In the retail world, “location is everything.”

How many Texas businesses have envied the locale enjoyed by Austin's magnificent St. Mary's Cathedral?

Situated in the heart of downtown, it's visible from the state's capitol building, a continuing reminder to legislators of the spiritual dimensions of citizenship and good government. Within walking distance is Town Lake, the southernmost in a series of seven man-made lakes along the Colorado River — a veritable oasis in a capital which has attracted worldwide attention since former Gov. George W. Bush was elected president.

Austin is a vibrant city of over 1 million, boasting such popular tourist attractions as the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and the George Washington Carver Museum, the nation's first museum of black American history. Novelist James Michener also left his mark here, donating his art collection to the University of Texas' Blanton Museum of Art.

The sophistication of Austin often surprises outsiders who expect cowboy boots and hats to be de rigueur here.

It's not widely known that the city has the most highly educated people per capita among the U.S.'s 50 largest cities, and its bookstore sales are also the highest per capita. That's why visitors aren't prepared for the beauty of St. Mary's Cathedral, an architectural gem whose famous Gothic arched doorway and Rose Window beckon all to enter and pray.

The principal church of Central Texas, St. Mary's story began in 1874, under the pontificate of Pius IX, two years after the Holy Cross order came from Notre Dame in Indiana to staff the college and the cathedral. There was broad support in the capital, as evidenced in a donation by Company D, Tenth United States Infantry. It was an exciting time for the city, too, as gas street lights were introduced that year. The Daily Statesman described the proposed architecture as “Geometric Gothic,” a variation on early “December Gothic” used in the 13th century.

Ten years after construction began, in the spring of 1884, the bishop of Galveston dedicated St. Mary's while on the same day confirming 56 children.

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Today visitors marvel at the main vault in the center of the ceiling, which forms a canopy of sky blue. The sanctuary windows depict the four Evangelists in their traditional symbols — angel, lion, ox and eagle. Surrounding the altar are five spectacular stained-glass windows. In the center is the Immaculate Conception; to its sides are Sts. Joseph, Peter, Paul and John. There are various other striking decorations in the cathedral, but the most magnificent is the rose window, rich in ornate liturgical design, over the front entrance.

Before Vatican II and for a time afterwards, the cathedral was home to many organizations — rosary altar societies, two Sodalities, League of the Sacred Heart, St. Aloysius Society for Boys, and a Perpetual Novena to the Sorrowful Mother every Friday. In 1947, when Austin became the seat of the seventh diocese of Texas, Father Louis Reicher became the first bishop and St. Mary's was designated as the cathedral.

Today the cathedral is a vibrant source of faith-filled energy for the entire region.

Not only has it retained its beauty, but also it has adapted itself over the years to the changing face of the faith. In my travels, I visit many cathedrals and, sad to say, many of them dispense the sacraments and tend to the needs of visitors, and perhaps a fragment of steady inner-city parishioners, but one feels no distinctive parish culture within the walls of an impressive structure.

This is not the case with St. Mary's. The first thing I noticed was a large pro-life sign on the front lawn of the parish office located beside the cathedral — Our Lady with the Child Jesus and the words, “Pregnant and Need Help? ” along with a phone number. It's part of the Gabriel Project launched in 1992 (and reinforced by the parish Respect Life Committee) and now found in most parishes in the diocese.

Their new bishop, Gregory Aymond, succeeded Bishop John McCarthy in 1999 and previously was bishop of New Orleans. Flood describes the parish as “profoundly committed to social outreach.” A new post, that of parish administrator, was established in November of 2000, and its first occupant is Father Bud Roland, appointed this spring.

One of the practices of which the cathedral community is most proud is that of tolling the church bells whenever there is a state execution in the United States.

Architecturally beautiful, liturgically reverent, spiritually, culturally and socially active — these are the hallmarks of an exceptional cathedral situated in an exceptional city.

Lorraine Williams writes from Markham, Ontario.