At the Sign of the Archangel
One day the missus and I turned off the highway and headed straight into a postcard of a picturesque New England village green.
Well, that was what the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel in Springfield, Mass., looked like to us, anyway. The regal sanctuary sits before a busy downtown thoroughfare, but it's separated from the hustle and bustle by a great lawn that unfurls like a miniature park before its welcoming doors.
The exterior spoke clearly to Mary and me of St. Michael's 19th-century beginnings. It was remarkable to think that Abraham Lincoln was still weeks away from being elected president when the cornerstone was laid on Sept. 29, 1860 — feast of St. Michael and his fellow archangel-saints, Gabriel and Raphael. On Christmas morning, 1862, the church was dedicated and the first Mass celebrated.
Four years later, in Sept. 1866, St. Michael's became the first church in Massachusetts outside of Boston to be consecrated. The following day, Springfield's major newspaper described the structure as “architecturally the finest in the city.” The article went further, calling St. Michael's “one of the best churches in the country.”
Little wonder: The commanding brick church is yet another master-work of Patrick Charles Keely. The celebrated church architect designed this one in an eclectic style. With its tall, central steeple topped by a white belltower, rows of substantial dentils and roof sloping gently like wings folding into Greek Revival angles, St. Michael's is first reminiscent of a classic New England Congregationalist house of worship. But instead of being clothed in typical white clapboard, St. Michael's is robed in brick.
A golden cross distinguishes the top of the steeple. Below, in the brick belltower we can see a shrine for St. Michael. In a polychrome image, he stands ready to greet and protect us. The princely archangel also appears in a medallion over the main entry. The large keystone archway surrounding the doors and the triple set of spiral arches within it form a fancy framework for the entry.
The church is a far cry from the boardinghouse site of the first Mass in the Springfield area in 1830. By 1846 the first parish — originally named St. Benedict's — was founded, mainly with Irish immigrants. By 1870, the 8-year-old church was elevated as the cathedral for the new Diocese of Springfield.
Since then, of course, the interior has undergone numerous renovations. Today one of the most striking elements is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, located in place of the original side altar. It combines elements spanning the 19th and 20th centuries; the Throne of Reservation for the tabernacle is a highly ornamental Gothic design of wood with small pillars and canopy reminiscent of a baldachino. The canopy's single tall spire, topped by a cross and surrounded by a court of smaller spires, covers the bronze tabernacle.
This tabernacle's symbols of Christ — the Chi-Rho and the Alpha and Omega — are carved in clean, simple, late 20th-century lines. Behind it, a huge modern mosaic depicts the burning bush seen by Moses. Its red and orange flames flicker against a blue background, symbolizing the continuous presence of God.
The latest renovations, completed six years ago, emphasized lines of the original architecture in many places. Starting in the sanctuary, a reredos of rich, dark oak reintro-duces more of a period appearance. The middle of its seven panels frames the bishop's chair, the cathedra.
The wall behind the altar and reredos sparkles with three repeating symbols of St. Michael. The winged sword represents him as Protector of the Faith. The shield signifies his job as Defender of the Faith. The crown is a sign he's Prince of Angels. The crosses glinting on the shields remind us of the crosses we must bear in life.
Well above the altar and close to the apse, the gold image of the Risen Christ appears with glorious rays radiating from behind him. Pure gold leaf was used to gild the original curling foliage decorations in the sanctuary as well as the capitals on columns.
The neutral color scheme of beiges and blues accentuates the elegant columns, Roman arches and bounteous rosettes on the ceiling.
The stained-glass windows from Boston were installed during the reign of Pope Pius XII, but they have the prominent colors and plentiful details of venerable glass ancestors, sparkling like fine jewels and rich in story and symbolism inside colorful foliated and symbolic borders.
In the Gospel transept, three giant lancets focus on the Divine commission. The tallest features Christ as teacher, ascending in glory to the Father as he stretches his hands toward the Apostles below him. “Go … and teach all nations,” proclaims his message written at the foundation.
In the slightly smaller lancets, Jesus as King gives Peter the keys in one (He that heareth you heareth Me”), and Jesus as Priest institutes the Eucharist and gives the bread and wine to Peter in the other (“Do this as a commemoration of Me”).
Naturally, a window honors St. Michael the Archangel as the Protector of the Universal Church. Brilliantly clothed in ruby and white, Michael stands tall as the princely, heroic angel that he is. The midmorning sun captures him in heavenly brilliance. The ornate borders narrate six events connected with Michael. One shows him comforting the prophet Daniel. Another sees Michael slaying a dragon, the devil.
The Blessed Mother with Child Jesus was the first of the new stained-glass windows installed, around 1954. St. Joseph the Workman in the opposite transept is dressed as a modest laborer, but in the early morning sunlight he glistens like a precious gem. Then the St. Joseph shrine portrays him in a carved statue as Patron of the Universal Church firmly, yet gently, holding a replica of St. Peter's. The Holy Spirit Chapel is the heart of the new Bishop John A. Marshall Center, a recent major addition to the cathedral. We step into the Holy Spirit Chapel from the colonnade under a circular window that honors the third member of the Blessed Trinity and calls for his guidance. Weekday Masses offered here are also televised for the sick and shut-ins.
The new chapel continues an eclectic look with a Tuscan arches, Roman columns, tile floor, and brickwork giving a European flavor. The older tabernacle from the cathedral's original downstairs chapel looks like a miniature Greek revival church.
In this daily chapel, too, St. Michael's stands with feet firmly planted in two centuries. From here, as from heaven, he defends us against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.