Newark is home to a basilica that holds its own with the world's most magnificent churches

Illustrious figures, from Pope John Paul II to Mother Teresa to Duke Ellington, have graced the Cathedral-Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, New Jersey. At a Mass celebrated in October 1995, the Pope designated the church a basilica of the Sacred Heart. Another time, Mother Teresa received the profession of 14 Missionaries of Charity there. As for Duke Ellington, he came years earlier, to perform the jazz vespers which he had composed.

Though it lies just 25 miles from Manhattan, the Cathedral-Basilica of the Sacred Heart is a little known treasur, often overlooked, even in its home state of New Jersey. Built this century as a late example of the Neo-Gothic style, the magnificent edifice ranks with the greatest medieval churches including the monumental cathedrals at Chartres and Rheims. The cathedral, fifth largest in the United States, has been declared a national historic site.

Until taller buildings intervened, the twin towers of the cathedral were visible across the river from New York, providentially situated at the highest point in the city of Newark. The land was bought in 1871 by the first prelate of the new diocese, Bishop James Bayley. A convert and the nephew of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Bishop Bayley put his vision into motion, encouraging the eventual first architect, Jeremiah O‘Rourke, to travel abroad and study the cathedrals of England, France, and Germany. Yet when Bishop Bayley was elevated to Baltimore, the project was put on hold.

Twenty years later, in 1899, the cornerstone, flanked by blocks from the Holy Land carved with “Jerusalem” and “Bethlehem,” was laid, as 10,000 Catholics from every parish in the diocese passed by in procession and 50,000 more stood on the hill and in the adjoining Branch Brook Park.

The cathedral is in one respect unlike medieval structures of old. It was built in a mere 55 years, including a period from 1928 to 1950 when work was suspended on the interior. But even during that time, nine major events were held in the unfinished structure.

Once the Gesu and Mater Dolorosa towers rose to their full height—232 feet of white Massachusetts granite, which still gleams in the sunlight—the cathedral assumed its unique appearance. Rather than being flush with the facade as is usual, the towers are rotated 45 degrees, on a diagonal with the facade. The idea first appeared at the Abbey Church in Rouen—yet Newark's towers are unique today; during 19th century restorations, the incomplete towers of Rouen were rebuilt flush.

The 45-degree set of the towers reaches outward, like hands opening to welcome and gather people toward the doors and into the interior. This architectural touch adds extra warmth to the French Gothic design. Only one detail reaches higher than these towers, to 260 feet: the copper fleche, a spire that rises where the nave and transcept cross.

It's difficult not to linger before the massive bronze doors, with their figures of evangelists and Old Testament heroes. Sitting above them, at the main entrance, are Christ the King and Mary as Queen. These doors were designed by Professor Gonippo Raggi & Sons, who did most of the interior decoration, and modeled in Rome by Aurelio Mistruzzi, prolific sculptor, medalist, and engraver under four popes.

Further above, a granite medallion depicts the apparition of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary. Inside, the Sacred Heart also appears atop the 39-foot marble baldachino over the main altar. Closer up, this canopy's figures of Mary and the Apostles, with its other marble statues, angels, and intricate detailing, become apparent.

But even from the first steps inside the 365-foot-long cathedral—approximately the size of Westminster Abbey—the burnished bronze crucifix, hanging above the main altar from the blue Venetian mosaic ceiling of the baldachino, commands a visitor's attention. The life-size figure of Christ is carved from one solid block of Portuguese marble of an almost flesh-tone color. The main altar itself is handcarved of Italian Botticino marble, the material used for all but one of the cathedral-basilica's 25 altars.

That one, the Lady Chapel altar, is carved of pure white Carrara with light blue and gold mosiac inlays, colors symbolic of the Blessed Mother. This stunning masterpiece, dedicated to Our Lady of Grace, is the reverential place of reposition for the Blessed Sacrament.

Located in the apse behind the main altar, the Lady Chapel beautifully exemplifies the symbolism permeating the cathedral-basilica's art and architecture, and boasts a number of the exquisite stained glass windows that encircle the church. The art and symbolism joins seamlessly as one garment, one story of Christ and the Church. For instance, just outside the Lady Chapel, and facing into it, is the St. Luke altar, which depicts 17 saints associated with healing. Along the ambulatory, chapels radiate to honor saints associated with the ethnic heritage of New Jersey's people—Italian, Irish, English, German, Polish-Slovak, mixed nationalities and races. Finally, the cathedral's 129 fine-carved marble statues are carefully grouped, as are the limestone statues in the narthex depicting martyr-popes, and the hand-carved wooden statues of confessor-saints.

Everywhere, hand-carved limestone medallions and extensive wood screening, marble statues, and stained glass present the figures, stories, and lessons and symbols of Old and New Testaments. In the sanctuary screens alone—like all the woodwork, carved in Appalachian white oak—there are 25 hand-cut medallions of the virtues, 17 of symbols of Jesus, and eight of symbols of the Church.

The massive Indiana limestone narthex screen is a study in delicate intricacy, designed by Paul Reilly, the third and last of the church's architects, who completed the work in the 1950s. Above this screen, a 35-foot rose window, the second largest in America, depicts the Last Judgment.

Nearly as large are the east transcept rose window symbolizing the Incarnation, and the west trancept window symbolizing the Redemption. These examples also mark the first time in the United States the glass was put in terra cotta tracery.

The cathedral boasts more than 200 of the finest stained glass windows in the world from F.X. Zettler Studios of Munich, based on firsthand study of the windows at Chartres and crafted of antique pot glass made according to medieval methods. Zettler later estimated that nearly 50,000 pieces of cut glass were used in each rose window alone.

The Gustavino tile used for the vault ceilings guarantees superior acoustics. Regular musical programs, series, and recitals have attracted exceptonal musicians and organists from around the world. The 14 bronze bells in the towers, cast in Padua, play a full range of notes.

For all its size, the majestic cathedral-basilica is neither cavernous nor overwhelming, but rather inviting and lightsome in its aspect. It's a comfortable place to pray quietly, as the medieval and the modern day melt together into a single meditative experience.

To drive to the cathedral, use New Jersey Turnpike to I-280W, to Exit 14 Clifton Avenue, turn right at the light, drive two blocks to the cathedral. From the Garden State Parkway, take I-280E, to Exit 13, left to 2nd light (Park Ave.), and right to the cathedral. Tours are given the first Sunday of the month after noon Mass, or by group. For details, phone 973-484-4600.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.