Fifteen miles away from the heart of New York City stands a treasure: the glorious Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J.
Illustrious figures who have come to this magnificent church include John Paul II, who led evening prayer on Oct. 4, 1995, and designated it a basilica, and Blessed Mother Teresa, when 14 of her nuns professed here.
It’s the fifth-largest cathedral in America, a National Historic Site, and one of the Western Hemisphere’s French-Gothic architecture masterpieces.
Before the age of skyscrapers, the bell towers could be spotted from New York, because the cathedral is situated on the highest point in the city. The site was bought in 1871 by Newark’s first bishop, Bishop James Bayley, an Anglican convert and nephew of St. Elizabeth Ann (Bayley) Seton.
He encouraged the first architect (of three) to study cathedrals in England, France and Germany before deciding on a design. By 1899, the cornerstone was laid, flanked by stones from the Holy Land carved with the words “Jerusalem” and “Bethlehem.”
The cathedral was built in a mere 55 years, including the time when work on the interior was suspended from 1928 to 1950.
The cathedral got its unique, eye-catching exterior once the Gesu Tower and Mater Dolorosa Tower rose to their heights of 232 feet. The white Massachusetts granite gleams in the sunlight. Rather than being flush with the facade, these towers are on 45-degree diagonals. It’s a warm architectural touch to the awe-inspiring French-Gothic design, because the two towers’ angles suggest hands opening to welcome and gather worshippers toward the doors and into the nave.
We lingered before these massive bronze doors to study figures of the evangelists and Old Testament heroes. Above tower doors, Christ the King and Mary the Queen appear in the first of many representations. The doors and most interior decorations were designed by ecclesiastical artists par excellence Gonippo Raggi & Sons and modeled in Rome by Aurelio Mistruzzi, engraver under four popes.
Between the central doors, a tall image of Jesus beckons everyone to his Sacred Heart. And above, a granite medallion captures the apparition of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. They help us recall the First Friday promises Jesus made in this apparition and that June is the month dedicated to the Sacred Heart. (June 11 is the solemnity of the Sacred Heart this year.)
There are reminders inside too, with invocations from the Sacred Heart litany in the narthex. In the sanctuary, the figure of the Sacred Heart stands atop the 39-foot marble baldacchino over the main altar. Below him is Mary as the Immaculate Conception. Baldacchino pillars and details include marble statues of the apostles, evangelists and archangels.
Even from the first steps inside the 148-foot-long interior, the burnished bronze crucifix above the main altar and under the baldacchino’s blue Venetian mosaic ceiling commanded our attention. The life-size figure of Christ is carved from one solid block of Portuguese light rose marble that appears flesh-toned.
The main altar is hand-carved Italian Botticino marble, the first of 25 altars of the same marble, except for the Lady Chapel’s altar, which is pure white Carrara with light blue and gold mosaic inlays, colors long associated with the Blessed Mother.
In this chapel, in the apse behind the main altar where the Blessed Sacrament is reposed, one can stop for quieter prayer and recall Mary in her special devotions, which are illustrated in stained-glass windows: Our Lady of the Rosary (with St. Dominic), Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal (with St. Catherine Labouré) and Our Lady of Mount Carmel (with St. Simon Stock). Pius XII gave permission for the stained-glass copy of the Salus Populi Romani icon (the original is in St. Mary Major’s in Rome).
Faith lessons and the story of salvation in art and architecture encircle the church. Numerous chapels honor different saints. How many people have prayed in the Chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes at the same kneeler John Paul II knelt at in 1995?
Everywhere, hand-carved limestone medallions and stained-glass windows present saints, prophets, patriarchs, stories, lessons and symbols of the Old and New Testaments. The cathedral has 129 finely carved marble statues carefully grouped: There are limestone ones of pope-martyrs. There are also hand-carved wooden statues.
In the sanctuary screens alone — Appalachian white oak like all the woodwork — there are 25 hand-carved medallions of the virtues, 17 of symbols of Jesus and eight of the Church.
Visitors are wrapped in salvation history and faith from start to finish. This is especially evident in the 35-foot rose window that presents the Last Judgment. Christ is at the center, with many figures radiating around this window, the second-largest rose window in America. The saints beneath the window are associated with spreading devotion to Jesus’ Sacred Heart, like Margaret Mary, Claude de la Colombière and Alphonsus Liguori.
The magnificent rose windows in the transepts presenting the Incarnation and Redemption are also among the world’s finest.
Along the nave aisles, the stained-glass windows bring Gospel stories to colorful life, reminding us of the Sacred Heart’s mercy: There are scenes of Jesus talking with the sinful woman and the centurion. Clerestory windows depict images from the Old Testament and mysteries of the Rosary.
The basilica’s 200-plus stained-glass windows, considered among the finest in the world, were made by the legendary F.X. Zetter Studios of Munich after studying the windows at Chartres. They used antique pot glass and medieval methods in making them. Nearly 50,000 pieces of cut glass went into each rose window alone.
Everywhere, visitors are surrounded by the Church Triumphant. For its size, the majestic, medieval-looking cathedral basilica isn’t overwhelming. It’s a comforting place for prayer and refreshment in the Sacred Heart, in June and every other month.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart
89 Ridge St.
Newark, NJ 07104
Planning Your Visit
Visit the website for daily and weekend Mass schedules, concerts, car and train directions, and a virtual tour. For group tours, call the cathedral.