Dec. 8, 1854, was a banner day for the Church. On it, Pope Pius IX declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
Because of this major event for the universal Church, I couldn’t help but think that’s why Bishop Thomas Connolly, the second bishop of St. John, New Brunswick, decided to name the new cathedral he was building that very same year the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
The next year, on Christmas Day 1855, he celebrated the first Mass in this cathedral honoring our Blessed Mother as the Immaculate Conception.
On our recent visit, standing in front of the cathedral, my wife, Mary, and I could see why, back in 1871, when the offset main spire was completed and rose 230 feet high with the top actually 300 feet above sea level, it became the highest point in the city. Today, people still navigate the city using this spire; the church remains the tallest landmark.
Spires dominant the cathedral’s facade: Sets of smaller spires outline the main entrance, rising from granite bases set at atypical 45-degree angles.
The facade is also unique because of its contrasting color scheme. The life-sized bas relief of the Last Supper, carved of white Vermont marble, stands out against the gray granite walls. After 150 years, the weather in this Atlantic seaport city has smoothed out the fine details of the carving. Making a statement, too, is a 12-foot-tall statue of our Blessed Mother, also of white marble.
Because for decades mariners used this cathedral’s spire to help guide them to port — Mary is known as the Star of the Sea — it was no surprise for us to see the strong influence the 19th-century shipbuilding industry has inside the cathedral, even after several 20th-century renovations.
Woodcarvers in the shipbuilding business applied their talents to the intricately carved reredos that span the sanctuary along with rows of Gothic arches and spires. The largest two spires reach toward the ceiling on both sides of a huge stained-glass window behind them.
More of the woodworkers’ ornate carving in the sanctuary graces the Gothic shrine that holds a large statue of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. On the opposite side of the sanctuary, woodcarving formed the unique raised pulpit, which has its own spire and representations of the Four Evangelists. Even the door panels, all different in the cathedral, are of carved wood.
Another carved shrine above the tabernacle that is centered on the high altar recently received an icon of the Divine Mercy by an artist from Halifax.
Right above this shrine and tabernacle, the cathedral’s original crucifix, with the life-sized corpus, stands out in the central shrine of the wood reredos.
While a local architect designed the exterior, many of the parts of the original interior design were the work of Patrick Charles Keely, the prolific Irish-American church architect who designed more than 600 churches in the United States.
In 1860, Bishop Connolly’s successor asked Keely to design the interior of this neo-Gothic cathedral. Keely often used local materials when possible, so he must have been delighted to have all the woodworkers ready to lend their artistry.
Even after renovations in 1950 and the 1980s, there remain many original features, like the Stations of the Cross.
We knew right away all but two of the magnificent stained-glass windows were the work of the legendary Franz Meyer Studio of Munich, Germany. Their highly colored and detailed scenes are like paintings by the Old Masters.
We could meditate on our Blessed Mother and Jesus because many windows focus on Mary or have her as an important part of the story, such as the Wedding at Cana. Naturally, there are depictions of the Annunciation, Visitation and Nativity, plus the Assumption and Coronation of Our Lady.
In the sacristy, the huge window is a “family portrait” beautifully presenting her in the center panel. Above is Jesus, while in panels to either side St. Joseph and St. Joachim stand to Mary’s right, while St. John and St. Anne stand on her left.
Another exceptionally elaborate window focuses our attention on Jesus appearing with Sts. Peter and Paul. Windows remembering Sts. Patrick, Columba and Brigid of Kildare reminded us of the area’s heritage.
For quiet time in the cathedral after Mass, the many helps for meditation include (from more recent years) the three panels depicting the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection on the free-standing altar in the sanctuary. And the apostles inspire our prayer and keep us in the Church’s cloud of witnesses, as they’re represented in individual statues lining the nave at its higher level. Only St. Andrew is missing, possibly because he’s represented by his relic, which we learned is among those in the altar.
One of the newer works that dates to the major 1950 renovation is the mosaic of the Holy Family in Joseph’s carpenter shop. It’s in the shrine to one side of the sanctuary, while on the opposite side, there is the Virgin’s Chapel. It was added 15 years after the cathedral was built.
It was restored in 1950 and is yet another quiet place for prayer before the fine triptych from Italy near the altar, the white Stations of the Cross, or the statue of St. Anne with her young daughter.
In this beautiful cathedral we found so many quiet spots for prayer and contemplation, including by more statues, many dating to 1901, and a large Pietà.
Everywhere, we saw our Blessed Mother being honored, not only in her title of the Immaculate Conception, but in several other titles, including Our Lady of the Rosary and Our Lady of Lourdes — pointing us, as she always does, to her son: Jesus.
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
91 Waterloo St.
St. John, New Brunswick