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The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception: Celebrating 150 Years of Pointing the Way to God

“God of light, we are ever grateful for this house of worship, and ask on this, the anniversary of its dedication, that it may continue to be a home for your people, the Body of Christ, and a place of prayer for all peoples.” – Bishop Robert Deeley

Holding the same crozier used by the first bishop of Portland, Bishop Robert Deeley celebrated a Mass on Sunday, September 8, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland.

“It was exactly 150 years this morning, September 8, 1869, the Feast of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, that this cathedral was dedicated. The day was one of rejoicing. The cathedral that had been built was, in the opinion of those present that day, ‘one of the finest in the country,’” Bishop Deeley said. “In the dedication, a beautiful building becomes, through the grace of God, the house of God and a house of prayer. We who gather here today remember that day with gratitude as we profit from being able to pray in this beautiful house of God.”

“It is with a spirit of immense gratitude to Almighty God, to the faithful parishioners of the cathedral and to the faithful people of the Diocese of Portland that we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception,” said Father Greg Dube, rector. “For 150 years, people have come here, to this beautiful cathedral, to pray, to worship, and to find hope.”

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was completed and dedicated 16 years after the Diocese of Portland was established, although Bishop David Bacon, the first bishop of Portland, began buying land for it almost as soon as he arrived in 1855.  At the time, St. Dominic Church, where Bishop Bacon was installed, was the only Catholic church in the city.

“One of the first things that Bishop David Bacon determined to do when he became the first bishop of Portland was to build what the diocesan history calls a ‘magnificent church,’ a new cathedral for the new diocese. It would be the house of God where the new diocese would gather as Church. It would be a tribute to Mary, the Mother of God, under her title of the Immaculate Conception. It would be a manifestation of the understanding of the Church that ‘of all the churches in the diocese, the most important is the cathedral church, which is a sign of the unity of the particular Church’ (AS 155),” Bishop Deeley said during the anniversary Mass.

Construction of the cathedral’s chapel, designed by architect John Doyle of New York City, began in 1856 and was completed by the end of the year. Work on the cathedral itself, however, would go through several starts and stops, before finally being halted entirely because of a shortage of labor, materials, and money during the Civil War.

Building began again on May 31, 1866, Bishop Bacon’s 11th anniversary, but with the walls nearly completed, there was a devastating setback.  On July 4, the Great Fire of Portland swept through the city.  The partially built cathedral, the chapel, the bishop’s residence, a convent, and St. Aloysius Parish School were among the estimated 1,500 buildings destroyed.  Bishop Bacon wrote in his diary at the time, “Nothing of any value was saved.”

But Bishop Bacon, whose episcopal motto was “courage and hope,” persevered. He spent most of the following year raising money, traveling to nearby states and Canadian provinces to do so.

The reconstructed chapel was ready for use in December 1866, and construction of the cathedral began again in the spring of 1868. It was completed just over a year later.

“As we gather in that sacred space this morning that Bishop Bacon built to the honor of God, we can be grateful for his persistence in spite of difficulty. Even today, we can still marvel at the beauty of this structure and the way in which it helps us to draw closer to our loving God,” Bishop Deeley said.

The 1869 dedication Mass was celebrated by Bishop John Joseph Williams, the fourth Bishop of Boston, with Bishop Bacon concelebrating, but as Bishop Deeley recalled during the anniversary Mass, there was to be one more immediate challenge.

“On the day of the dedication of the cathedral, the weather was not good.  It was foggy and rainy. There were not able to be processions outside. As the day went on, the wind picked up.  And then, in the evening, the storm became worse,” Bishop Deeley shared with the congregation filling the pews for the anniversary celebration. “A casualty of the freak storm was the cathedral’s steeple which was blown over and landed on the house across Cumberland Street. Fortuitously, no one was hurt. Bishop Bacon, with his persistent spirit, ordered the steeple rebuilt, and it was completed within two months. The new steeple measured 203’ and 4.’ According to the Portland Press Herald, that makes it still the tallest structure in the city. To the present, this cathedral is still the building which catches the eye as one approaches the city or passes through.”

Designed by architect Patrick Keely of New York City, the red brick cathedral is Gothic Revival in style, featuring three elongated spires of different heights that complement one another.

The interior of the cathedral, which also reflects the medieval Gothic period, is 186 feet long, with a vaulted ceiling that rises 70 feet above the floor.  The nave features seven pillars on each side which form an arcade of seven arches. Above the arches is a false triforium of recessed arches and then the third-level clerestory, which, despite its height, features stained-glass windows.

Below the clerestory windows surrounding the sanctuary are statues of ten of the twelve apostles, with St. Patrick and St. Basil, two minor patron saints of the cathedral at the center.  Statues of St. Peter and St. Paul can be found below.

Like the crozier, the bishop’s chair, or cathedra, used by Bishop Deeley during the anniversary Mass, also once belonged to Bishop Bacon.

The cathedral’s organ, built by the prestigious Henry Erben Company of New York, dates back to 1869. It contains 3,336 pipes and was one of the largest in the country at the time.

The stained-glass windows were designed by the renowned Franz Mayer Studio in Munich, Germany.  They were commissioned by Bishop William O'Connell, the third bishop of Portland, and his successor, Bishop Louis Walsh. The stunning Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, located behind the sanctuary, was a gift from Bishop O’Connell in 1902. The other windows, depicting the life of the Blessed Mother from her presentation in the temple to her coronation in heaven, were installed in 1910.

An elaborate baptismal font inspired by one in Pietrasanta, Italy, was commissioned in 1921 by Bishop Walsh.  Atop the font is a statue of the Risen Christ, and the font’s bronze door depicts the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, a replica of Renaissance sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti’s door at the Baptistery in Florence, Italy.

Installed in 1930, the Stations of the Cross are each handcrafted out of approximately 6,000 quarter-inch pieces of Venetian glass.

“When I see the cathedral, I think I am in heaven, because you look around, and you are really like you are in heaven,” said Solange Tchatat, who first attended Mass there just two days after arriving from Cameroon in 2011.  “And what I love most is that every single Sunday, I can go and kneel in front of my best friend, who is Jesus, and tell him about everything.”

“This cathedral, like any church, is the place where we meet Jesus. We may not be that tallest of steeples which reaches up to the commanding place in the sky. But, when we enter here, we should remind ourselves that we enter the house of God. God is here,” Bishop Deeley said.

As beautiful as the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is, Bishop Deeley said it is made even more magnificent in the way those who meet Jesus there are given the grace to do his work.

“He sends us from here to be the bearers of his Good News, of his love and mercy,” Bishop Deeley said. “From here, go forth people who serve -- feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, forming minds to know God, walking with people on their journey of faith, comforting those who are dying and those who mourn the loss of loved ones.”

Such works of mercy are something those who worship at the cathedral and the other Portland Peninsula & Island Parishes have long done.  The Consoling Hearts Ministry, for example, provides prayerful support for families of those who have died.

The parishes are also seeking to start a faith-based ministry aimed at connecting those suffering with addiction and mental illness to resources and at better educating the public about the issues.

The community has also long been known as a place of welcome for refugees and immigrants.

Rita Sudbay, who was baptized in the cathedral 83 years ago, said her parents began worshiping there after emigrating from Ireland.

“I went to Cathedral School, and I can remember the processions we used to have, dressing up in our little first Communion dresses and being in the processions,” she said. “I just love this church. I love everything about it.  I love the priests. They’ve always been very helpful. If you need anything, they’re there for you.”

Today, prayer services are offered in the Azande language in the chapel on Sunday afternoons for those originally from Sudan.  The cathedral also hosts an African gala in its Guild Hall, featuring food, music, and dance from countries such as Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Cameroon, Sudan, and Angola. This year, it will be held on Saturday, September 21.

“The cathedral continues to be a beacon of hope, where our wonderful, faithful, diverse community of faith comes together to be nourished with the sacraments and to serve our brothers and sisters,” said Father Dube. “God truly has blessed our Cathedral parish!”

Longtime parishioners said there is much they love about their home parish.  Najlia Kerrigan, age 90, remembers walking to church from her family's nearby Munjoy Hill home years ago.

“There was no parking. You didn’t have to worry about parking. Everybody walked from the hill down,” she said.  “When our children were little, the chapel was always open. We would come down with the kids in the afternoon.  It was just a place of solace and prayer. I always felt better when I left.”

“This place is special because I was baptized here, received confirmation, my first Communion. It’s where I come to celebrate, but it’s also where I come if I need some extra motivation. I love it here,” said Jean Kerrigan, her daughter and a choir member.

“It’s just a special church. The priests who have come here over the years have been really special,” said Kay Joyce, who was baptized in the cathedral and has attended it all her life. “It’s a beautiful church. It really is.”

“To me, it’s special because of being able to give my time, donate my time to various things, as a sacristan, as a eucharistic minister,” said Bob Schwartz, who entered the Catholic Church at the cathedral in 2002. “I think being the mother church of the diocese, it’s special to people. I know people who go by five Catholic churches to come here.”

In addition to Father Dube, concelebrants for the anniversary Mass included Father James Nadeau, who served as rector during a 2000 renovation project that restored some of the cathedral’s original treasures.

Monsignor Marc Caron, chancellor at the time of that restoration project and now a professor of liturgy at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, MA, also concelebrated, as did Father Kevin Upham, Father Dominic Savio, HGN, and Father Rev. Anthanasius Sangnyuy Wirsiy, parochial vicars of the Portland Peninsula & Island Parishes.

Although he was unable to attend the anniversary Mass, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, OFM Cap, the Archbishop of Boston, acknowledged the celebration in a letter, saying, “Countless numbers of Catholics have come to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to be in the presence of the Lord and to receive the grace and strength of the sacraments.  Through the commitment and sacrifices of generations of faithful bishops, priests, religious, and laity, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is the cornerstone of prayer and commitment to our Catholic faith. May the vitality and spirit of this sacred place, your Mother Church, continue to bring the light of Christ to all who gather to worship here."

That is a hope shared by those who attended the celebration.

“I hope that in 150 years, they’ll be celebrating the 300th anniversary here,” said Najlia Kerrigan. “I hope there will be all the priests we need and all the parishioners.”

“The construction of the cathedral, whose dedication 150 years ago we celebrate today, was only the first step. Each day, the community which draws grace from the Eucharist we celebrate here realizes that this cathedral is still being built into the house of God, as together, we strive to live Jesus’ new commandment: ‘love one another,’” Bishop Deeley said. “As we celebrate this anniversary, we pray that as this cathedral stands on the hill pointing all who see it to God, it might also be the place from which those who worship here go forth to become a living Gospel, bringing the love and mercy Jesus lived into Portland and Maine. On this anniversary day, we pray that Mary, Mother of God, and invoked here under her title of the Immaculate Conception, might intercede for us and help us to be the house of God, the living Church.”