Raleigh’s New Cathedral Is a Beacon of Evangelization

Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral inspires awe ‘like heaven on earth.’

Priests process in for the July 26 Mass of dedication at Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Priests process in for the July 26 Mass of dedication at Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh, North Carolina. (photo: Courtesy of the Diocese of Raleigh)

RALEIGH, N.C.  — Sharon McCloud crossed the threshold of Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in late July to witness the culmination of a project eight years in the making for the diocese.

But nothing prepared her for that moment of awe as she entered her new parish home for the first time: The resplendent light poured through stained-glass windows onto the ivory-colored walls and vaulted ceilings and drew her gaze toward the marbled sanctuary, where stood the altar and the tabernacle where Jesus Christ would repose after the dedication Mass.

“I imagine it might be like describing heaven,” she told the Register, saying she felt surrounded by beauty and reverence. “It was like heaven on earth.”

More than 2,000 people attended the July 26 dedication Mass for the new cathedral in Raleigh. The cathedral’s completion represented a significant milestone in a long journey for the diocese, which used to have the second-smallest cathedral in the U.S. when local Catholics were few in number.

Sacred Heart Cathedral, built in 1924, had a capacity for 320 people when it was built for a diocese that served a Catholic population of 6,000. Today, the diocese has more than half a million Catholics, approximately 5% of North Carolina’s population.

Bishop Michael Burbidge, who presided over the July 26 dedication Mass, told the Register that the cathedral is a “sign of joyful hope” for the diocese. Both the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, and the incoming bishop of Raleigh, Bishop Luis Zarama, also participated.

More than 26,000 people, Bishop Burbidge said, made financial sacrifices that provided the nearly $46 million needed to build the cathedral, which will nourish the faith of Catholics for generations to come.

“But the greatest contributions were their prayers,” he said.

Bishop Burbidge oversaw most of the cathedral project, until Pope Francis tapped him last year to lead the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, which he took up in December. Bishop Zarama will be installed as bishop Aug. 29, becoming the first bishop to take formal possession of the new cathedral.

Bishop Burbidge anointed the altar and the walls. He said he was happy to then hand over the keys to Bishop Zarama at the dedication Mass, because the cathedral first and foremost “is the Lord’s.”

The dedication Mass itself also provided a beautiful mosaic icon of the diversity of peoples in the diocese, all united in the same beautiful faith. McCloud said she felt thrilled seeing representatives of every different ethnic group from every different parish in the diocese, including Catholics of Native American, African, Asian and Latin American heritage wearing the traditional dress of their respective cultures.

The Knights of Columbus provided an honor guard. The Mass also featured more than 20 musicians and 70 singers.

John D’Amelio, a parishioner of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Raleigh and father of six, said the most powerful moment of the liturgy came during the consecration — at that precise moment, he said, a shaft of light from the sun blazed through the copper dome onto the tabernacle behind the altar, surrounded by the smoke of incense. “I’ve never witnessed anything like that,” he said.


Listening Tour

Prior to commissioning construction, Bishop Burbidge went to every parish and deanery in the diocese, conducting 400 meetings to ask the people of God what they wanted in their cathedral.

“The important thing for me and our family was that it was paid for,” D’Amelio said. The cathedral was paid for in its entirety from the people’s contributions, without any loans, and so there is no mortgage or outstanding debt to burden future generations.

D’Amelio appreciated that the diocese listened and dialed back its original plans. The cathedral’s 2011 design had a $75- to $90-million price tag that would have included a big meeting hall, three-story car garage and a church with a crypt. The faithful, however, did not want to pay millions more for those features. They also wanted a different design that would bring worshippers closer to the altar. Bishop Burbidge responded, and the diocese opted in 2014 for a new design from a new architecture firm that stayed within budget. McCloud said she appreciates deeply that the cathedral was not a top-down affair, but really engaged the voice of the faithful. And people wanted something beautiful to give glory to God.

“I really feel like we got what we asked for,” she said.

Father Robert Schmid Jr., parochial vicar of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Fayetteville and one of 130 priests in attendance at the dedication, told the Register the new cathedral is “great, wonderful, and something we needed for decades.” The old cathedral had to schedule 12 Masses each weekend to accommodate 3,000 people, and it could not hold major events in its small sanctuary. But the “trade-off” for the diocese, he added, is that different parishes, because they could accommodate more people than Sacred Heart, were able to see different events in the life of the local Church, such as the chrism Mass or ordinations. Father Schmid’s own priestly ordination, for example, took place at St. Patrick’s in 2015.

“It is one of those bittersweet things,” he said, “but it is also exciting because we have this new building that is inspiring excitement, and inspiring people who haven’t been Catholic, or who have been Catholic and fell away to come back.”


A Theology of Beauty

Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral was designed by the O’Brien & Keane architectural firm, which combined design elements from the Church’s 2,000-year-old patrimony, such as the cruciform shape, the dome (which comes from the Latin domus for home), the Romanesque-inspired façade and Classical forms.

Architect James O’Brien, who also attended the dedication, told the Register that they wanted the beauty to “lift the eyes up” toward the transcendent and help people to contemplate the mystery of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass taking place there.

“I deeply loved that whole project,” he said, saying it was for him a deeply spiritual journey.

“Our work is our prayer, and that’s for sure.”

Msgr. David Brockman, the diocese’s vicar general, said the cathedral really intended to convey the “theology of beauty” that Pope Benedict XVI has written about. And it serves to reinforce the bishop’s teaching and nourishment of the dynamism that exists in the diocese’s parishes.

At the front of the cathedral, he said, is a baptismal font shaped like a Greek cup, which refers to the Gospels of Matthew (20:22) and Mark (10:38), where Jesus asks James and John if they are prepared to drink the chalice that he will drink. The baldacchino over the tabernacle, where the crucifix is suspended, is decorated with how the stars would have looked in the East on the morning of Jesus’ resurrection in A.D. 33. These pieces are on one axis in the Church, pointing to “our beginning and future with the Lord.”

The cathedral also has a stained-glass rose window that features four apparitions of the Blessed Mother — at Fatima, Tepeyac (Our Lady of Guadalupe) and Lourdes and to St. Catherine Labouré with the “Miraculous Medal.” Each of those scenes also contains scenes from the life of Father Thomas Price (1860-1919), who founded the Holy Name of Jesus orphanage and chapel that later became the site of the cathedral.

Father Price, who co-founded the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, also known as the Maryknoll missionaries, is a candidate for canonization, and the scenes from his life that are portrayed are from when Our Lady saved him from a shipwreck off Cape Hatteras; when he celebrated Mass on Mount Mitchell and consecrated North Carolina to Our Lady; when he established the orphanage; and his missionary work in China, where he died.

Bishop Burbidge said it is important that the cathedral evangelize through beauty and draw men and women out of the “constant motion and noise” of life toward the transcendent God. The cathedral’s purpose is “first of all to evangelize and help people understand who we are and what we believe.”

He thought that the 8,000 people who showed up to Mass the following weekend at the cathedral were a sign of the further evangelization to come. 

“The building at the dedication ceremony came to life,” he said. “By coming to life, it strengthens people to go forth as witnesses — as missionary disciples of Jesus Christ.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.