Every year, more than 5 million tourists head for Cape Cod, most traveling via the single major interstate that first passes through New Bedford, Mass.
From the highway, no one can miss the towering steeple of St. Anthony of Padua Church that stretches high above everything else in the sky. At 256 feet, it ranks on one list as the 10th-tallest Catholic church steeple in the country. Below this steeple is one of the most magnificent parish church interiors in the country.
The parish honors St. Anthony of Padua in an exceptional way, whether on the popular saint’s feast day of June 13 or devotionally at other times, and later this year the church celebrates the 100th anniversary of this magnificent edifice.
Above the main entry, the tympanum proclaims in Latin how it all began: “The working people of St. Anthony have built this temple to the Lord.”
French Canadians filled this city neighborhood more than 100 years ago, and some of their descendants are still parishioners here. They purposely built St. Anthony’s in cathedral proportions to give glory to God, with the hope that Pope St. Pius X would name New Bedford the new state diocese. (He chose Fall River instead.) Joseph Venne, president of the Quebec province architects, designed the church using red sandstone quarried in Springfield, Mass.
But the real story of this church’s epic proportions and ornateness is inside. When my wife, Mary, and I first entered the 241-foot-long nave, we were momentarily speechless.
The view is celestial. The Romanesque arches, each intricately carved with multiple designs and embedded with some of the church’s 5,500 light bulbs, flow gracefully down either side and up to the vast sanctuary — the church sits 1,970 faithful. Right above each splendid Byzantine capital with Corinthian and Ionic designs that supports each arch, an angel stands with outspread wings. They form an honor guard down the main aisle. These angels are among 500-plus heavenly messengers found in various sizes in the statuary, frescoes, murals and stained glass.
Then there’s the “Vision of St. Anthony” — an elaborate, 30-feet high scene in the sanctuary above the tabernacle. The angels hover and praise God with harps and stringed instruments as they watch Jesus come off the cross and appear as a child to a kneeling St. Anthony ready to receive him in his arms. This scene recalls the miraculous vision to St. Anthony at Camposanpiero, near Padua.
Father Roger Landry, the pastor, says this artwork should remind churchgoers to embrace Christ in full Communion and how, just as Jesus became a little baby to embrace Anthony, so Jesus becomes even smaller for us in the Eucharist.
Father Landry talked with us about the artists who contributed to the church: “Here we have two great artists who used their talents to give us a glimpse of the beauty and splendor of our faith.”
Sculptor Giovanni Castagnoli created “Vision,” the angels and the Stations of the Cross, as well as the woodwork and decorative elements. He sculpted for many churches, but St. Anthony’s is considered his masterpiece. The epic-sized stations within the triple Byzantine-Romanesque arches are bas-relief scenes with many figures. Each scene is flanked by angels holding some element particular to the station, such as Veronica’s veil. Castagnoli also sculpted the soaring image of the Holy Spirit surrounded by the Four Evangelists. In the transept crossing, the Holy Spirit appears to be actually flying down directly to the altar.
The second artist is Guido Nincheri, who has been called “the Michelangelo of Canada.” Pope Pius XI honored him as one of the Church’s great religious artists. For the church’s 1952-1956 renovations, Nincheri made murals, all 117 stained-glass windows, some sculptures, and, most notably, the new pulpit. He sculpted it from a single 10-ton block of white Cararra marble, encircling it with six doctors of the Church, including Sts. Anthony, Augustine, Aquinas and Bernard. His stained glass is colorful, dramatic and detailed, right down to the expressions on individual faces in each vibrant scene from the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary. The mysteries lead to one huge transept window showcasing the splendor of the “Coronation of the Virgin Mary” by Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, all under the loving look of the Father. There are roses and side figures of some prominent promoters of the Rosary, such as Sts. Dominic and Pius V, who instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victory, later to be called Our Lady of the Rosary.
On the opposite side of the transept, the matching vivid stained-glass window presents “Christ the King,” which includes more Eucharistic imagery. More stained-glass windows line the clerestory, portraying the apostles and Old Testament prophets. They’re high enough to the 65-foot-high ceiling for a close-up look of Nincheri’s murals of Old Testament prefigurements of Christ in the Eucharist, as well as some scenes from St. Anthony’s life, like the time he preached to the fish (now a traditional Christian symbol) when people wouldn’t listen to him. Another artwork memorializes St. Anthony’s bread for the poor, a tradition this parish keeps by feeding hundreds of families one day every week.
The many Portuguese parishioners are devoted to their patron saint. “Everybody loves him and comes to request his help,” says Father Landry, not only “for finding lost objects, but for family members who have lost their way.” Father Landry calls the vault “our little Sistine Chapel.” It was one place in the entire church that was part of the 1990s’ restoration and cleaning project. Amazingly, the pastor at the time, Msgr. Edmond Levesque, cleaned and restored nearly the entire church practically singlehandedly. Patricia DeAndrade meticulously repaired, retouched and reconstructed figures and murals and rondels like those by the chancel altar of St. Joseph.
Another elaborate chancel altar is dedicated to the Sacred Heart, while other side front altars mirror the main sanctuary, honoring our Blessed Mother, with a fresco of the “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary” high above, and her mother, St. Anne, surely reminding the French Canadian parishioners of their roots at the shrine of the grandmother of God in Quebec.
With its magnificent 1912 Casavant Freres organ in the 40-foot-high choir loft recently restored, St. Anthony’s hosts concerts, with some of the country’s finest organists coming here to perform. Now only the exterior sandstone, discolored by gases from former nearby coal-burning factories, awaits a return to its original hue. With its glorious artistry and superabundant liturgical scenes and symbolism, St. Anthony’s is a beautiful church to pray and contemplate heavenly realities and its patron saint’s virtues.
Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.