Capital’s Colorful Cathedral
California’s Dramatic Blessed Sacrament Church Beckons the Faithful
You’ve got to hand it to Bishop Patrick Manogue. The Irish-born founder of Sacramento’s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, once a gold miner, was able to pay the tab on the impressive $250,000 church before its doors opened in 1889.
He pressed his gold-mining amigos for cash and even persuaded the local Jewish community to donate money to the project. Bishop William Weigand wasn’t so lucky when he presided over the rededication of the cathedral in 2005, following a major two-year restoration: about $12 million was still owed on the $34-million tab.
But no matter: The cathedral’s restoration was beautifully executed, as you’ll see if you take one of the free 45-minute guided tours offered weekly.
Bishop Manogue was the first bishop to preside over the Sacramento Diocese, which today stretches from southern Sacramento County north to the Oregon border and is home to nearly 1 million Catholics.
When Bishop Manogue was looking for a spot to place the new cathedral, he chose a site a stone’s throw from the California State Capitol, believing church and state were the two main societal institutions.
Back then, a local ordinance decreed no building near the Capitol could rise above it. So Bishop Manogue dutifully set the height of the cross — the highest point of the cathedral — at 217 feet, 28 feet lower than the top of the Capitol’s dome.
But likely with a sparkle in his Irish eyes, he made sure the diameter of Blessed Sacrament’s vaulted dome was larger than the one arching over the Statehouse.
Bishop Manogue studied for the priesthood in France and patterned Blessed Sacrament’s design after Holy Trinity in Paris, adding the aforementioned dome. It’s one of the largest cathedrals west of the Mississippi River. The architectural style is considered Italian Renaissance on the exterior, with a Victorian interior.
Over the next century, the cathedral went through various rather disjointed remodeling projects, resulting in a building with no stylistic unity.
Worse, it slowly fell into disrepair, and, by 2000, it was deemed unable to withstand an earthquake.
Soon, a major project was in the works: a seismic retrofit of the building, plus a total restoration. It took 27 months.
"Before the remodeling, the church looked nothing like this," explained volunteer guide Tom Waddock, as he gestured around the bright interior during a recent tour. "It was three times darker than today."
That was easy to believe, as, today, Blessed Sacrament’s interior is a symphony of color. In fact, one architectural judge said, upon walking through the cathedral, that it’s like "walking into the inside of an Easter egg."
Every inch of the building is bursting with color, from the stained-glass windows to the intricately decorated dome to the artwork on the walls, like the masterful copy of the famous Sistine Madonna oil painting by Raphael, painted in 1513.
A new chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the diocese, was added during the renovation, as was a 13-foot-tall crucifix and 14-foot-diameter crown, which hang over the altar. (The two weigh a combined 2,000 pounds and are held up by four aircraft cables.) Above the sanctuary, there is a beautiful trompe l’oeil painting of angels in which the angels appear to be carved from marble.
Waddock told our group that the cathedral once had a lamp in its sanctuary from the early 1900s. The lamp was given away in the 1970s, but no records were kept regarding who received it. During the cathedral’s restoration, a California couple contacted the church to say they had a lamp hanging in their entryway that they’d purchased from an art dealer for $5,000. They believed it was the missing sanctuary lamp. It was. The church promptly repurchased it, and it once again graces the cathedral’s interior.
"Anyone here from Wisconsin?" Waddock asked our group. I raised my hand. "The Green Bay Diocese closed a rural church in Chilton, Wis. — St. Augustine — and sold their stained-glass windows to us," he said.
Coincidentally, I grew up near Chilton. Also coincidentally, Waddock said, was that Paris’ Holy Trinity Cathedral was undergoing a restoration at the exact same time as Blessed Sacrament.
Our tour finished, I walked outside and glanced up at Blessed Sacrament’s newly refoiled 217-foot cross, brightly glinting in the sun. Then I looked down the block at the Capitol’s taller-but-smaller dome and smiled. I think Bishop Manogue was smiling, too.
Melanie McManus writes from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
Editor's Note: This version has been updated from the print version.
Planning Your Visit
Tours of the cathedral, which discuss its history, artwork and restoration, are given Sundays at 10am and noon, following the 9 and 11am Masses, respectively, and Wednesdays at 12:40pm, after the 12:10pm Mass. Spanish-language tours are available the first and third Sundays of the month following the 1pm Mass. For more information, visit CathedralSacramento.org or call (916) 444-3071.
- Feb. 23-March 8, 2014