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BY Joseph Pronechen
Decades before the beautiful parish church of the Immaculate Conception was named the cathedral of the new Diocese of Camden in 1937, it was already being hailed as one of the finest small pieces of Gothic architecture in the United States.
That didn't surprise me after I tooled over the Ben Franklin Bridge and arrived at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in the city's busy downtown, a 15-minute hop from midtown Philadelphia. The description became especially clear once I found out that the architect for this church, dedicated at the first Mass on July 26, 1866, was Jeremiah O'Rourke – celebrated designer of the original Castle of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
What struck me dozens of times more, however, was that the architect later played a role in planning the magnificent Sacred Heart Cathedral, one of the largest in the United States, in Newark. I discovered another important link relating to these cities at the very start. In 1855, even before anyone thought of building this church, the first pastor for the brand-new parish of Camden was appointed by the very first bishop of Newark – James Roosevelt Bayley, a relative to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Despite the anti-Catholicism rampant in Camden at the time, one of the early pastors was able to buy the choice land the church stands on before any government official realized what had happened.
Sometimes we have to be reminded of simple, almost obvious details. One of them is how the church came to be named in honor of Mary as the Immaculate Conception. First, that Marian dogma was fresh from its official proclamation. Next, the parishioners, most all of whom came from Ireland, were devoted to the Blessed Mother. Even if we didn't learn that from talking to someone or reading a book on the cathedral, we surely could figure it out from the dedication inscriptions on some of the stained-glass windows and from some of the choices of saints – Kiernan, Malachy, Lawrence O'Toole – to honor along with Charles Borromeo, John Chrysostom and Mary Magdalene in clerestory windows.
And did I mention that an important Marian feast day is upon us this week? Aug. 22 is the day we celebrate the Blessed Mother's queenship.
As was the case with many parish churches back then, the parishioners volunteered to dig the foundations after they had already labored hard all day at their regular jobs. In all, it took two years to finish the basic structure for the dedication.
The cathedral's formal 19th-century Trenton brownstone exterior and its location on a busy downtown street corner really help it stand out in the surrounding neighborhood. The brownstone is a pleasing, lighter earth-toned shade of stone than what most of us normally expect when we hear the basic description of the material.
With its red doors framed in Gothic arches and its offset tall stone belltower (added in 1885), the cathedral stands out like a venerable patriarch from the plain concrete and steel of the office buildings in its urban neighborhood.
There's even more character inside the cathedral. The Gothic details and bright paintwork give the interior a delicate look. The Gothic arches, supported by simple columns with ringed capitals, gracefully punctuate the length of the nave, separating the main body from the side aisles. The arches' shades of white with single bright gold trimwork blends beautifully with the golden yellow walls.
‘With its red doors framed in Gothic arches and its offset tall stone belltower, the cathedral stands out like a venerable patriarch.’
The 12 crosses along the walls, along with the candles below them, comprise a sign telling us this is a consecrated church. Actually, as a parish church it was formally and appropriately consecrated in the month of Our Blessed Mother on May 27, 1893. Then, 45 years later – on another May 27, 1938 – Camden was named a diocese and the Immaculate Conception Church was officially dedicated as its cathedral.
Since the cathedral started out as a parish church, the excellent proportions of the Gothic design don't add up to an enormous size. The 60-foot width of the cathedral leaves visitors with good “closeups” of the stories in the stained-glass windows.
Those “in the know” think the quintet of tall, narrow lancet windows behind the altar were put in at the very start as the church was being built. Why? Because they're excellent quality domestic glass, not the imported stained-glass windows brought in later. The center window of these five honors Mary as the Immaculate Conception.
All the other brilliant stained-glass windows filling the nave were later imported from the Meyer Studio in Munich, Germany, during a golden era of stained-glass production there. I always find it a great joy to study the scenes, the colors, the minute detailing in these windows from the great studios of Germany. The delicate depiction of the halos, for example, and the ways the angels are portrayed become a few of the hallmarks for this museum-quality artistry in glass.
But even more of a joy – and something I never fail to wish I had more time to do on my visits – is to meditate on the parables or miracles or virtues they put before us. They're truly catechisms in art.
Along one side of the nave, the windows concentrate on Mary. On the other side, they focus on Jesus and his miracles. Some have both mother and son, like the beautifully depicted in the Wedding at Cana miracle that appeared to me like a master painting. Or like the stunning visit of the Magi that's highlighted by bright gold tones and enclosed by white Gothic window frames.
The Munich treatment of the angels is clear in a window capturing the scene of St. Dominic receiving the rosary from the Baby Jesus, who rests on Mary's lap.
Speaking of different windows, in the back there are two – St. Patrick, recalling the roots of the church's founding parishioners, and the landing of Columbus in America that's spectacular in the variety of colored glass in it. Both are a bit harder to spot because the choir loft has been extended over the years.
The organ in the loft, by the way, presents a pretty picture of golden pipes, like unusual jewelry within the white casing. I didn't hear it play, but it surely must sound magnificent because it's a 1926 Casavant Freres, recently rebuilt, and the cathedral is said to have nearly perfect acoustics.
The rose window above it has a small rose in the center, and the lovely blue glass contains a rosary. I was able to talk to a 50-year parishioner named Orville Beckord, who told me the time to see the window was at 4 p.m. on a sunny day.
The major renovation in 1957 brought in new flooring, statues, pews, woodwork and altar. In the mid-1980s, the 17th-century painting of “The Entombment of Christ” by Bolognese artist Guido Reni was donated to the diocese. It now appears over the sanctuary arch.
A decade before, in the mid'70s, the cathedral opened a soup kitchen to take care of Camden's poor. Whether it's the city's poor or the one-time visitor, the historic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception nourishes both bodies and souls.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.