She Shines With Her Own Kind of Light
My family was in desperate need of a break from the road. We were headed back home to Nebraska from a stay in North Carolina earlier this summer. And we’d been driving for hours.
I exited the interstate at Louisville, Ky., and carefully navigated my way through downtown. I was grateful to find a parking spot right across the street from the Cathedral of the Assumption.
While I eagerly gazed up at the Gothic spires sandwiched between two skyscrapers, my husband looked doubtful that a cathedral was the proper place to encourage our three young children to stretch their legs.
As we approached the church steps, I noticed a flyer taped to the exterior brick wall: “No 5:30 p.m. Mass tomorrow due to the Archdiocese of Louisville’s 200th birthday celebration.”
I was amazed to later learn that the first priest to be ordained in America, Father Stephen Badin, once served this initially enormous territory, which was the country’s first inland diocese. Although the diocesan seat was transferred to Louisville in 1841, the area that then covered 40 present-day dioceses (including Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago and Detroit) was actually founded as the Diocese of Bardstown, Ky., in 1808.
I later read that the day after our visit, on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, some 6,000 people gathered at the local baseball stadium for Mass with Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, followed by food, games and music to commemorate the occasion.
To begin our tour of Louisville’s historic cathedral, we passed through a set of 12-foot doors. Our first few minutes inside reinforced the sense these doors give: This church is B-I-G big.
“Don’t stick your entire upper body in the immersion-size baptismal font.”
“Please stop pushing your brother’s stroller up and down the wide aisles.”
“Yes, the ceiling is very high, but you cannot sing loudly to test out the echo.”
It quickly became apparent that, in order to enjoy our stay, we needed to split up. My husband graciously took the crew and headed downstairs, hoping for a wide, open hall that is so typical of church basements.
Thankful for the time alone, I began to explore. My gaze was immediately drawn upward to the bright blue ceiling studded with a myriad of golden stars.
As I walked down the center aisle, the majestic tones of a powerful organ filled the sanctuary in preparation for the evening’s vigil Mass. The song seemed a fitting hymn for the magnificent image that soon captured my attention above and behind the altar.
The colorful, larger-than-life window portrayed Jesus crowning Our Lady as Queen of Heaven and Earth. I later learned that the Coronation Window is said to be one of the oldest and largest hand-painted glass windows in the country. It is original to the cathedral — which, at 156 years old, is the third oldest cathedral in continuous use in the United States.
To the left and right of the window hang four paintings depicting men in religious habits: Servants of God beatified by Pope Leo XII in 1825. Although I had never heard of these holy men, I nevertheless enjoyed these gifts presented by Pope Gregory XVI to the diocese’s initial leader, Bishop Joseph Flaget, the first bishop of the American West.
I also enjoyed a series of paintings displaying the Stations of the Cross. I was particularly struck by Station XI. It seems that the artist portrayed one of the men with a rather curious expression, as though he were having second thoughts just moments before driving the nail into Jesus’ feet. Perhaps, I thought, this was the centurion who later proclaimed, “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).
As I circled the cathedral, I was disappointed that the tabernacle was difficult to locate. I finally realized that the Blessed Sacrament was housed in a separate chapel behind the sanctuary’s back wall. After passing beyond a set of double doors, a confessional and an office, I found the object of my pursuit.
The small chapel was decorated in similar fashion to the main church, with bright blue arches and gold stars. Two marble angels flanked one of the most unusual tabernacles I have ever seen.
The bronze compartment with a carved lamb and cross seemed typical; however, it was inserted into the middle of a white pillar standing six feet tall. It wasn’t until my husband and I were sharing thoughts back in the car that the symbolism became clear.
“It’s a tower of ivory,” my husband said. Of course, one of Mary’s many titles!
Glories for the Reclaiming
As I bid farewell to the Bread of Life and wandered back out into the church, I reflected on some unfortunate changes that were evidently made to the cathedral’s interior in the early 1970s. For example, the wall where the high altar once stood remains white and virtually empty, creating a rather sterile atmosphere in the sanctuary.
In addition, the extra-wide aisles were created by replacing stately pews with padded, movable chairs. According to a brochure I found in back, the cathedral once accommodated 1,300 people. Today it seats only 800.
Fortunately, the cathedral’s current stewards appear to be concerned with restoring the cathedral’s original beauty as much as possible.
In a recent renovation, for example, a fresco of Our Lady’s Assumption directly above the altar was uncovered beneath six coats of paint. Likewise, the aforementioned Stations of the Cross paintings were resurrected and refinished after being discovered in the church’s crypt.
In addition, marble from the original high altar and communion rail were used to construct the current altar and baptismal font. I took these to be hopeful signs of what the parish website refers to as the cathedral’s “Second Golden Age.”
Upon completion of my tour, I proceeded to the basement to rescue my heroic husband, whom I expected to find pulling his hair out.
To my amazement and relief, I found him relaxing in a rocking chair with a newspaper in hand. My sons and daughter delighted in a multitude of toy trucks and dolls. What better gifts could God provide for weary parents than a church nursery complete with a changing table and child-sized facilities?
As the Aug. 15 Feast of the Assumption approaches this week, may we remember to give thanks for Mary’s intercession in our time of need.
Kimberly Jansen writes from
- August 10-16, 2008