Minnesota’s capital city of St. Paul was once a frontier settlement known as Pig’s Eye, until Father Lucien Galtier of the Diocese of Dubuque came to minister to the French Canadians in the 1840s. He built a log chapel for the local Catholic community and put it and the settlement under the patronage of St. Paul, whose feast day is June 29, hoping the name would stick.

It did, and with the establishment of the Diocese of St. Paul in 1851, the little chapel became the Cathedral of Saint Paul. It was the first of four cathedrals that were built, each larger than the last. The current cathedral, built in 1907, dominates the St. Paul skyline and is the city’s most prominent architectural landmark and a historic gem.

Situated above the city’s rolling bluffs, this majestic structure of stone and glass built in the Beaux Arts style is considered one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the country. It is a proud fixture among the grand mansions of what is now called Summit Hill. The grand church can be viewed from the windows of most downtown buildings, including six hospitals. Its sheer size and scope is an evangelical force in the public square, overshadowing the nearby state Capitol building, and is seen as a beacon of faith by both civic and ecumenical leaders.

Patron for the People’s Church

In March 2009, the cathedral received special recognition as the National Shrine of the Apostle Paul by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims every year and is a sure stop for tour buses as well as private visitors who are drawn to pray within its peaceful boundaries. The Archconfraternity of the Apostle Paul was established to serve as the spiritual apostolate of the National Shrine of the Apostle Paul, in part to foster greater devotion among its members to its patron saint.

“The Church has proposed the figure of St. Paul as one of the great examples to us in the New Evangelization, and yet there is precious little devotion to the person of St. Paul,” said Father Joseph Johnson, rector of the cathedral. “By proclaiming this the national shrine, (the Church) wants us to focus on this wonderful example of a disciple who has something to say to us and can be with us on our spiritual journey.”

People who come for the art, architecture and history are not to be disappointed. In fact, if the cathedral were to hold a going-out-of-business sale, said Father Johnson, the Metropolitan Museum of Art would be in line to buy any one of the statues, artworks or stained-glass windows, all produced by noted artists from around the world. One of the newest treasures is a replica of Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” a life-size sculpture that depicts the Virgin Mary holding the body of her son Jesus Christ after his death. The marble casting of the original sculpture in St. Peter’s in Rome was intended as a limited engagement exhibit during a nationwide tour that commenced at the cathedral in February, but an anonymous donor purchased the sculpture for the cathedral.

The Cathedral of Saint Paul is a story of collaboration between Archbishop John Ireland, who served Minnesota’s Catholics for 33 years until his death in 1918, French-born architect Emmanuel Louis Masqueray, and the simple immigrant people of the day who gave generously from their meager means. Archbishop Ireland wanted it that way, stating, “There should be no one who, entering the cathedral, is not able to say — it is mine.” It cost $1 million to build the cathedral. Rising 306.5 feet in the air and measuring 307 x 216 feet with a seating capacity of 3,000, more than 7,500 people celebrated the first Masses on Palm Sunday in 1915 with Archbishop Ireland. A beautiful painting depicting that great day hangs in the cathedral.

Faith Detailed Everywhere

During a tour of the cathedral with Father Johnson, our group was struck by how thoroughly the faith is presented in architectural details, stone carvings, stained glass and canvas art. Three front entrances rest under a monumental arch, which also frames a large rose window. The “Sculpture of the Facade” above the arched entry depicts a 65-foot-wide rendition of Christ and the Twelve Apostles, under which is carved in Latin the great commission: “Go therefore and teach ye all nations.” Twelve-foot-high figures of Sts. Peter and Paul flank the inscription. Two carved allegorical figures below the rose window represent faith and science.

The baldacchino and altar are the central focus of the interior, commissioned by Charlotte Hill, daughter of the railway executive James J. Hill, who co-founded the Saint Paul Seminary with Archbishop Ireland.

Everywhere you look there is a tribute to a saint, a martyr, a virtue, a Gospel story, a gift of the Holy Spirit, a historic scene or a prominent figure. One can spend hours inside, not only marveling at the beautifully marbled walls and pillars, bigger than life-size statues and colorful stained glass, but also gazing upon the 175-foot-high dome that draws your mind and heart toward heaven. Despite the grand interior, there are many opportunities for private prayer in the side chapels dedicated to Sts. Joseph and Peter, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart.

Magnificent bronze grilles surrounding the altar present the story of St. Paul’s conversion, life and martyrdom. The Shrines of the Nations behind the grilles honor the “apostles and spiritual fathers” of the immigrant races that formed Minnesota’s Catholic community: St. Patrick for the Irish, St. John the Baptist for the French Canadians, St. Anthony of Padua for the Italians, St. Boniface for the Germans, Sts. Cyril and Methodius for the Slavs, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, patron of all missions.

It is touching to view the “Memorial Volume” that compiles the names of all the people who gave large or small amounts to fund the building. The “Founder’s Room” also displays items belonging to Archbishop Ireland, Father Galtier and others. A small museum in the lower level holds even more historical artifacts and interesting photos, including one of Archbishop Ireland’s funeral Mass, which was attended by more than 4,000 people, on Oct. 2, 1918. Surely, St. Paul was there to greet him in death.

Barb Ernster writes

from Fridley, Minnesota.

Cathedral of Saint Paul
239 Selby Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55102

(651) 228-1766


Planning Your Visit

Daily tours are held Monday-Friday at 1pm. Private tours can be arranged by calling (651) 228-1766. For more information on Mass times and special events, visit the website.