Philadelphia is quite a city, with several shrines, two American saints and two Catholic cathedrals.
The one Roman Catholics often miss — but shouldn’t — is the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Many pilgrims might be unaware of this remarkable cathedral, with its resplendent Byzantine mosaics and icons*. But St. John Paul II was: He made a papal visit to this magnificent cathedral on Oct. 4, 1979.
Hopes are that Pope Francis will be the second Holy Father to visit when he arrives in Philadelphia in September for the World Meeting of Families. Metropolitan Archbishop Stefan Soroka has written to Francis, inviting him to visit.
The cathedral is the seat of the Metropolitan Archeparchy of Philadelphia and humbly commands a quiet side street four blocks from the National Shrine of St. John Neumann. Even though it’s near the heart of the city, park-like grounds with trees and shrubbery surround it.
From nearby, visitors can discover the cathedral’s whereabouts by honing in on its gigantic gold dome, which dazzles like a homing beacon in the sunlight.
“Dazzles” isn’t just a figurative description — it means “sunglasses needed.” Venetian tile of 22-carat gold fused to glass covers this enormous 100-feet diameter dome.
The dome caps an edifice that was built in 1966 to replace the original cathedral, established in 1907 by Bishop Sotor Stephen Ortynsky. The new design harmonizes Byzantine and contemporary lines. The repeating geometric forms enhance the striking look to the limestone and architectural concrete façade, and they’re also symbolic. The trio of archways over the doors of the main entrance, for example, remind visitors of the Trinity. Three very tall arching windows above each door multiply this symbolism.
All of the curved geometric lines bring a soothing, reassuring character to the edifice. In the mosaic over the central door, our Lord Jesus Christ appears in red and blue robes, extending his hands with open palms in a warm gesture to welcome and receive the faithful into his magnificent temple.
Inside, the cathedral is a symphony composed of natural light, glorious and glistening mosaics and iconography, and stained glass. Dazzling gold scrollwork and overlays add even more harmony. When standing in the vast octagonal nave, it’s as if one is in a throne room for the King of Kings and his mother, the Immaculate Conception.
Everywhere, the architecture’s graceful curving lines and arches gently direct attention to the magnificent icons and the all-important spiritual stories they convey.
For instance, the arching ceiling lines in the sanctuary become a framework for the luminescent iconostasis (“icon screen”) that spans the length of the sanctuary. These arching lines also frame the glowing icon of the Immaculate Conception that fills the apse.
High overhead, robed in symbolic red and blue, an icon of Mary opens wide her arms in a gesture of prayer; at the same time, she shows us her Child Jesus, whom she bears for us to see and adore. Behind Mary, celestial sunrays radiate to form a cross. This remarkable icon vividly projects Mary in her major primary Eastern title of Theotokos (literally “the God-Bearer” or “Birth-Giver of God”). Here, she is like a mystical tabernacle.
Icons play a major reverential role in the Eastern-rite Churches. The iconostasis that separates the sanctuary from the nave holds more than 40 icons within a dazzling gold façade. The abundant delicate scroll and filigree work that frame these icons and the central royal doors mirror the entry into heaven itself.
At the top of the royal doors — the ones in the center used by the priest to reach the altar behind the iconostasis — the icon of the Annunciation reminds visitors that Gabriel brought the news to Mary that she was to be the God-Bearer. Below the scene, round icons picture the Four Evangelists.
The elaborately wrought golden arch spanning high over the royal doors has an ornamental design more delicate than the finest jewelry. It frames several icons.
Directly above the royal doors is the Last Supper and Christ the King in red and blue. Above them and at the pinnacle of the arch is a crucifix, with Mary on one side and John on the other. They’re all directly in line with the icon of our Blessed Mother that fills the apse high above.
All of the liturgical artistry in this magnificent iconography is breathtaking and awe-inspiring. This symbolic art becomes a “mini catechism” of sorts. On the iconostasis, for example — in traditional fashion for Eastern-rite churches, plus Orthodox churches — Jesus and Mary appear on either side of the royal doors. In this cathedral, they’re much bigger than life.
Jesus is also always to the right side, with Mary to the left. Jesus as teacher holds the Alpha and Omega. Mary as Mother of God holds the Infant Jesus.
Colors tell a story here as well. Red garments symbolize heaven; blue stands for earth. Jesus and Mary wear both colors — reversed.
Jesus’ red means he started in royal divinity in heaven and took on an earthly (blue cloak) nature. Mary in blue means she began on earth and then was assumed into heaven (red mantle).
To Jesus’ side, a smaller icon of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, appears on the deacon door, with a larger-than-life-size John the Baptist at the end of the icon screen.
On the deacon door on the Blessed Mother’s side, St. Michael the Archangel stands holding an orb. In keeping with Eastern tradition, St. Nicholas follows next, again more than life size.
Throughout, groupings of 12 speak significantly. There are circular Byzantine icons depicting a dozen major Marian and Christological feasts that appear on the archway, whose “keystone” icon is the one of Christ the King.
To either side, in another arch above, 12 icons present the Twelve Apostles and 12 Old Testament figures and prophets.
This holy icon screen, an incandescent masterpiece, was designed and painted by Chrystyna Dochwat, obviously inspired by the Holy Spirit to capture such heavenly majesty in art. Every icon but the Last Supper is within an arched or circular framework. Even the geometric lines enhance the spiritual experience.
Also on permanent display is a Vatican-authorized, full-size replica of the Shroud of Turin that Archbishop Soroka obtained. Only the ninth such Vatican-sanctioned replica, it was blessed by Pope Benedict XVI and touched to the original shroud.
All of the sights in the great nave, which seats 1,800, are bathed in bright natural light — streaming from windows in the 106-foot dome, where the heavenly, traditional icon of the Pantokrator, Christ the Almighty Ruler, here in brilliant mosaic, looks over the congregation in majesty.
Surely this radiant icon — together with so many others — reminds the faithful within that Jesus is the source of all light.
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.
Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral
Of the Immaculate Conception
830 N. Franklin
Philadelphia, PA 19123
New visiting hours: The cathedral is now open Wednesdays, 11:30am to 3pm, and Saturdays, 2-4:30pm.
Liturgies: Saturday, 4:30pm in English; Sunday, 9am in Ukrainian and 11am in English. Check the website for special hours for the week of the World Meeting of Families.
*An icon is generally a flat-panel painting depicting Jesus Christ, Mary, saints and/or angels, which is venerated among Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and in certain Eastern-Catholic Churches.