Renovation plans presented for Cathedral of St. Joseph

Bishop McKnight hopes to make the cathedral “unmistakably Catholic” through project focused on beauty and hospitality


CLICK HERE to see a video of Mr. Heyer's presentation. 

One of the first things people will notice upon entering the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City after its pending renovation will be a new crucifix.

It will rest atop a section of the tensile ring that has been holding the walls and crown-shaped roof together for over half-a-century.

“Christ on the cross, front and center!” stated church architect William Heyer. “The symbolism couldn’t be any better. He is what holds the Church together, and we’ll have a prominent reminder of that right above the altar.”

Mr. Heyer recently presented his designs for renovating and expanding the cathedral to deepen its Catholic identity.

About 50 people attended the presentation, while many others watched and asked questions via livestream.

The renovation will blend familiar elements with classical embellishments that will enhance the cathedral’s beauty, functionality, capacity for hospitality and uniquely Catholic identity.

“We want to make our cathedral more welcoming and conducive to prayer and worship,” stated Bishop W. Shawn McKnight, who commissioned Mr. Heyer to begin working on the designs last year.

The bishop pointed out that a Catholic church, and in a particular way a cathedral as the mother church of a diocese, is “an abode of God” and “a gateway to heaven.”

As such, it should be unmistakably Catholic.

“In this sacred place, God blesses us as we give Him our worship and praise,” the bishop said. “We are the living stones of Christ’s Church, His dwelling among people. But the living Church is housed in this abode of God.

“Here we come to worship God, together, as well as in individual devotional prayer,” he stated.

The renewed cathedral will include a substantially larger gathering area — known as a narthex — fronting West Main Street, as well as an outdoor canopy and bell towers.

Symbols of St. Joseph will adorn the front of the canopy.

As was originally intended when the cathedral was built, bells will be placed in one of the towers.

The narthex will include additional rest rooms and an elevator to a renovated downstairs Undercroft, site of numerous parish and diocesan gatherings.

Signature elements of the mid-century cathedral, including its circular design, geometric windows, Douglas fir beams, terrazzo floor and white travertine marble, will be preserved.

A new altar, tabernacle, ambo, bishop’s chair and baptistery will be created for the reconfigured sanctuary.

New wood paneling and the cross for the new crucifix will be made from locally grown white oak.

New stained-glass windows will draw more sunlight into the cathedral. Each will depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments and saints of the Church, united under the theme of Acts of the Apostles 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.”

“Those activities correlate very strongly with the three-fold mission of Christ as prophet, shepherd and priest — and the Church’s corresponding mission of word, charity and liturgy,” Bishop McKnight noted.

One window will depict Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, Jesus’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, St. Peter preaching his first homily on Pentecost, and saints that have been declared doctors (teachers) of the Church.

New sculptures, mosaics, stenciling and other classical artwork will help define other areas of prayer throughout the cathedral, including shrines devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, St. Isadore the Farmer and his wife, Blessed Maria, and Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, who was a native of northeastern Missouri.

Colorful new Stations of the Cross will be painted on copper.

A new, custom-designed organ will be installed.

Artisans from as far away as Germany and Italy and as near as Chicago and Kansas City will create the artwork.

A ramp behind the sanctuary will offer easy access for priests, deacons and liturgical ministers who have impaired mobility.

“This is a sensitive look at a beautiful building where we’re enhancing not only its functionality but also its Catholic identity,” Mr. Heyer stated.

He is working in collaboration with local architects from Architects Alliance Inc. of Jefferson City.

“With the help of the improvements and the beautification that we are proposing, we want everything within the space, all the architecture, all the shrines, the color of the mosaics, the sanctuary — we want all of it to make you fall in love with our Lord and with our faith and deepen your relationship with Him in every way,” Mr. Heyer said.

Something to build on

Mr. Heyer, whose firm is based in Ohio, studied modern architecture at Pratt Institute in New York and has been charting and overseeing the construction, renovation and restoration of Catholic churches of all varieties since 1997.

“Our goal for all of them is to make them more beautiful and part of what we refer to as ‘the timeless tradition of Catholic architecture,’” he said.

He believes church architecture must fundamentally serve and advance the prayer life of God’s people and the building up of their faith.

“That’s my goal, that’s my vocation,” he stated.

Bishop McKnight worked with Mr. Heyer in the early 2000s on plans to restore the historical main chapel at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio, where then-Father McKnight was serving as director of liturgy.

“The work didn’t actually take place until years later,” Mr. Heyer said of his collaboration with the future bishop, “but a lot of his vision was incorporated into that project, and it turned out very well.”

Bishop McKnight contacted Mr. Heyer in 2019, after assuming leadership of the Jefferson City diocese.

He wanted the architect to explore the Cathedral of St. Joseph, built in 1968 in a style now often referred to as Mid-Century Modern, and offer suggestions for how it could be updated and beautified.

Specifically, the bishop hoped:

  • to address maintenance issues and the need for repairs;
  • to make the cathedral more recognizably Catholic and prayerful, inside and out; and
  • to help make it a place where people can encounter the mercy of God, especially through hospitality.

Mr. Heyer said the bishop’s vision could be fulfilled with proper respect to the materials and geometry that have been present all along.

“We do not intend to erase the character of the building but to respect it and improve it,” he said.

“What we propose will change what is there,” he noted, “but with great sensitivity to it and to the liturgical and architectural history of the Church.”

Existing windows, mosaics, Stations of the Cross, sanctuary fixtures and other items will be preserved and given new life in other liturgical environments.

“Good bones”

Mr. Heyer applies the principles of classical architecture — including good proportion, propriety and economy — to all of his projects.

“These things are universal,” he said.

Alert to details, he believes every element of a church must express an invitation to draw closer to God and enter into fuller communion as His people.

He believes church architecture should help people understand that their faith transcends numerous generations.

“Our churches don’t tie us to the moment in history in which they were built but to centuries of what makes us Catholic,” he said.

He is convinced that the Cathedral of St. Joseph “has good bones, the right bones that express the Catholic faith.”

He intends to make better use of light, sound and the organization of peripheral space to create a more distinct and timeless experience of God’s presence.

He noted that the cathedral’s original architect wanted to emphasize the altar and tabernacle by placing them in a recessed area of the sanctuary.

“We’ve now come up with some exciting ways of doing that without taking away from the geometry of the circular shape,” said Mr. Heyer. “Engineers helped us figure out how to work around the tensile ring, which cannot be removed.”

Hence the perfect location for the crucifix.

“Divine providence plays a big role in the work we do,” said Mr. Heyer. “I couldn’t have thought of that on my own. God thought of it.”

 A house of prayer

Mr. Heyer subscribes to an axiom often attributed to Sir Winston Churchill: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards, they shape us.”

“When you drive by this cathedral and see the large, welcoming portico and hear the bells, I want you to want to go inside and discover more about our Catholic faith,” he said. “I want you to want to go in there and learn more about Jesus. I want you to meet Him.”

Bishop McKnight and Mr. Heyer worked with a renovation commission composed of Father Louis Nelen, pastor of the Cathedral Parish, Father Daniel Merz, chairman of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission, Father Jeremy Secrist, the bishop’s delegate for pipe organs, and Cathedral of St. Joseph parishioners Julie Malmsrom, Millie Schell and Edith Vogel.

Mr. Heyer and the committee studied images of numerous altars, ambos, bishop’s chairs and baptismal fonts from churches and cathedrals built across centuries throughout the world.

The Diocesan Liturgical Commission has reviewed and helped refine the current renovation proposal, followed by the priests of the diocese during their annual institute last month.

Fr. Nelen said renovations to the Undercroft, to be guided by Architects Alliance Inc., will take about six months from when they start.

Renovations to the cathedral proper will take about a year, once the Undercroft is completed.

Bishop McKnight said the diocese will be primarily responsible for paying for renovations to the cathedral proper, while Cathedral of St. Joseph Parish will be responsible for renovations to the Undercroft.

Cost estimates are being tabulated. No start date has been set.

Bishop McKnight said he hopes every parish will create a master plan in order to maintain unity and harmony among building projects in the near and distant future.

Doorway to the eternal

Mr. Heyer said the purpose of every detail — from mosaics to woodwork to improved sound and light, to a more welcoming entrance — will be to make Christ’s invisible presence more visible.

He said entering the cathedral through the expanded narthex will echo the ancient symbolism of passing over a threshold between the earthly realm and the eternal.

Approaching the altar will likewise be akin to ascending a holy mountain in order to be closer to God.

“Every church is meant to be an image of Christ,” he said. “Not just the Liturgy, not just the Eucharist, but everything in the church is in some way supposed to represent Christ.”