First-time Catholic visitors to the deep-South stronghold of Mobile, Ala., are surprised to discover that the port city's heritage is so — well, so Catholic.
Founded by both French and Spanish settlers who were accompanied by priests and monks of their day, it's the original American home of a grand pre-Lenten festival, for example. Today's Mobile, once considered “the Paris of the Confederacy” for its stately oak trees, continues the tradition — with a Mardi Gras noted for family-friendly fun, not mind-boggling lewdness.
The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is the centerpiece of Old Town Mobile. Located at the city's inviting Cathedral Square, it's a Greek Revival masterpiece. It was founded by Bishop Michael Portier, who was sent in 1826 as the apostolic vicar of “Alabama and the Floridas,” which extended from Florida to Arkansas.
When we attended Mass at the Mobile cathedral earlier this year, the sanctuary had just been reopened after more than a year of extensive renovations. We're happy to report that it was well worth the wait. This 1835 structure is the only church in the South to be named a minor basilica.
The cathedral, classic and staid Roman Corinthian on the outside, is “an explosion of splintered light” within. That's how it was described in Stained Glass Window Quarterly, which also noted how “the southern sun filters through dark wine reds, Prussian blues and the velvety greens of the magnificent German stained glass windows.” A glorious statue of the risen Christ is a focal point.
And so is the history here. For one thing, the church's original construction was frequently interrupted because of lack of manpower, materials and, later, costs of the Civil War. Work on the windows, built in Germany, began in the 1890s under Bishop Jeremiah O'Sullivan. Final installation was completed in 1910. During World War II, a low-flying plane struck the twin bell towers. Both had to be completely rebuilt.
Another vital part of Mobile's Catholic history is Visitation Monastery, established in 1832 when Bishop Portier invited five Visitation Sisters from Georgetown to establish a convent and school for girls on 27 acres of land. Rapid enrollment made it necessary to build a dormitory and convent. In 1843, a chapel for the nuns, students and about 300 neighborhood Catholics was erected. An 1854 fire destroyed the convent, but the nuns rebuilt it six years later.
The showpiece of the monastery is the Romanesque-style Sacred Heart Chapel. The chapel is beautifully laid out with the tabernacle in the center, visible to both the nuns' cloister and visitors' pews. We were there on the first Friday of the month, when there is regular exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Pausing to pray in these serene surroundings proved an unexpected blessing.
The female academy closed in 1952 because of a conflict between modern educational regulations and certain monastic privileges and rules. The order changed its focus to retreat ministry in 1956. Then-Archbishop Thomas Toolen designated it the official retreat house for south Alabama and northwest Florida. Today, retreats are held almost every weekend amid the aroma of lush flowers. In addition to traditional retreats, the monastery offers weekends for engaged and married couples, Cursillo and charismatic groups, and days of prayer and recollection. The weekend my husband and I were there, an icon-making workshop by master iconographer Philip Zimmerman was concluding. He explained one of his icons, Our Lady of the Sign. Students had produced icons of St. Therese of Lisieux. Our visit ended with Sister Mary Gabrielle inviting us to sample yummy chocolates, made and sold by the sisters as a fundraiser.
Father Ryan's Footsteps
The final stop in our tour of Catholic Mobile was at Father Ryan Memorial Park, with its striking statue of famed Father Abram Ryan, the “poet-priest of the Confederacy,” who is also celebrated in Mobile's impressive City Museum. A chaplain to the Confederate Army, he acquired fame for patriotic poems such as “The Conquered Banner,” “The Sword of Robert E. Lee” and “The Lost Cause.”
There is an amusing story often re-told of Father Ryan: One day he saw his young niece looking at a picture of the Crucifixion. He said to her, “Do you know what caused that?” She replied, “The Union Army!”
The Catholic Encyclopedia remembers Father Ryan this way: “As a pulpit orator and lecturer, he was always interesting and occasionally brilliant. As a man, he had a subtle, fascinating nature, full of magnetism when he saw fit to exert it; as a priest, he was full of tenderness, gentleness and courage. In the midst of pestilence he had no fear of death or disease. Even when he was young, his feeble body gave him the appearance of age, and with all this there was the dreamy mysticism of the poet so manifest in the flesh as to impart to his personality something that marked him off from all other men.”
When Father Ryan died in 1886, his body lay in state in the cathedral. The altar was covered in black. Officiating clergy wore robes of black ornamented with silver. Honorary pallbearers included presidents of the Italian, Spanish and French benevolent associations. Despite a downpour, thousands lined the funeral route. Father Ryan was buried in the Old City Catholic Cemetery, in the Children of Mary section — among orphan children laid to rest under his own care and ministry. His grave is marked with a marble cross, symbols of his office and a Celtic cross.
Father Ryan retired here when his work was done. It's not hard to imagine him praying for the salvation and sanctification of all who come to the city he loved, desiring a closer walk with Christ.
Lorraine Williams writes from Markham, Ontario.
- September 19-25, 2004