Raleigh diocese breaks ground on new cathedral

Bishop Michael Burbidge jokes about a completion date for the new Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral during a groundbreaking Saturday in Raleigh.
Bishop Michael Burbidge jokes about a completion date for the new Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral during a groundbreaking Saturday in Raleigh.

After dreaming for years of a new cathedral, the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh finally broke ground on the building Saturday with a ceremony that drew hundreds of parishioners to the future site of their Mother Church.

The groundbreaking for the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral had the sacredness of a Mass, the joviality of a homecoming and the choreography of a chamber of commerce event. It takes the project from plans and offering plates to bulldozers and bricks. Bishop Michael Burbidge thanked those who supported the project so far and asked God’s blessing on the cathedral site and the people whose labor will bring the building to fruition over the next two years.

“We will build a beautiful and magnificent cathedral,” Burbidge told the crowd, who gathered first in a heated tent that mimicked the shape and orientation of the planned church but was about a fourth its size. It will be, he said, “a powerful reminder of God’s presence in our midst.”

At the same time, he said, the building’s lofty design, with its soaring ceilings and a dome that will be visible from downtown Raleigh a few miles to the east, will keep parishioners’ eyes looking up to the heavens.

At a brief news conference before the event, Burbidge said that more than 22,000 donors across the 55-county diocese had pledged money during a fundraising campaign he launched in September 2011. In all, supporters have given or promised $34.7 million toward the cathedral, expected to cost $41 million. A concurrent fundraising effort brought in another $30 million for pastoral, parish and charitable initiatives.

Burbidge said the church will not borrow money for the work, building only what the people will support.

Parishioner input

Once the plan to build a cathedral was announced, parishioners gave more than their money. At about 400 receptions where they could discuss the plans, church members also gave their opinions. They didn’t want the building to take precedence over the church’s mission of sharing the story of Christ and helping the disadvantaged.

They had ideas about the building itself, too, and church leaders responded with a change in design that shortened the sanctuary and added transepts – the arms of a cross – so that more congregants could sit closer to the center of the cathedral.

The Catholic Church has a long history on the site. Jason Curtis, principal of Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh, told the crowd during a slide presentation that Father Thomas F. Price bought several hundred acres of land in the area – known then as Nazareth, behind what is now Mission Valley Shopping Center – in the late 1800s and with his sister, a nun, started the Catholic Orphanage there to house children whom poverty had left without adequate support.

The orphanage, which included elementary and high schools, closed in the 1950s. A decade later, the church relocated its high school to the site, where it remained until the present one was built in 1996 on Edwards Mill Road.

After that, the diocese had its headquarters on the Nazareth Street land and its worship centers elsewhere: at the 320-seat Sacred Heart Cathedral, built as a parish church in downtown Raleigh in 1924, and at dozens of others built throughout the diocese as the population of Catholics has grown throughout the state. Sacred Heart alone now serves more than 3,000 parish families, the church says, scheduling 11 Masses each weekend to accommodate them.

The new cathedral will give believers a place to gather in large numbers. The sanctuary will seat 2,000.

‘It’s our church’

Sean O’Neal and his family attended the ceremony so his daughter, 8-year-old Reilly, could be there for the beginning. Plans include moving the kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school now at Sacred Heart Cathedral on Hillsborough Street to the Holy Name of Jesus site. Reilly is a second-grader now at Sacred Heart.

“It’s our church,” he said, though he added that he prefers the more intimate space of a parish-sized church such as Sacred Heart for regular worship. “It’s important for her to see every aspect of it.”

Reginna Ford traveled from Rocky Mount for the event and said she looks forward to coming back when the church is completed to attend special services throughout the year: midnight Mass at Christmas, the Good Friday service and others.

“This is going to be a gathering place for all Catholics in the diocese,” Ford said, and members of congregations throughout Eastern North Carolina have raised money – and prayers – to get it this far.

After the service inside the tent, the crowd of more than 500 went outside to watch Burbidge and other church leaders, Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane and representatives of Clancy & Theys Construction Co. don hardhats and flip ceremonial shovelfuls of dirt. That was done at the base of a white wooden cross erected at the point where the altar eventually will stand.

Each church family was offered a small plastic bottle of holy water, which they were asked to sprinkle on the ground, as Burbidge had done already.

As the ceremony ended, the holy water was mixed with a light rain.