to almost black.
The cathedral is shaped like a cross, with seating for 1,000 in the nave, or main section, and 500 in each of the transepts, or wings. With a capacity of 2,000, Holy Name of Jesus is the same size as cathedrals in Philadelphia and Baltimore.
The red granite cornerstone is to the right of the large, front doors. In the fall of 2015, Burbidge took the stone to Rome, where it was blessed by Pope Francis. On the wall just inside the doors is the cornerstone for Holy Name of Jesus Chapel, which Price built on this site in 1902 at the orphanage.
Voice of the cathedral
There are 50 bells in the tower near the front of the church, including one that was saved from the Holy Name of Jesus Chapel. The other 49 were made of bronze by the Verdin bell and clock company of Cincinnati. Each bell plays a different note on the musical scale and can by rung by hand, using an organ-like instrument in a small room below the tower, or electronically through a computer program. The bells have been tested, but the public will hear them for the first time on Wednesday.
Just off the narthex, or gathering space inside the front doors, is the Chapel of All Saints. It seats about 40 and will be used for small ceremonies. The narthex leads through another set of doors and past two sets of confessionals into the nave, where the ceiling soars to nearly 78 feet. Visitors walk around a marble baptismal font that’s six feet in diameter to get to the pews.
Windows, old and new
There will be 95 stained-glass windows in the cathedral, and all of the ones that required a crane to install are in place. But there are 52 clear glass windows in the building now that will be replaced by stained glass as people donate money for memorials. Forty-five of the windows are from Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church, a parish church in Philadelphia that closed in 2012 as the city’s Catholic population continues to shrink. Burbidge knew about the Ascension windows from his days as an auxiliary bishop in Philadelphia and asked about them when he heard the church was closing. The 89-year-old windows were cleaned and restored by Beyer Studio, the company that also made the new ones.
Stations of the Cross
The Stations of the Cross – 14 images that tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection that line the nave – also came from a closed church in Philadelphia, St. Francis. Made of wood and painted on a field of gold, the stations are three feet wide and more than five feet tall.
Surrounded by saints
Wood statues of various saints stand in niches that line the walls of the nave. All of the niches are occupied, except one. The diocese hopes that an effort to have Price named a saint will be successful and that his statue will be added someday.
In the Catholic Church, the “sanctuary” refers to the area around the altar, which is made of creamy white Carrara marble with Giallo Siena marble accents, both from Tuscany, Italy. The sanctuary also includes a marble chair for the bishop, which is what makes Holy Name of Jesus a cathedral and not just a grand church. “Cathedra” is the Latin word for seat or chair. The inside of the dome is 137 feet above the altar.
Organ comes later
The choir loft at the rear of the nave will be able to seat about 60 choir members and 30 musicians. The organ will be installed in the choir loft, but not until next year. C.B. Fisk Inc. of Gloucester, Mass., is building the organ, which includes 3,396 pipes ranging in size from three quarters of an inch to 32 feet long. Because organs are sensitive to dust and chemicals in the air, installation can’t begin until the cathedral is completed and will take about nine months, including tuning time.
Mary and Joseph
At the end of the north transept is a statue of Mary, and at the end of the south transept is one of St. Joseph. High above each are new, custom-made rose windows designed with guidance from Burbidge and Brockman.
The one above Mary tells the story of the diocese, including the life of Price, while the other one tells the story of St. Joseph.
A small gift shop will open just off the narthex sometime after the dedication. It will sell mostly inexpensive souvenirs to visitors and school groups that want to take a memento home with them. Brockman said the gift shop was recommended by their counterparts in Los Angeles during a visit to the cathedral there.
See the cathedral
The dedication of Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral will begin at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets for the event are all taken, but it will be broadcast live on the diocese YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/user/DioceseofRaleigh.
The first public Mass at the cathedral will begin at 5 p.m. on Saturday, July 29, followed by a full slate of Masses on Sunday morning. For a schedule, go to www.sacredheartcathedral.org.
Until the diocese can build parish offices on the site, the cathedral will remain locked when there are no events taking place there.