BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — After ceiling plaster fell onto empty pews below in early 2001, St. Augustine Cathedral in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., was temporarily closed for patchwork repairs. Then Bishop William Lori arrived and took things in another direction.

He thought it was time for a thorough renovation. At the same time, he was prompted by the 50th anniversary of the diocese in 2003.

While some church renovations around the country, such as the one planned for the Cathedral of Rochester, N.Y., have engendered protests for the perceived destruction of beautiful edifices, the Bridgeport renovators have been careful to preserve the church's historical beauty and integrity. They also plan to keep the tabernacle in a prominent place.

Bishop Lori, an auxiliary bishop of Washington, D.C., before coming to Bridgeport, set two main goals. “I wanted to be faithful to the original Gothic spirit of the cathedral while at the same time making sure the cathedral was well-suited to the requirements of the liturgy,” he began.

Second, he wanted to increase seating from 550 to about 750 “to accommodate more people so this cathedral could be the center of liturgical life, to bring people back from [all over] Fairfield County,” he explained. And he wished for a sanctuary with room for all priests concelebrating with him.

“We tried to get a sense of what the cathedral has looked like,” Bishop Lori said about initial planning. “It has a good architectural lineage and heritage. It's important we preserve it.”

Liturgy First

The cornerstone of the 135-year-old neo-Gothic edifice, the oldest church in the large one-county diocese, was laid on Aug. 28, 1864, the feast of St. Augustine. Parishioners worshipped for the first time in the church on St. Patrick's Day 1868.

Patrick Charles Keely of Brooklyn designed the church. Keely designed 26 cathedrals and more than 600 churches, some of which were subsequently turned into cathedrals. Such was the case with St. Augustine's when the Diocese of Bridgeport was erected Aug. 6, 1953.

Bishop Lori explained the guiding principle for the renovations. “It seems to me that the first task for all of us is to study and contemplate the authentic spirit of the liturgy,” he said, “to recognize what we are celebrating first and foremost are the mighty deeds of salvation accomplished by Christ in the Holy Spirit.”

For the $4.5 million project, church architect Henry Hardinge Menzies of New Rochelle, N.Y., faced two big challenges. One was “to give importance to the altar and the tabernacle,” Menzies said, and the other was “to design all these new elements to look as if they were already there in the cathedral.”

A number of original furnishings and traditional elements had been removed during renovations in 1978 for the diocese's 25th anniversary. Among what remained were splendid stained-glass windows and Keely's decorative work such as columns, capitals and rosettes, some bearing shamrocks as signs of the Trinity and part of the architect's signature.

Standing in the nearly gutted church, Bishop Lori noted the “intricate, nice work,” indicating renovations will “simply call the people's attention to it.” At the same time, new elements such as the altar, pulpit and baldacchino “will be very consonant with the style of the cathedral,” he said.

The aim is to keep the traditional lines of the neo-Gothic church but in a modern idiom, Menzies explained. For example, although inspired by the baldacchino at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, he designed a unique, arched one for St. Augustine's.

This four-ton baldacchino with bronze pillars and an open-top effect will highlight the new altar. A 500-pound statue of the Archangel Gabriel blowing a trumpet will stand on the pinnacle. Suspended directly above the altar will be a huge realistic wooden crucifix from Northern Italy with a 5-foot corpus.

“The altar, the table of Christ's sacrifice, still will be the focus of the sanctuary,” Bishop Lori emphasized.

‘Sacrament House’

On the day the Register visited the work in progress, the tabernacle had arrived from Madrid, Spain. “A ‘Sacrament house,’ as they say in German,” Bishop Lori noted. The gleaming gold tabernacle was designed by the architect to follow the cathedral's Gothic lines and with the idea of being placed at the center-rear of the sanctuary.

After looking at all the options, Bishop Lori made the pastoral decision to reserve the Blessed Sacrament at the back of the sanctuary, he said.

“The Mass is the most important thing in the church,” noted Menzies, whose articles on Church architecture have appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review. “But when there's no Mass, the most important is the tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament, our Lord, is.”

He said St. Augustine's was originally built as a church, not as a cathedral, with an added Blessed Sacrament chapel. With the tabernacle planned for the sanctuary, the architect placed it directly behind the altar.

“Anything on the axis is prominent, off it is secondary,” he said, explaining that when the tabernacle is off to the left or right, its location is architecturally secondary and causes the problem of balancing something of equal importance on the other side.

“But what other element could be of equal importance to the tabernacle?” he asked.

Italian marble and granite will be extensive throughout the church. In the sanctuary, light and deeper green marbles will form a diamond pattern beneath the marble altar with a marble and limestone base.

The new green marble octagonal baptismal font will be relocated at the entrance to the nave and double as a holy water font. The reason, Bishop Lori explained, is because “the baptismal font symbolizes baptism as the entryway into the life of Christ, into the life of the Trinity.”

The renewed cathedral will be rededicated Dec. 2, exactly 50 years to the day Bishop Lawrence Shehan, later a cardinal, was installed as Bridgeport's first bishop.

“The church should be the spiritual home for our people,” Bishop Lori said. “But it also is a proclamation in wood and stone and slate of what the Lord in his goodness has done for us.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from

Trumbull, Connecticut.