What a Difference a Year Makes
Just about a year ago, my wife, Mary, and I walked around one of the most beautiful old buildings in Bridgeport, Conn.
Stepping inside, we sighed as we found the Cathedral of St. Augustine little more than an empty shell.
Ten months later, just after Thanksgiving, we returned. This time, we had to catch our breath. Here was a gleaming, truly majestic sanctuary — a house of God well worthy of the title “cathedral.”
What a difference a year makes, at least when the year is spent making lovingly reverent renovations. From the regilded cross high atop the single Gothic spire to the floor of the magnificently reappointed interior, St. Augustine's is awe-inspiring, top to bottom. We wondered if those who laid eyes on the church when it was newly built stopped to marvel over such a grandly physical statement of the Catholic faith.
Architect Henry Menzies of New Rochelle, N.Y., spent two years designing the renovations. He wrote recently that he was guided by Bridgeport Bishop William Lori's desire to “bring back something of the Gothic splendor of the original church in a beautiful, contemporary vernacular.” Menzies said he wanted his design to echo that of the great cathedrals of history, which spread the Gospel through sacred art and architecture.
The altar and the gleaming gold tabernacle behind it caught our eyes first. Then the new Carrara marble statues of the cathedral's patron and the Holy Family called out for closer inspection. From there it was on to the original, gold-highlighted capitals and rosettes, part of the original neo-Gothic 19th-century design by legendary church architect Patrick Charles Keely. Surveying the surroundings, we sensed that all the visual cues to God's presence within were joining together like the members of a celestial choir singing his praises in perfect harmony.
St. Augustine's stands out among the 600-plus churches and cathedrals Keely designed in the 1800s. The first Mass was celebrated in 1864, when this, the first Catholic church in the area, must have cut quite an imposing figure. It rose atop a city hill and was built of stones from the Pequonnock quarry in another part of the city, near what later became known as St. Mary's by the Sea.
In the sanctuary, the 4-ton, 24-foot-high bronze baldacchino over the main altar was crafted in lower Manhattan. Menzies said he was inspired by the baldacchino in St. Patrick's Cathedral. For all its weight, this one soars and curves gracefully upward to the very top, where a 3-foot bronze Archangel Gabriel sounds his trumpet for the Last Judgment.
The altar itself is a feast for the eyes. Made of dark green marble on a base of limestone and Breccia Pernice marble, it bears a gilded inscription to remind all of what takes place here: pascha nostrum immolatus est Christus (Christ our passover is sacrificed for us). A traditional crucifix suspended overhead presents this same narration without words. The cross is made of the same wood used in the sanctuary, and the corpus of Christ was hand-carved in Italy by Pius and Stefan Malsirer.
Directly behind the altar, a golden tabernacle gleams. Designed with neo-Gothic lines by Menzies, it was made in Madrid, Spain. We're reminded of who reposes within by the door's relief of Christ the King. And the green marble table on which it rests is inscribed Ave Verum Corpus — Hail True Body.
We were astonished many times over by the superlative master craftsmanship in Old World style throughout. Behind the tabernacle, the magnificent reredos is a huge three-paneled triptych of Gothic arches crafted from Honduran mahogany. The arches frame panels with the Holy Spirit as a dove and adoring angels facing the tabernacle. Everything is in Italian mosaics that reflect and radiate light.
For the sanctuary, green Italian marbles form a sea of diamond checkerboard flooring. But the main altar stands on a parquet wood floor to distinguish this most holy space. The cathedra, the bishop's chair, carved with designs including clusters of grapes, is an antique used by all four bishops of Bridgeport.
Next we turned attention to the chapels on either side of the sanctuary. We learned that their stunning statues were newly carved of white Carrara marble from the same quarry Michelangelo used. One chapel contains a glorious, larger-than-life Holy Family. The serene pose of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and Jesus as a babe is softly bathed with indirect lighting.
In the other chapel there's a larger-than-life-sized Carrara statue of St. Augustine. After our visit, Menzies told me he got the idea for this depiction from a Botticelli painting. The sculptor who recast the vision in three dimensions was Francesco Federigi (who also did the Holy Family). Augustine sits at a table, his bishop's miter off, an open book or Bible before him. The Doctor of the Church — one of Western civilization's most celebrated geniuses — ponders intently. He faces the altar contemplating the Mass and giving silent example to worshippers.
Next we walked the Stations of the Cross, all three-dimensional and quite large masterpieces dating to the late 1800s. Msgr. Kevin Wal-lin, the cathedral's pastor, saw them years ago in the lower church of St. Frances of Rome Church in the Bronx. They were brought here and master artist Henryk Krzeminski superbly restored and repainted them.
All the stained-glass windows along the nave, from the legendary Mayer studio in Munich and installed in St. Augustine's more than a century ago, have now been restored. With regal reds, brilliant blues and glittering golds, they caught our eye long enough to draw us deeply into the scriptural and saintly scenes represented.
There's more, too much more to describe in so small a space. Suffice it to say that, in one short year, St. Augustine's has been transformed into a masterpiece for the glory of God. It's like a prayer of praise and thanksgiving that no words could possibly express. Say Amen, somebody!
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.
- January 4-10,2004