Cathedral renovations echo hope for a renewed Church


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“Wow. Just wow! It’s coming together really great!”

A Cathedral of St. Joseph parishioner marveled at the wide-open spaces and heavenly graces that are slowly unfolding in the mother church of the diocese.

A handful of clergy, laypeople and media representatives joined architects, construction supervisors and Bishop W. Shawn McKnight Oct. 14 for a “hard-hat tour” of the Cathedral, which is undergoing a yearlong, $15 million renovation, expansion and renewal to upgrade its aging systems while enhancing its beauty, functionality, capacity for hospitality and uniquely Catholic identity.

“All of this allows us to rededicate ourselves as Catholics by looking at our revitalized Cathedral as something beautiful that unites all of us,” one of the people on the tour stated.

Father Louis Nelen, pastor of Cathedral of St. Joseph Parish, said work on the downstairs Undercroft is on target for completion in time for the parish to begin offering Masses down there by the end of November.

Sunday worship has been held in the school gymnasium since the Cathedral renovation work began in February.

The Undercroft includes a kitchen and large meeting hall.

Upstairs in the Cathedral, the preliminary structural and mechanical upgrades are nearly completed, and the various newly defined spaces are taking shape.

The Oct. 14 visitors encountered a bright, wide-open canvas upon which a prismatic array of new, sacred artwork will soon be applied.

Part of something bigger

Bishop McKnight said the goal is to rededicate the Cathedral sometime before Holy Week in March of 2023, “so that we can return to celebrating those important Liturgies in the grandeur of the Cathedral.”

He said the renovation is “one piece of an overall strategy of looking at supporting the mission of the Church in what we teach, in how we live the life of charity, and in how we pray.”

“The complete transformation of our cathedral truly serves as a gift to Catholics and everyone in our diocese,” he told the people on the tour.

He pointed out that private donors are covering the entire cost of the renovation and expansion of the upstairs worship area in the Cathedral.

“Our donors include lay Catholics, deacons and priests who have sent gifts directly in support of the project, going above their regular support for their own parishes,” he said. “Thanks to these gifts, this project is moving forward without any assessments to the other parishes of our diocese.”

Cathedral parishioners are covering the cost of renewing the Undercroft.

Bishop McKnight said the renovations will greatly enhance the hospitality and spiritual functionality of the Cathedral.

“They will also show how new artwork and liturgical features can more fully reflect the beauty of our Catholic faith as well as highlight the culture and rich faith life of our diocese,” he said.

He emphasized that this is the first major renovation of the Cathedral in its 54-year history, and that the building’s mechanical and utilities systems were nearing the end of their useful life and needed to be replaced.

That need, along with people’s willingness to help, presented a unique opportunity to reshape the Cathedral into a form that is more welcoming, functional and ideally suitable for Catholic worship, pilgrimage and evangelization.

“It’s my hope and prayer that as we renovate this Cathedral and make it home to Catholics throughout this entire diocese, we also renew our faith and become more aware of the importance of showing the beauty of our faith in how we live,” he said.

He emphasized that the Cathedral holds universal significance for the diocese and belongs to all Catholics throughout these 38 counties.

“There is a Cathedral parish, which is particular to the local community right here, but the Cathedral itself is the mother church of the whole diocese,” he said. “There are sister parishes and sister churches throughout the diocese, but only one church is the bishop’s church and therefore is considered the mother church of the whole diocese.”

He pointed out that the work on the Cathedral comes at a time when this diocese has been making significant investments in charitable outreach, most notably through Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri.

The Church in central and northeastern Missouri has also made “some incredible investments in Catholic education over these past few years,” he said.

 “We might be small, we might be minority-Catholic, we might be rural, but we’re vibrant as a Church and I’m very proud of that,” he stated.

“Our best to the Lord”

Monsignor Robert A. Kurwicki, vicar general of the diocese and former pastor of the Cathedral Parish, announced that a cadre of docents will be convened and made available to people making pilgrimages to the Cathedral or visiting it as one of the impressive sites in the Capital City.

Father Daniel Merz, who was stationed at the Cathedral Parish for the first few years after his ordination, reminisced with Father Frederick Elskamp while exploring the construction of what will become an expanded welcome area at the main entrance.

“It’s monumental,” said Fr. Merz, pastor of St. Thomas More Newman Center Parish in Columbia and chairman of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission. “It’s gonna be an amazing catechetical piece. It’s also going to be a beautiful place to celebrate Liturgy. It will be inspiring.”

Why is that important?

“Because we give our best to the Lord!” he said.

Fr. Elskamp, who served as pastor of the Cathedral Parish from 1999-2004, predicted that it could take visitors an entire day to take in the significance of all the sacred artwork that’s being created for the Cathedral.

“These things will certainly raise our hearts and minds to God!” said Fr. Merz.

“Local, universal, timeless”

William Heyer, architectural consultant for the renovation, addressed the tour participants over a live video feed from his studio in Columbus, Ohio.

“The words that I use to describe what we’re doing here with the design are local, universal and timeless,” he said.

He noted that the shape and geometry of the Cathedral as originally envisioned by Bishop Joseph M. Marling C.PP.S., founding bishop of the diocese, are being retained.

“That includes not only the forms that are there, the Catholic forms that we’re revisiting, but also some of the ideas that Bishop Marling had that were not implemented at the time for various reasons,” Mr. Heyer stated.

For instance, original plans called for a recessed area in the center of the sanctuary, to highlight the tabernacle and the Blessed Sacrament, but structural limitations prevented that.

“Now, we’re doing it,” Mr. Heyer said. “So we, in a sense, are building Bishop Marling’s original intention and at the same time opening up things in the Church to make it more Catholic.”

Bishop McKnight pointed out that a prominent new crucifix, with a cross fashioned of local wood, will adorn the beam above the altar and tabernacle.

Impressive images of St. Joseph and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, patroness of the diocese, will prominently adorn the sanctuary.

The strong central axis of the Cathedral will be retained, augmented by a secondary axis connecting new shrines dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

“The main axis is reinforced by a larger, new portico and an enlarged narthex, which increases the hospitality and the gathering space for the people who will be worshiping at the Cathedral,” said Mr. Heyer.

Statues of St. Peter and St. Paul will stand prominently near the main entrance.

Outside, real bells will ring out the hours of worship from newly constructed bell towers.

Artwork and sanctuary fixtures are being created by artists from Missouri, other states and other countries.

“So, there’s a sense of local and universal in every material that we’re using,” said Mr. Heyer.

The completed Cathedral will be emphatically Catholic and timeless.

“Every element will have meaning that you can spend time learning about and praying over,” he said. “The end result, the end goal here, as always, is that we grow closer to our Lord through our Catholic faith, through these buildings like our beloved Cathedral.”

Reaching critical mass

Fr. Nelen said he's happily anticipating the next phases of the project.

 “We look forward to getting the limestone delivered soon for the front face of the building,” he said. “And when that comes, Sircal (Contracting Inc.) can begin building out on the portico, and we’ll see more of a completion there.”

Much of the interior artwork is scheduled to arrive in December and January.

“You will see the mosaics starting to go in — the marble altar, the murals for the baptistery, those will be ready and installed by December,” Fr. Nelen said.

Abigail Steck Flippin, a senior architect with The Architects Alliance in Jefferson City, architect of record for the project, noted that the Cathedral and Undercroft are receiving new, efficient electrical and air-handling systems, along with lighting and audiovisual equipment.

Both levels of the building will be equipped with camera equipment for livestream broadcasts.

Chris Hentges, president of Sircal, spoke of installing additional structural supports for the new altar, baptistry and pipe organ, and chipping through 10 feet of solid rock to sink an elevator shaft between the Cathedral and the Undercroft.

Mrs. Flippin said the decorative scheme for the Undercroft echoes and complements that of the rest of the Cathedral.

“Our goal is to make things low-maintenance and durable” in the Undercroft, she said, “and accommodate all the different events that will be happening there.”

She added that a layer of acoustical insulation will help dampen any sound that travels between the upstairs and downstairs.

Seeing and believing

Several people on the tour reflected on the significance of the project.

“Fifty years ago, they built it and made it useful,” one person stated. “Now we’re updating and making it useful for the next 50 to 100 years.”

Another visitor pointed to the catechetical function of all the new artwork.

“It will be a very good educational tool for our kids while they’re growing up,” she stated, “making it more educational to draw people closer to their Catholic faith and teaching them from a young age, incorporating all the different aspects, the different pictures and stained glass windows.”

Bishop McKnight talked about how down through the centuries, the Church has employed the power of beauty to lead people toward the eternal truth of God and salvation.

“Our church buildings, not just the Cathedral but all throughout our diocese, especially some of those magnificent churches out in the hinterlands — they speak volumes of our faith to those passing by,” he said.

“More importantly, however, is the beauty of the faith living in us, lived by us,” he stated. “That’s what changes hearts and converts others to want to know more about our Catholic faith. That is the ultimate goal here.”

Everyone’s Cathedral

Bishop McKnight is asking Catholics from throughout the diocese to support the renovation of their Cathedral by praying for all the artists, laborers, engineers and architects who are responsible for this holy work.

He also invites people throughout the diocese to contribute toward the cost of the renovation as well as the future maintenance of the Cathedral, as long as doing so does not reduce their regular, sacrificial support of their own parish.

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