Although the Church has always believed Mary was assumed into heaven body and soul, the dogma of her assumption wasn’t officially proclaimed until 1950 by Pope Pius XII. Ever since, the Church celebrates the Assumption as a holy day of obligation on Aug. 15.
In his 2004 Assumption homily, Blessed John Paul II quoted from Lumen Gentium, saying, “Her assumption thus becomes for us ‘a sign of sure hope and consolation.’”
Decades before the official dogma, the mother church of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., was already proclaiming this belief with its very name — the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption.
The cathedral has a unique connection to an earlier Pope and saint too, when it became the cathedral for the new Diocese of Fall River in 1904 — the first diocese erected by Pope St. Pius X.
St. Mary of the Assumption was founded in mission territory in 1838. Back then, the first chapel was named after St. John the Baptist. But when Father Edward Murphy, the parish’s second pastor, arrived in 1840 — and as Fall River expanded into a thriving textile center peopled by Irish immigrants — he replaced the chapel with a grand church and renamed it in honor of the Blessed Mother.
Father Murphy, a native of Ireland, hired church architect Patrick Charles Keely of Brooklyn to design the cathedral. Keely designed this elegant 11th-century English Gothic-style church, with its single offset steeple.
The cornerstone was laid Sept. 8, 1852, the day the Church celebrates the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the church was dedicated in December 1856. As was often his custom, Keely designed the exterior using local materials. For this magnificent ecclesial landmark, it was Fall River’s own lovely light-gray granite.
Like many churches then, much was built by scores of working-class parishioners, laboring with love after their own regular jobs. The interior remained unadorned until another pastor arrived, but that didn’t happen quickly — Father Murphy was pastor until 1887.
A few blocks off the major highway that transverses Fall River, its 190-foot single bell tower is quite visible. Located on a quiet block in the heart of the city, the grand granite edifice welcomes visitors to contemplate its grandeur and God.
St. Mary’s was consecrated in 1901, before being named a cathedral. By then, Father Christopher Hughes was adorning the interior.
The first of St. Mary’s five major renovations came in 1891, with the installation of stained-glass windows from the legendary Munich glassworks. Next arrived reverential Stations of the Cross — white monochrome scenes sculpted in high relief and placed within ornate Gothic wood frames.
The pastor added the superb carved-wood screens in the sanctuary and the substantial hammer-beam wooden ceiling, later restored and decorated with gold leaf.
Even after several renovations over the decades, these beautiful works are part of the sure foundations that keep the cathedral anchored in its history, spanning into a third century. The last renovations were in 2001, except for recent repainting.
The sanctuary was expanded by the next rector, Msgr. James Cassidy, who became bishop in 1934.
He added carved statues of apostles, saints and angels and the narthex’s beautiful screen to house the Sacred Heart Shrine and baptistery. He commissioned premier woodcarver and Oberammergau-native Johannes Kirchmayer, then of Boston, to carve the life-sized “Crucified Savior” on a front pillar facing the congregation.
The 1950s renovations added the meticulous multicolored stenciled designs decorating the arches, and clerestory walls gained symbols of Mary.
After Vatican II, the high altar was removed. But the magnificent marble carving of the Last Supper on the 1900 marble altar now graces the front of the new altar, connecting the history of worship here, as do the early-20th century carved statues of the Twelve Apostles, which line the dark oak reredos around the apse. And the 1979 pulpit was formed from the original carved wood baldacchino, with added herald angels blaring trumpets.
The left sanctuary shrine now reserves the tabernacle, framed by a gracefully carved wood canopy with four statues, each ornately carved. They represent faith, hope, love and humility.
The cathedral’s glorious stained-glass windows blend together even though they were installed in three different periods.
The nave’s 1891 Munich windows, radiating vibrant colors, are a bit out of the ordinary. Rather than biblical scenes, they form a procession of saints, two by two, around the church. Above the saints, round shamrock-like windows remind one of the Trinity, and their groupings of three also reflect the Holy Trinity.
The current rector of the cathedral, Father Paul Bernier, pointed out that the splendid lineup of saints presents an equal number of males and females.
These saints give the faithful plenty to ponder. Francis, holding a crucifix, his stigmata visible, stands next to St. Clare, who holds a monstrance. Veronica displays her veil with the Holy Face of Jesus.
The gathering also features unusual pairings, such as Michael and Mary Magdalene holding a jar of nard; Aloysius and Anthony of Padua holding the Child Jesus; Rose of Lima and Christopher; Elizabeth and Ursula; Vincent de Paul with Margaret of Cortona; and King David, wearing a crown and cradling his harp, next to Teresa of Avila, with arrow, quill and book (at left).
Agatha and Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, robed in green and light purple, with a tray of bread and roses in her garment, are also on display.
The sanctuary’s windows also display much to ponder. Installed in 1915, they look years older, with their English pre-Raphaelite style. They showcase the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary.
A mural in red, blue and ornate gold above them is a reminder of Mary’s assumption, while, in the choir loft, the original Keely rose window has a central “AM” — for Ave Maria. Under it, the Assumption is pictured in three lancet windows from 1952.
Daily Masses are held in the Lady Chapel, which dates to 1869. It’s reminiscent of an English village’s small gothic chapel, thanks to the dark oak wainscoting and the carved rood screen depicting the Crucifixion. Stained-glass windows honoring Our Lady in the Nativity and some other Marian titles look like they date to centuries ago. The Fatima window was installed in 1952.
Outside the chapel, the statue of Our Lady, cast in France in 1900, is yet another way this beautiful cathedral has long — for more than 150 years — honored Mary and her assumption.
Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.
The Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption CathedralFallRiver.com