Like Having Mary's Month All Year

May is Mary's month. Go find yourself a Marian church or shrine in which to say a special rosary to Our Lady sometime over the next four weeks.

You won't regret it.

I found a wonderful one while touring the Dakotas — and it's both older and more resplendent than I expected to find there.

In 1891, the newly elected bishop of Jamestown, N.D., Bishop John Shanley, moved the diocesan headquarters to Fargo, a more industrial city, and began construction of a cathedral church. The project was halted in 1893 when a fire destroyed downtown Fargo. Despite the major setback, the new St. Mary's Cathedral, with its soaring spires and steep roof pitches recalling Europe's great Gothic churches, was completed and dedicated on May 30, 1899. Its admirers quickly dubbed it the “showpiece of the Northwest.”

By the time the church's 100th birthday began bearing down, during the spring of 1995, it needed massive refurbishment in order to maintain its reputation as a showpiece of beauty, sanctity and reverence. Work began in January 1996. It was completed and rededicated later that year. Today it's clear the goal of reclaiming the sanctuary's original splendor was reached — maybe even surpassed.

Approaching the church from its front entrance, my attention was split between the two asymmetrical towers. To the left, a beautiful bell tower stretching 172 feet into the air. To the right, a humble 95-footer housing, in a niche, a white Cararra-marble statue of Mary, the Immaculate Conception. Each of the two steeples is topped by a stately cross.

Stepping inside, I found myself facing a main altar also made of Carrara marble. The altar's fore displays a mosaic of Christ bearing his own precious body and blood in the form of a consecrated host and chalice. Six onyx and bronze candlesticks surround the altar. The white marble of the ambo matches that of the altar, over which hangs a large crucifix bearing a very realistic corpus.

Directly behind the main altar are two reminders this is no ordinary parish church but the bishop's own: the bishop's chair and coat of arms. Richly carved oak screens surround the chair. On four posts are medallions to represent the four Evangelists. The screens also contain inscriptions based on titles of Our Lady in the Litany of Loreto.

In the center of the circular apse behind the chair is a colorful and traditional mural of Mary, escorted by an angel on either side, being assumed into heaven. The image is based on a painting of the Assumption by the 17th-century Spanish painter Bartolomé Murillo.

Our Lady of the Assumption, I learned, is the patroness of the diocese. That explained the Assumption window above the choir loft. The cathedral, in fact, was dedicated to Mary under the title Queen Assumed into Heaven.

Apostolic Heights

High above the Assumption mural, in the sloped space doming the altar, are murals of, from left to right, St. Joseph, Christ the King and St. John the Baptist.

Flowing down each side of the front arch of the sanctuary are paintings of the faces of the Twelve Apostles — the original 12, that is, minus Judas and plus St. Paul. Each bears a symbol of ministry or martyrdom. The Holy Spirit, taking the form of a dove, descends from the front arch.

Two side altars, also made of Carrara marble, match the main altar. On the left the Blessed Mother is honored. This altar features a beautiful mosaic, containing more than 20,000 pieces of glass, with rich blue colors for Our Lady's garment. Mary holds the Christ child. There are also three vases on this altar; these contain the holy oils the bishop blesses each year — oil for anointing the sick; the sacred chrism used for baptisms, confirmations and ordinations; and oil used to confirm catechumens.

To the right of the main altar is a marble altar of reservation. Here perpetual Eucharistic adoration takes place. (During Mass, the Precious Body is reserved in a beautiful bronze tabernacle.) The monstrance presenting the exposed Blessed Sacrament stands underneath a miniature baldacchino, also called a tempietto (little temple). A large sanctuary light, crafted in Austria, is suspended from the ceiling in front of the Eucharistic altar. The sides of the sanctuary light feature miniature statues of the Twelve Apostles.

Incidentally, the rector of the cathedral, Father Peter Hughes, told me he's seen increased reverence for the Blessed Sacrament in and around the cathedral since perpetual Eucharistic adoration was instituted here. In addition to the parishioners signed up to spend at least an hour a week with Our Lord — the exposed Body can never be left alone — many workers and professionals stop in during the workday to visit Jesus in the sacrament.

The cathedral's Stations of the Cross are about one-third life-size and made of terra cotta. Near the stations are candles that are lit for solemn liturgies. Candles in sconces mark the spots where the bishop blessed the walls during the 1996 rededication.

Hidden Praises

During the renovation, it came to light that a fresco over each of the two transept windows had been covered over when acoustic tiles were installed in 1939. They were restored. To the south is a fresco of the Mother of Perpetual Help. Its mate over the north transept window features Christ the Teacher. For their part, the transepts themselves are an ingenious architectural illusion created by varying ceiling heights.

The cathedral's marvelous stained-glass windows were manufactured by the Kenselle Glass Company of Chicago and made from Sicilian opalescent glass pieces.

In the vestibule is a richly carved baptismal font, which came from Holy Trinity Church in Grassnia, N.D., when that church closed several years ago. The vestibule also features in a special case a galero, a red, broad-rimmed hat with tassels; this was given by Blessed Pope John XXIII to the third ordinary of Fargo, Bishop Aloysius Muench. Bishop Muench served as papal nuncio to Germany after World War II and was made a cardinal in 1959.

It seems fitting a cathedral this magnificent, munificent and unambiguously Marian should honor one of its own who ascended to one of the universal Church's highest offices. When the Blessed Mother looks upon this place, she must think it's May all year long.

Joseph Albino writes from Syracuse, New York.