Calling All Pilgrims and Pioneers

St. Cecilia Cathedral occupies a privileged place on one of the highest hills in Omaha, Neb. By Kimberly Jansen.

Omaha, Nebraska

I was still nearly a mile from St. Cecilia Cathedral when I spotted its twin bell towers peeking above the treetops. The church, I could see, occupies a privileged position atop one of the city’s highest hills.

Today the commanding location seems only natural for such a grand house of God. A century ago it was considered scandalous.

When Bishop Richard Scannell announced in 1903 that the city’s new (and third) cathedral would not be erected downtown, clergy and laity alike raised a respectful ruckus. After all, they reasoned, wasn’t the mother church supposed to reside in the heart of the city? After all, that’s where her children live, work and trade.

Ironically, the hilltop on 40th Street — once considered “out in the country” — is now part of Omaha’s mid-town, as the city sprawls west from the Missouri River to 168th Street and beyond.

In fact, with its majestic Spanish Renaissance style façade and red-tiled roof, St. Cecilia Cathedral has become one of the city’s most beloved landmarks.

Despite the initial disagreement, a parade on Oct. 6, 1907, drew 30,000 attendees to celebrate the laying of the proposed cathedral’s cornerstone.

Last month — exactly 100 years later — church and community leaders gathered to reenact the events of that monumental day and to celebrate the Church’s rich history in northeastern Nebraska.

This month is equally special for the cathedral, as the feast of St. Cecilia falls on Thanksgiving Day.

Although Catholics settled here in the early 1800s, Omaha wasn’t officially named a diocese until 1885. The city developed largely during the Colorado gold rush, but the budding Catholic community traces its growth to the Union Pacific Railroad that brought Irish laborers along with German and Czech farmers.

As Bishop Scannell began to plan for a new cathedral to accommodate his growing flock, he not only drew criticism for its location but teamed up with architect Thomas Rogers Kimball to depart from architectural norms of the day as well.

Kimball set aside the late 19th-century preference for the French Gothic tradition to return to the 16th-century Spanish Colonial style. He argued that the austerity of the design would not only recall Nebraska’s initial “discovery” by Spanish explorers in the 1500s, but also assist the fledgling community’s budget.

The latter may have appealed most to Bishop Scannell, as he was admirably unwilling to go into debt for the project. In fact, each stage of construction was to be paid in full before the next stage could begin

In 1916, the first installation Mass for a new bishop was celebrated. Never mind that the building still was not completed. Streamers, flags and palms covered cement floors and rough brick walls that wouldn’t be finished in marble for decades.

The following year, a violent storm blew exterior scaffolding into the wooden church across the street, the original St. Cecilia, forcing the community to use the bare cathedral full time.

Piece by piece, the new St. Cecilia took shape and, on April 9, 1959 — 54 years, four bishops and $2 million later — it was consecrated to the Lord.

When I tugged at St. Cecilia’s 10-foot iron doors earlier this month, I was flooded with memories — an experience common to many who call Omaha home. Before my marriage six years ago, I worked for The Catholic Voice, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Omaha.

As a young journalist, I was privileged to cover Archbishop Elden Francis Curtiss’ 25th anniversary of his episcopal ordination here as well as the funeral Mass for Archbishop Daniel Sheehan, a beloved shepherd born and raised in northeastern Nebraska.

I’ll also never forget the crowds that flocked to St. Cecilia on Sept. 11, 2001, to mourn and pray for their fellow Americans.

Since I usually had a deadline to keep, I don’t recall spending much time exploring the cathedral. So I must admit that my recent visit left me awestruck.

Convincing Corpus

The structure houses more than 50 stained-glass windows, an array of murals and statues honoring the saints, a set of bronze relief Stations of the Cross, wood carvings of 11 apostles and six doctors of the Church, plus a host of vaulted ceilings painted in exquisite detail.

Add to that the Spanish Colonial Art Collection hidden behind the sanctuary — a display of primarily 17th- and 18th-century paintings and sculptures from Central and South America and Mexico — and you understand why it’s not hyperbolic to state that the cathedral boasts an art collection on a par with some of the great U.S. art galleries.

My favorite piece is the 13-foot bronze crucifix carved by the Czech-American sculptor Albin Polasek, which is surrounded by a white, four-columned marble high altar.

I had always been captivated by the corpus. It features Christ with his head tilted heavenward in agony. When I learned that the sculptor’s intent was to portray the moment of Jesus’ heroic intercession right before he died — “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” — I valued it all the more.

My husband appreciated seeing in Christ the manual laborer he had been, a muscular man who grew strong working with his hands.

In addition to providing a delight to the eye, supporters of St. Cecilia’s Cathedral have made a point to enchant the ear as well. But of course: St. Cecilia is the patroness of music.

Every Sunday, an organ constructed by renowned builder Martin Pasi accompanies the cathedral choirs, and each year the Cathedral Arts Project sponsors concerts by nationally acclaimed musicians.

Finally, the Schola Cantorum (a “school for singers”) seeks to form young people in sacred music and liturgy.

Since the Church’s early history, cathedrals have been the center of cultural life. Omaha’s Catholic pioneers would be pleased to see that St. Cecilia Cathedral continues that tradition to this day.

Kimberly Jansen writes from

Information Lincoln,Nebraska.

St. Cecilia Cathedral

701 North 40th St.

Omaha, NE 68131

(402) 551-2313

Planning Your Visit

Daily Mass is celebrated at 7 and 11:15 a.m. Confessions are heard after daily Mass and Saturdays at 4 p.m. Sunday Mass is at 7:30, 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. The Saturday Vigil is at 5:30 p.m.