Beacon of Faith in Vermont: Green Mountain State Honors St. Joseph

As a house of the Lord, St. Joseph Cathedral in Burlington, Vermont, has great beauty plus a celebrated history.

St. Joseph Cathedral in Burlington, Vermont, reflects local design.
St. Joseph Cathedral in Burlington, Vermont, reflects local design. (photo: Courtesy of St. Joseph Cathedral)

As a house of the Lord, St. Joseph Cathedral in Burlington, Vermont, has great beauty plus a celebrated history. Once French Canadian émigrés arrived to work in this city in the mid-19th century, they quickly founded the parish and built the first St. Joseph Church in 1850, finishing it for Mass at Christmas. It became the first French Canadian national parish in New England.

With the influx of French Canadians, the parish grew — and so did the need for a second larger church, quickly followed by the third and current edifice built from 1883 to 1887. At the time, Bishop Louis de Goesbriand wrote, in part: “I know well that your parish is not rich, but … a work undertaken for the glory of God and under the auspices of St. Joseph cannot help but succeed.”

Succeed it did. When the first Mass was celebrated on Easter Sunday 1887, St. Joseph’s new church became the largest such edifice in the state of Vermont. It remains the Green Mountain State’s largest house of worship, with a capacity for 1,200 faithful. The French influence in building this church was fully evident, as was the peoples’ determination to make it as exceptionally beautiful as they could for God. The architect they chose from Canada was Father Joseph Michaud. A math and science teacher and self-taught architect, he designed 100 churches plus many convents in Canada and New England. He also designed the Cathedral-Basilica of Mary, Queen of the World, in Montreal, a smaller replica of St. Peter’s in Rome.

Father Michaud planned the façade to reflect the styles of many churches in Quebec. Yet, for the interior, he turned to the Chapel of the Palace of Versailles. Overall, St. Joseph Church was designed in the Baroque Revival style. The stone came from local quarries.

Since being completed in 1887, St. Joseph’s has gone through three renovations, yet so much would remain familiar to generations of parishioners. The original well-restored pews remain. These oak and cherry pews have beautifully crafted ends carved with graceful swirl designs to line the five aisles. Each also carries a beaver-tail pattern because the beaver is the national animal of Canada, another reminder for the early parishioners.

Installed in the church in 1889, the Stations of the Cross were designed and made in Paris by a religious company specifically for St. Joseph’s; their descriptions are written in French. Their colors and gilding were refreshed in the last restoration. Each station’s ornate framework includes Corinthian columns, classic pediments and swirling, decorative lines all highlighted with gilding. 

Over the years the sanctuary and parts of the church have changed with each renovation’s distinctive touch, yet other elements would be familiar to the early parishioners, beginning with the statues and one side altar. 

The church’s patron has watched over successive congregations even before the parish’s beginning. Depicted in a large statue, St. Joseph is shown holding the Child Jesus, whose head rests on his earthly father’s cheek. The image now stands on a pedestal high above the floor between the sanctuary and the altar of repose. The statue of St. Joseph, along with the statue of St. John the Baptist, which was moved to the church’s Scapular Chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, were originally in the 1869 edifice and brought into this “new” St. Joseph’s in 1887. On a matching elevated pedestal on the other side of the sanctuary there stands a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. This depiction of Our Lady wears a crown signifying the Blessed Mother’s royal privileges. The statue was given as a gift in 1881 by Les Enfants de Marie, one of the new parish’s several spiritual societies. The very first parishioners would recognize what is now the tabernacle altar from the original 1850 St. Joseph Church, where it served as the main altar. 

Art and architecture highlighting spirituality in the Lord’s house fills the nave. Generations of the faithful have seen the majestic fluted white Corinthian columns with gold accents, all of wood, and the array of beautiful carvings, from the moldings to the delicate unfurled acanthus leaves topping the capitals on the columns. The barrel-vaulted ceiling is embellished with majestic medallions. They were donated by individuals and parish groups, like the Society of St. Jean Baptiste, Children of Mary, and Ladies of the St. Anne Society. The elegant medallions include the Holy Trinity above the sanctuary, the Sacred Heart of Mary, a gracefully intertwined “A & M” (Ave Maria), the Alpha-Omega, and in a repeating theme, a depiction of a beaver at the entry. Their beauty is enhanced with intricate designs like sunburst rays, and ornate Baroque scrollwork within the medallions’ frames adds even more decorative beauty. The church’s symmetry continues with the richly designed large medallions that also line the nave’s side aisles and with the white fluted Corinthian pilasters that match the main columns and rise on the wall above each Station of the Cross.

The statues of the Sacred Heart and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque representing Our Lord’s appearance to the French saint in 1673 are located near the entrance to the cathedral. In one of the cathedral’s two choir lofts there is an old, large primitive-style painting of the Death of St. Joseph. Jesus is shown holding Joseph’s hand, comforting and praying for him, and Mary is depicted kneeling, holding Joseph’s arm, her head bowed in sorrow and prayer. In homage to St. Joseph being a carpenter, and because so much of the interior is constructed of wood, the added furnishings of the last renovation are made of wood, specifically oak and cherry. Natural light also plays its part in enhancing the cathedral’s beauty. The windows are graced by a lace-like pattern of diamonds framing bottony crosses, in a style reminiscent of churches in Quebec, which were once familiar to the earliest congregations.

Now, 134 years later, the parish church of immigrants is a cathedral. In 1999 St. Joseph’s was named the co-cathedral of the diocese, joined in that honor with Immaculate Conception Cathedral. But, in 2018, when that cathedral closed, this church was elevated to the diocese’s only cathedral. 

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