Interesting Facts About 7 Prominent U.S. Cathedrals and Churches

A look at notable churches in Mobile, New Orleans, Honolulu, San Francisco, Raleigh, Buffalo and Washington, D.C.

The St. Louis Cathedral of New Orleans
The St. Louis Cathedral of New Orleans (photo: Thebocfc/Pixabay/CC0)

Pope St. Pius X (1835-1914) was among the first to donate to the construction fund for the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Bishop Thomas Shahan (1857-1932), rector of The Catholic University of America, personally spoke with the supreme pontiff in 1913 about his desire to see such a shrine established as “a monument of artistic truth and sincerity … a mirror of all the beauties of our venerable and holy religion.” Pope Pius was pleased with the idea, and made a personal contribution of $400 ($10,360 in 2020).

The shrine’s cornerstone was laid in 1920, and the first Mass held on Easter Sunday 1924. It has both an upper and lower level. Its lower crypt level, which today contains 80 chapels and oratories, was completed in 1931. The shrine’s central Trinity Dome, a 20,000 square foot area over the center of the church bearing an image of the Blessed Trinity and Immaculate Conception, was completed in 2017, marking the end of major construction on the shrine.

The shrine is dedicated to the patroness of the United States, the Blessed Virgin Mary, under her title of the Immaculate Conception, and is sometimes called Mary’s Shrine. Its chapels and oratories which have been added through the years are dedicated by various religious communities and ethnic groups. Since its founding, the shrine was envisioned as a gift from all American Catholics to represent the devotion to Mary by many kinds of peoples, cultures, traditions and ethnic backgrounds.

The shrine is the largest Catholic Church in North America, and one of the 10 largest in the world. It is 25% longer than St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, and has a seating capacity in the upper church of 3,500 and a total capacity in the upper church of 6,000.

 

There are 2,004 depictions of angels throughout Our Lady of Victory National Shrine and Basilica in Buffalo, New York. Its founder, Venerable Nelson Baker (1842-1936) had it designed that way, said Msgr. David LiPuma, pastor, because, “It raises you up spiritually, as if you’re looking up into heaven.”

The shrine is the nation’s second basilica, designated one by Pope Pius XI in 1926, and draws 40,000 visitors annually. It got its start in 1916, when the previous church at the site, St. Patrick’s Parish, was severely damaged by fire. Father Baker, age 74 at the time, began repairs, but one day announced at a parish meeting his vision of building a shrine to rival the great cathedrals of Europe. In 1921, Father celebrated his last Mass at St. Patrick’s; the parish made way for the construction of a shrine which would cost a staggering $4 million (in 1920s dollars). Father Baker was an able fundraiser, and by the time of its completion in 1925, had completely paid for the entire edifice.

The shrine has a marble exterior — 46 types and colors of marble are used throughout — with twin towers and a huge copper dome measuring 165 feet high and 80 feet in diameters. Around the dome are four, 18-foot copper angels blowing trumpets. Other key external features include a 12-foot statue of Our Lady of Victory at the main entrance. The building has 134 stained glass windows, and an interior with many beautiful works of art and magnificent architecture.

In 2021, the shrine will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its groundbreaking and the laying of the cornerstone. Father Baker’s cause for canonization was accepted by Rome in 1988, and he was named Venerable in 2011.

 

Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral, Raleigh, North Carolina’s new cathedral which opened in 2017, was built on a site that was once an orphanage, purchased by Servant of God and the diocese’s most famous evangelist, Father Thomas Price (1860-1919). Father Price is an important figure in the diocese’s history; the diocesan phase for his cause for beatification and canonization began in 2012. Father was a zealous priest who traveled about North Carolina in horse and buggy in an effort to make “every Tar Heel a Catholic.” He also founded the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, which became the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. 

The cathedral is cruciform style. Elements of the interior include the cathedra, or bishop’s chair, set off to the left of the altar (when facing the altar), with the ambo on the right. Prominently carved into the altar is the Christogram IHS, Greek lettering which is an abbreviation for the name of Jesus, which, according to designer James O’Brien, is “recognition of the cathedral’s dedication to the Holy Name of Jesus.”

Twenty-four columns surround the tabernacle area representing the 12 elders and 12 Apostles dressed in white with golden crowns (from Revelation); the seven decorative lighting fixtures between the columns represent the seven burning torches. The dome above the sanctuary is among the cathedral’s most significant features along with the baldacchino (canopy over the altar) on which has been painted the star configuration which would have been in the sky Easter Sunday morning 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem, when Christ rose from the dead. 

Father Price headed overseas as a missionary at age 58, never expecting to return home. He was the only priest available with experience; the others with him were young and newly ordained. He was the only one who had been a pastor. When he arrived, he was unable to learn Chinese, but was beloved just the same. He died of appendicitis in Hong Kong in 1919.

 

Anti-Catholic revolutionaries tried multiple times to set off bombs to destroy Ss. Peter and Paul Church in the North Beach area of San Francisco; one would-be bomber, in fact, was shot to death by police on the front steps of the church in 1927. Established in 1884, Ss. Peter and Paul is known for its majestic twin towers, beautiful architecture and art; it has served as the backdrop for numerous Hollywood movies (including Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 classic The Ten Commandments, while the current church was still under construction) and is a favorite stop for tourists.

While Ss. Peter and Paul was originally a home to many Italian Catholics, in recent decades Chinese Catholics have become the dominant ethnic group.

Poverty and political turmoil in Italy brought waves of Italian immigrants to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. North Beach became San Francisco’s Little Italy, as large numbers of Italians came and put down roots, established businesses, built homes and raised families. In the early 20th century, as much as 80% of North Beach was of Italian heritage, and walking down the streets Italian could be heard spoken as often as English.

In 1897, San Francisco Archbishop Patrick Riordan turned over care of the parish to the Salesians of Don Bosco, a religious institute founded in Italy by St. John Bosco a few decades before. The church became known as “La cattedrale d’Italia ovest,” the Italian Cathedral of the West. The Salesians still serve the parish and many of its parishioners still celebrate its Italian heritage. 

Baseball great Joe DiMaggio married his first wife (not Marilyn Monroe) and had his funeral in the church (he grew up in the neighborhood). It is located opposite Washington Square, and its loud bells can be heard ringing throughout the neighborhood. (An angry neighbor took the church to court in 2003 to curtail the bell ringing, but lost.) Little Italy is nearby, as is Chinatown.

 

St. Damien of Molokai (1840-89) was ordained a priest in downtown Honolulu’s Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in 1864. Damien went on to serve on the Big Island before volunteering to spend the last 16 years of his life caring for the isolated lepers of Molokai. He eventually contracted and died of the disease himself.

King Kamehameha III donated land for the cathedral, the first and most famous of Hawaii’s Catholic churches. It was dedicated in 1843. It is made of blocks of coral taken from local reefs; highlights include its historic tower clock and pipe organ. Inside it houses a first-class relic of St. Damien of Molokai and the remains of St. Marianne Cope, who came to the islands to assist Damien. She cared for Damien until his death, and never contracted leprosy herself.

The Diocese of Honolulu is currently trying to raise $20 million to complete the renovation of the structure.

 

U.S. Admiral David Farragut (1801-70) ordered his ships to make a cannon salute as they sailed down the Mississippi River past iconic St. Louis Cathedral of New Orleans, and an errant cannonball struck and damaged one of the cathedral’s spires. 

Elements of the current cathedral building date to 1793, the year New Orleans became a diocese, but much of what is seen today is due to an effort to expand the cathedral in 1850 when New Orleans became an archdiocese. The cathedral boasts many unique features, including its many colorful stained-glass windows, which depict the life of St. Louis, from birth to death. Louis is patron of the diocese and is a great Christian monarch.

Other highlights include the cathedra, or bishop’s chair, a symbol of the bishop’s apostolic authority over the archdiocese.

Among those honored with images at the Cathedral is Venerable Henriette DeLille (1812-62). This woman of mixed race founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, who ministered to the slaves and free people of color. A prayer room, named in her honor, can be found in the cathedral’s former baptistery. Should DeLille ever be canonized, it will be elevated to chapel status. 

A central focus of the cathedral is its ornate high altar. In a painting above it, in French, are the words from Scripture: “This is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” said by the priest himself during Mass. To the altar’s right and left are Sts. Peter and Paul, the early pillars of the Church.

Flags line either side of the cathedral, and include those of neighboring dioceses under the purview of the archdiocese, as well as the many City governments that had at different times controlled the City.

Other famous cathedral visitors include the Presbyterian U.S. President Andrew Jackson, who was said to have returned to New Orleans and its cathedral two decades after his lopsided victory at the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, admitting that without divine intervention the victory would never have been his. In 1987, Pope St. John Paul II visited the cathedral and offered an outdoor Mass for 200,000.

 

The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Mobile, Alabama has survived an 1865 explosion of a Union ammo dump 14 blocks away, a fire which destroyed the sanctuary area and one of its towers was even struck by a pilot in training during World War II.

The cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Mobile, Alabama. It was first established as a parish in 1703, and relocated to its current site in 1711. Construction of the present-day church began in 1833; it as consecrated for public worship on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1850, with major work continuing on the structure in the following decades.

This beautiful cathedral is prominently located in downtown Mobile, opposite a park known as Cathedral Square (once owned by the archdiocese). It has large twin towers and a front façade which includes six large columns. Its large interior includes a traditional marble altar, white columns, high decorative ceilings, marble flooring which includes images of the coats of arms of past bishops, magnificent stained-glass windows with Marian images, a large organ and an underground chapel and crypt with the remains of previous bishops.

Despite the accidents it has endured, in recent years it has undergone extensive renovations and has a bright, clean interior.

Fletcher Abner with his first Communion rosary. The rosary he is holding was made by his grandmother, Shirley Jones. She has made more than 20 for her grandchildren on their first Communion.

Jesus Is Longing for This Day

As churches across the country resume public Masses, those eagerly awaiting the sacraments of first Communion and confirmation reflect on the unexpected blessings of their delay and their upcoming big day.