Since its dedication in November 1852, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, N.Y. has been a landmark for the city and for the diocese.
Today, its renown spans the continent. This was the first cathedral in the United States dedicated to Mary under her title of the Immaculate Conception (feast: Dec. 8). In fact, Bishop John McCloskey, the first bishop of New York's capital city, chose the name, upon laying the building's cornerstone, in 1848 — six years before Pope Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
Upon its dedication in 1852, the cathedral at once became a beacon of faith and hope on Madison Avenue Hill, which rises above the Hudson River and the Erie Canal. The canal had drawn thousands of German, Irish and French-Canadian immigrants seeking work on the canal's construction or in the mills that sprung up alongside the waterway. These same immigrants volunteered their labor to raise this cathedral for the glory of God.
Those who couldn't do heavy physical work helped in other ways; one woman walked the perimeter nearly every day for four years, praying for the safety of the workers building the cathedral.
Through their labor of love, faith and sacrifice, this cathedral thrived, becoming the third oldest in the country built specifically as a cathedral and still used as one. It's also the first of 16 cathedrals designed by renowned church architect Patrick Charles Keely. He modeled it after the Cathedral of Cologne.
Keely started out on a grace-filled high note. The soaring arches that appear all over the neo-Gothic edifice lift the spirit; huge triple arches forming the main portals of the church are carved brownstone, now worn with a patina of 150 years. I marveled how they link us to church history. We can still walk through the same stone entrances used by Bishop McCloskey, who became the first cardinal from the United States, and by the tens of thousands of immigrants who refreshed their souls with the sacraments after helping build this place and the canal below.
Although there have been some interior changes since 1852, much the same grandeur that earlier generations knew survives unaltered. We surely share the same sense of awe they must have felt under the canopy of graceful Gothic ribbing in the high ceiling.
The “Lady Window,” from which the Blessed Mother presides in the center of seven glorious panels, fills the north-transept wall. When it was installed in 1852, along with the unusual arched rose window above the choir, it was the largest stained-glass window in America. Few are larger even today.
Surrounding Mary here are Jesus, St. Joseph holding the Child Jesus, and 14 scenes from Mary's life. Smaller panels below depict wise virgin saints, while a congregation of liturgical-symbol stained glass continues to form an arch above the main panels.
The Lady Window was designed and completed, in 13th-century style, in the studio of William Wailes of New-Castle-on-Tyne, England. It was lovingly restored in the 1990s. A century earlier, in 1892, it was moved to its present location from behind the altar when the cathedral was enlarged.
In the opposite transept, the Last Judgment Window, donated by Most Rev. Thomas M.A. Burke, Albany's fourth bishop, and placed in 1897, matches the Lady Window in size. The Hardman Stained Glass Studio in Birmingham, England, designed and completed it together with all the huge windows along the nave and the clerestory.
Two adjacent windows in the clerestory high above the side altars win our attention because of scenes they place side by side. One depicts a seder, the other the Last Supper. I thought these 1902 windows were prophetic once I learned that, in 1986, the cathedral was the site of the first service of forgiveness held in the world between Christians and Jews. The event is commemorated in a modern sculpture called “Portal,” located outside the cathedral.
The color shadings in the English stained-glass windows range from delicate tones to brilliant crimsons, cobalts and golds that contrast all the more with the overall monochromatic scheme of the nave, sanctuary and side altars.
Most everything else is in tones of brown to harmonize with, or imitate, the brownstone exterior. All statuary except for later 20th-century additions like Martin de Porres — from the Sacred Heart altar, to the Blessed Virgin altar, to angels, and some Doctors of the Church — appear, under carved canopies, as brownstone carvings.
They're part of another of the cathedral's surprising marvels: intricate plasterwork painted or tinted to look like different shades of brown-stone. This “simulated brownstone” is considered to be among the finest plasterwork in the country, as it decorates massive columns with elaborate capitals along the nave and the lofty Gothic arches outlined with intricate designs. Even the ceiling between delicate Gothic ribbings appears to be random checkerboard stonework.
The stunning, reverential Stations of the Cross were installed in 1900, having won first prize at the Paris Exhibition of 1897. During Advent, don't miss the Nativity set from Europe that the Rosary Society donated in 1873.
Other treasures help us feel that unbroken connection with generations of worshipers too. These include the 21-foot-high pulpit carved by Stolzenburg in Holland, the oak choir stalls in the sanctuary, that were carved in Belgium and first used in 1894 when the Apostolic Delegate visited, the 1852 Erben organ (electrified in 1947 and soon to be restored), and the bells cast in nearby West Troy and rung for the first time on the eve of the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1862.
The bronze statue of St. Peter sitting in an alabaster chair was a gift from Pope Pius IX to Bishop Francis McNeirney in the 1870s. Peter's right foot has been worn smooth from the touch of decades of worshippers. After Vatican II, the present altar was created from the 1892 high altar; on its brass antependium, reliefs of Jesus the Good Shepherd flanked by Mary and Joseph face the congregation.
The 1801 clock in the cathedral's north tower came from Clerkwell, England, via the First Dutch Church in Albany; where it was housed until the church's steeples were removed. But it will stay in place as the cathedral now undergoes its own major exterior restoration.
Most of the brownstone facing is being replaced with St. Bee's sandstone from Cumbria, England, and the roof will again be metal, as was the original. Visitors can play “medieval sidewalk engineer,” as they watch the master stone mason from Germany direct his charges and apprentices in the stone shop erected behind the cathedral for this enormous project of several years.
New finery may replace the time-worn brownstone, but the sense of the reverence, faith and hope of its immigrant builders and worshippers timelessly honors this first cathedral dedicated to Mary as the Immaculate Conception.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.------- EXCERPT: Albany's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception