ST. PAUL, Minn. — For the past three years, one of the largest cathedrals in the United States has served as the backdrop for one of the largest winter sporting events.

More than 300,000 have flocked to Cathedral Hill in St. Paul, Minn., during that span to watch the Red Bull Crashed Ice racers skate down a 1,400-foot track of ice with many twists and turns. This year’s addition took place on Saturday and aired nationally on Fox Sports 1, and the Cathedral of St. Paul, the National Shrine of the Apostle Paul, dominated the sky behind the track.

“Overall, I think it [is] very good exposure for the cathedral,” said Father John Ubel, the cathedral’s rector. “The cathedral [is] lit up beautifully with LED lighting.”

Red Bull invited the cathedral organist to play some overture music for this year’s event. The cathedral, which will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its first Mass next year, had the organ installed early in 2013.

Among the 120,000 who attended this year’s Crashed Ice event, thousands entered the historic church to look around or warm up. Members of the cathedral's young-adults group and Father Ubel greeted people as they came in.

“Many, many people went in that building who have never been in there before,” Father Ubel said.

Visitors received a postcard with an image of the cathedral with Mass times, Scott Hahn-authored books, pamphlets and CDs about the Catholic faith. Holly Beth, a volunteer from the young-adult group, saw the impact firsthand.

“I think it really shows people how even a small action like opening the doors to the people can impact them,” Beth said on Saturday. “Today, a lady teared up because of the charity that we’re demonstrating to the people. She was from Illinois but came here for her son for this event. So it really does impact people in their hearts.”

 

A Diverse Crowd

Racers in Crashed Ice came from all over the world to take part in the event. They wear hockey gear, as they skate downhill and encounter an occasional jump.

Father Ubel blessed the racers on Saturday morning before the finals, at the invitation of Red Bull. Later in the day, one of the racers stopped at the cathedral requesting to meet with Father Ubel.

“We visited for a time, and he shared about his faith growing up in New Brunswick,” Father Ubel said.

Several cathedral parishioners formed their own team and raced while wearing jerseys bearing the cathedral logo. A picture of them racing ran in both of the Twin Cities metro daily newspapers the following day.

A couple of priests from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis gave the track a try. Father Nels Gjengdahl, a religion teacher at St. Thomas Academy, skated down the track for a second-straight year. His seminary classmate and best friend, Father John Floeder, who teaches moral theology at the St. Paul Seminary, joined him this time around. Their skate down the Crashed Ice course can be seen on YouTube.

“Last year was probably my third time on skates ever,” Father Gjengdahl told the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which covered their just-for-fun, downhill trek on Wednesday, Feb. 19. “I went down the course and survived.”

Father Gjengdahl’s experience led to a new hobby.

“I decided that because I had all this hockey gear, I might as well play hockey. I try to about twice a week.”

 

‘This Is Evangelization’

For the official races, attendance hit an all-time high of 120,000 on Saturday night. Preparations on the part of Father Ubel, the cathedral staff and young adults paid off for welcoming those who came into the cathedral from the cold, which they had done in previous years.

“To me, this is evangelization,” Father Ubel said. “We can wait until people decide to walk in for Mass or we can go out and try to meet them where they are. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Fittingly, Archbishop John Ireland, who spearheaded the cathedral’s construction, had envisioned a building that would draw many to the Catholic faith. In 1907, the cornerstone was laid, and the first Mass took place in 1915 at the city’s fourth cathedral.

Towering high in the St. Paul city skyline, the cathedral’s dome overlooks the region. Inside, its majestic architecture and sacred art lifts the souls of visitors to encounter the living God.

While the cathedral blankets the background of the track, a minimal amount of the course actually went across the church’s property. The track starts nearby, wraps around the front steps of the historic building and dips down the hill into downtown St. Paul.

“The rest of the property is all city property, and, theoretically, the city could reroute the course a little bit, and it wouldn’t go by the cathedral at all,” Father Ubel said. “So, our saying Yes to this, I think, is being a good neighbor first of all.”

Register correspondent Matthew Davis writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.