‘A Beautiful Legacy’: A Visit to the Cathedral of St. Joseph
The dome of the Wheeling, West Virginia, edifice was modeled after the Duomo in Florence.
In 1922, when it was necessary to replace the original damaged church that was the first cathedral for the Diocese of Wheeling, West Virginia, Bishop John Swint told the local newspaper he planned “to build not for a few years, for 50 years or 100 years, but to erect a building that would stand for hundreds of years, and be a beautiful legacy which the present congregation would bequeath to future generations.”
His words took visible form when the new Cathedral of St. Joseph was dedicated in the spring of 1926.
The Indiana limestone exterior was styled in the best Lombard Romanesque tradition of 12th-century northern Italy that purposely echoes specific churches there, while the huge dome — nearly 150 feet high from ground to top — was modeled after the Duomo in Florence.
Beautiful carvings decorate the façade, including symbols of God the Father, Mary, John the Baptist and the apostles. Over the main entry appears Christ in Majesty. Above the rose window, and between the tops of twin octagonal bell towers, stands a statue of St. Joseph. This sculptural beauty is a hint of the remarkable visible surprises that worshippers find inside the cathedral.
Liturgical design and art are done “in the spirit of the Medieval Byzantine style,” as church architect Edward Weber wrote of his designs in his 1927 book Catholic Church Buildings. Bright colors radiate in abundance. Resplendent and glorious original murals and decorations fill the sanctuary and transepts. Done in 1926, the frescoed murals were carefully restored during a major renovation in 1996.
The magnificent fresco scene of Christ Enthroned fills the arched apse and its walls. Dazzling sunrays circle around the depiction of Christ, shown as seated on a high throne. Illustrations of Mary and Joseph are to the fresco’s sides. Also present are images of John the Baptist and St. Michael the Archangel. Scores of white-robed saints filling the scene are depicted worshipping the Lord. Joining them are trios of angels hovering high in the apse.
The Holy Spirit is depicted in the arch directly above, while also on the arch two angels are represented kneeling on either side of the triumphant Lamb of God. The New Jerusalem appears in the background, while the Four Evangelists are shown taking on the main arch. The scene reflects the Book of Revelation.
Intricate decorative symbols also fill the colorful scene, as well as in several other places in the cathedral, such as the large panels above the shrines in the transepts. There, a brilliant procession of a dozen saints appear — to one side, renditions of Sts. Catherine of Siena, Jerome, Francis of Assisi, Agatha, Gregory the Great and Peter; to the other side, images of Sts. Paul, Helena, Augustine, Mary Magdalene, Thomas Aquinas and Clare of Assisi.
All of these original frescos are the work of Felix Lieftuchter from Cincinnati, who went to Germany to study and returned a liturgical artist. His work appears in several churches and cathedrals, such as the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City and Our Lady, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral in Toledo, Ohio. His “flat” style gives the murals their Byzantine style, as do his decorative embellishments and brighter palette. The colors also reflect a bit of Mexican influence, along with some of the geometric patterns, because the artist loved that style and patterns; later in his life, he lived in Mexico.
The enormous dome, filled with a background of brilliant blue sky, reflects heaven. In this mural, angels from every choir appear adoring God, who is represented in the very center with a triangle within a radiant sunburst, and, suspended from within the triangle, gilded metal letters spell the name of God in Hebrew: Yahweh.
Visible are renditions of the seraphim, with their six wings; thrones, depicted as winged wheels; and all the other choirs, including symbolic presentations; while the archangels are depicted taking their place in the dome’s stained-glass windows. Words from the Book of Revelation, from Chapter 5:11-12, appear around the dome, beginning, “I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne …”
The cathedral’s architecture is resplendent with Romanesque details, such as the rounded arches lining the nave, all the stained-glass windows, and the rows of arched balconies — technically the triforium — overlooking the nave. The beautiful barrel-vaulted ceiling is coffered with nearly 500 colorful trompe l’oeil panels in various designs and colors, carrying out the medieval-baroque theme.
Reverence to the roots of this cathedral for the diocese, changed in 1974 to the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, marked both the 1996 and the later 2012 renovations. The 1996 project’s intention was to restore the feel and finishes while adapting to current liturgical needs.
In the sanctuary, the high altar and gold tabernacle appear under the baldachin with its Roman-arch design, cerulean blue “sky” and gold mosaics. All are original from 1926, designed by Weber and consecrated by Archbishop Swint. The Latin inscription carved around the baldachin’s ornately carved marble frieze presents Jesus’ words in letters of gold leaf: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life.”
The palette of marbles came from four European countries. In 2012, when a new main altar was installed, along with an ambo and sanctuary flooring, all the designs were carried out to intentionally and meticulously echo Weber’s work. All the marble came from the same quarries he used for the original high altar and baldachin and other areas such as flooring. This latest restoration included duplicating the original 1926 furniture’s style and finish in hand-carved oak. The three tall candlesticks on either side of the new main altar are the original High Mass candlesticks that were once by the tabernacle and also designed by Weber. The result was the perfect pairing of present and past.
One item did come from the pre-1926 cathedral: a large crucifix, which is now on the wall of the left transept.
The stained-glass windows add liturgical beauty to this cathedral that was originally named St. James Cathedral when Blessed Pope Pius IX formed the Charlestown Diocese in 1850. By 1872, several reasons prompted the current bishop to petition the Pope, asking him to change the name to St. Joseph Cathedral. Among the reasons, two years earlier, on Dec. 8, Blessed Pius IX declared St. Joseph “Patron of the Universal Church.” The Pope’s declaration and the growing devotion to St. Joseph meant much to the laborers in the diocese. Many of them were working in the coal fields. There was no delay from Rome in changing the name to the Cathedral of St. Joseph. Besides being patron of the cathedral, he is also patron of the diocese.
The patron of the Universal Church, husband of Mary and earthly father of Jesus is highly venerated and reverenced in this cathedral, from stained-glass windows to a beautiful shrine. The transept windows honor St. Joseph’s life in 14 chronological scenes.
Along with familiar events, such as the Nativity, Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple, and Finding Jesus in the Temple, other depicted scenes are beautiful reminders of events less often illustrated in stained glass. They include the Marriage of Joseph and Mary, Joseph’s dream of St. Gabriel, searching for lodging in Bethlehem, seeking the missing Jesus, the return to Bethlehem, Nazareth’s home life, and ending with the Death of St. Joseph.
The stained-glass scenes radiate with brilliant blues, reds, greens and golds. They were designed in medieval style by George Sotter of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Sotter earned a national reputation for medieval-inspired stained glass; his windows graced cathedrals, monasteries and churches nationally.
This medieval style in St. Joseph Cathedral includes beautiful double scenes highlighted in the nave’s aisle windows. Each window’s upper medallion presents a scene from the New Testament, while the lower medallion prefigures it from the Old Testament. Among them, the Marriage at Cana scene is paired with a rendition of Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus; Christ preaching is paired with Moses receiving the Ten Commandments; the Sacrifice of Melchizedek anticipates the Last Supper; and the Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham prefigures the Crucifixion.
This last scene is a good reminder of the original Stations of the Cross set into the walls of the nave. These gold-leafed stations with gilded titles were designed and carved in wood and high relief by the same artist who sculpted all the figures and symbols on the cathedral’s limestone exterior.
St. Joseph, together with the Blessed Virgin Mary, also receives veneration in the deep-set transept shrines that are like small chapels. The statue of Joseph holds the traditional lily in one hand, as a symbol of his purity, and a carpenter’s T-square in his other, as a symbol of his occupation.
In the Marian shrine, the statue of the Blessed Mother is depicted cradling the Child Jesus. Both images appear on the marble reredos of their respective altar and are carved of Caen limestone from France. Not only was this time-honored stone used for important French structures, it was brought to England in the 11th century and used for major structures like Westminster Abbey, the grand church that was originally a place of Catholic worship.
All the elements reflect the Latin abbreviation AMDG (ad majorem Dei gloriam) inscribed around a cross on the cathedral’s cornerstone, meaning: To the greater glory of God.