The Church of the Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, Minnesota

Nativity in autum splendor

One of the most beautiful and unique Gothic Revival churches in North America is the church of the Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, Minnesota.  This Neo-Gothic structure with English Tudor motif is one of many noteworthy churches in Minnesota, a land with a rich landscape of ecclesiastical architecture. This was the first church I entered as a baby in my mother's arms and I was baptized here on Palm Sunday, April 8, 1979.  

Nativity pen and ink rendition with palms

Nativity’s unique church design is the product of the once renowned ecclesiastical design firm, O’Meara and Hills Architects of St. Louis, Missouri and St. Paul, Minnesota.  These architects, Patrick M. O'Meara (1890-1945) and James B. Hills (1888-1979), designed a handful of memorable Catholic churches, schools and institutions in the American Midwest, including Nativity rectory, school and church.
Nativity interior

In 1928 they published a book as a portfolio of their work showcasing their many projects with various interesting pictures, highlighting among other works the Nativity rectory and school project. 

Architect drawing of Nativity from dedication booklet

It is clear from the book that O’Meara and Hills Architects were inspired by the architects and architecture of the Middle Ages, the so-called “age of faith.”  The book ends by expressing a hope that, new edifices undertaken in the future will, “spell the reverence and faith of the craftsmen of the Middle Ages who so sincerely built and dedicated their churches to the honor and to the glory of God.”  O’Meara and Hills believed that the highest form of architecture was concerned with the design of buildings for religious worship and that architecture reaches its highest perfection only with the support of its sister arts, including painting and sculpture.  The firm took pride in the innovation and fittingness of their distinctive design work, summarizing in their book, “Distinctive examples of architecture qualify as such, not by direct imitation of precedent, but by their individual sense of fitness.”  They continue, “Honest materials, honestly used, impart to a building as time goes on the quality of becoming more beautiful.”   

Nativity interior view of sanctuary 

Mr. James B. Hills was the main architect, with a branch office in downtown Minneapolis at 1004 Marquette Avenue.  Hills modeled Nativity’s structural design loosely after St. Wenceslaus church, a previous project he completed in 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri.  The Nativity design was bigger, measuring 171 feet by 81 feet, with a seating capacity of about 1,000 souls.  The original church price tag was $300,000.  Below is an original architectural drawing by Hills of Nativity's front facade.   

Original architectural print by James B. Hills

In 1941 Hills completed the church of St. Francis of Assisi in Rochester, Minn. seen below, built just after Nativity -  in fact, it is a mini version and remarkably similar.  

St. Francis of Assisi in Rochester, based on Nativity's design

Fifteen years later he built the church of Christ the King in Minneapolis seen below, another mini version, although today the interior is beyond recognition due to the exhilaration of a 1991 renovation (today termed a "wreckovation," bringing to mind a quote of T.S. Elliot, "It is...easier to destroy than to construct.").  

Christ the King in Minneapolis, based on Nativity's design

In those days before a church was built, the diocesan business model was to first construct a rectory and school combination to accommodate the Catholic education of children, before the construction of a church.  Meanwhile, Masses were to be celebrated in the school auditorium until funds could be gathered for the construction of a church at a later date. 

First drone image of Nativity

Nativity’s incredible history began with a hand-written letter from the Archbishop’s residence in St. Paul dated September 7, 1922.  The letter from then Archbishop Austin Dowling was prompted by the needs of some five-hundred plus Catholic families in the newly built-up Macalester-Groveland neighborhood that were asking for a church-school combination. In those days much of this neighborhood of St. Paul was still covered with orchards, farm houses and cow barns.  The property where Nativity now stands was originally part of what was known as the Wessinger Farm.   

Fr. Moore, the founder and first pastor of Nativity

With this simple letter addressed to “My dear Father Moore,” a humble immigrant priest from Ireland was called upon to be the pastor of a new parish, yet still to be named.  The Archbishop wrote: “As you know there is neither land nor house nor money.  I am at present finding out about a site for the church of which I think a good one.”  The letter was received by Fr. Moore on the following day, the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin and he felt inspired and decided to name the church in honor of the Nativity of Our Lord.  Nine days later on September 17, Fr. Moore was already celebrating the first Sunday Mass for his new flock in the auditorium of nearby St. Catherine’s College.

Work proceeded with lightning speed and a new rectory and school were constructed within a year. 

Spring scene - the Nativity rectory bathed in the morning sun

On September 14, 1923 the new school opened with 311 pupils and 9 nuns teaching in the flowing black and white habit of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet; the style of the nuns’ beautiful garments dating from the time of their founding in 1650.  In those days the nuns could be seen walking down Prior Avenue to and from their home at St. Joseph’s Provincial House on the campus of St. Catherine’s College.  In 1952 Nativity built a convent for the nuns, today the parish center.   

What the front of Nativity School looked like until the 1960 addition

The school grew so fast that new wings were added in 1927 and 1930.  All this time Mass was celebrated in the school auditorium, which is still standing to this day.  
The school went on to reach an all-time high in 1966 with close to 1,250 students.  Further school additions were added in 1960 and 2006. 

Original plan of Nativity School before the 1960 renovation (before 1939 the church was in the auditorium)

In 1937, despite the economic difficulties of the Great Depression, construction for the new church finally began.

Detail of inside of the exterior walls 

The cornerstone with its Art Deco lettering was uniquely laid not in the front of the church, but as part of the exterior sanctuary wall.  

Nativity cornerstone with thirties lettering  

Spring tulips at Nativity

With continued speed the church was built.
  The day of dedication of the newly completed church was April 16, 1939, celebrated by the Archbishop of St. Paul, John Gregory Murray. Below is a color image of him taken at the Cathedral of St. Paul around the same time. Fr. Moore, the pastor of Nativity, required altar servers to wear slippers so they wouldn't scuff the new floor, which in retrospect, has held up beautifully over the years.  

Below is an image from the collection of the architect, James B. Hills, of the exterior of Nativity under construction. This was during the window installation. 

Nativity under construction in 1939  

Nativity church, with its simple Gothic lines, boasts an exterior of seven different kinds and colors of granite, representing the seven sacraments, the cornerstone of the Faith.  The granite colors are red, black, grey and seam-faced multi-colored, taken from quarries in the vicinity of St. Cloud, Minnesota and from one in Wisconsin. 

Crests symbolizing the prophets seen on the sides of Nativity Church  

The cut stone windows of the church are of Indiana Bedford limestone, brought to St. Paul on railroad cars.
  On the exterior side of the church there are crests that depict the twelve minor prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi).  On the exterior front facade there are symbols that represent the four major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel).  In the Roman Breviary the twelve minor prophets are read during the fourth and fifth weeks of November, which are the last two weeks of the liturgical year before Advent.  

Dave Sonnen (class of 1957) with his granddaughter Anastasia in the church

On the inside the lights shining through the stained glass windows illumine the Nemadji ceramic floor tiles and Stations of the Cross.  

Photo of Nativity with its founder and first pastor, Fr. Moore, standing at the door

Along the walls of the central nave are symbols of the 12 apostles - depicted as 12 pillars of the church.  They begin on the left near the altar with the 2 keys, symbolic of St. Peter (he was given the keys by Christ, symbolic of his authority).  Next are the 3 shells of St. James the Elder (pilgrimage by sea), the spear symbolizing St. Thomas ("doubting," he placed his finger in the side wound of Christ), the cross and 2 loaves of bread symbolizing St. Philip (he was present at the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and victory of the cross), the 3 money bags symbolizing St. Matthew (the tax collector), the Axe symbolizing St. Matthias (after he was martyred he was beheaded).  On the right is the scroll symbolizing St. John (his Gospel is a favorite, distinct from the other 3 "synoptic" gospels), the "X" symbolizing St. Andrew (he was martyred on an x-shaped cross), the saw symbolizing St. James the Less (when he was martyred his body was cut in pieces), the 3 parallel knives symbolic of St. Bartholomew (when he was martyred he was flayed alive), the Bible and fish symbolic of St. Simon (he was a fisherman who became a fisher of men) and the ship, symbolizing St. Jude (a missionary and a fisherman).         

The author, serving for the Third Order of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel

The interior sanctuary is illumined like a lamp showcasing a wealth of carven chestnut paneled walls with wooden art and even a wooden baldachin over the altar, casting a lustre emanating through the church.  The exquisitely carved lone sanctuary crucifix stands above the main altar, casting a gaze upon the place of sacrifice; easily one of the most beautiful hand-carved crucifixes found anywhere in the world.  

The simplex Art Deco altar is rose in color, set atop sanctuary stairs of imported red Verona marble from the north of Italy.  The simple cross on the front of the altar is of the same matching red marble.  The architect, James Hills, believed firmly in having a simple stone altar while at the same time wood carvings done exquisitely according to traditional methods. The tabernacle is made of Carrara.

Tabernacle detail, without the veil

Art Deco tabernacle

Hovering above this spectacle of radiant beauty is a rare sight in North America – a second large cross called a “rood cross” resting on a rood beam - similar to the rood screen, a common feature in late medieval church architecture.  This beam is suspended just under the ceiling, displaying at its central axis the “Great Rood,” a life-sized crucifix displayed for all to see, towering high above in the middle and flanked by the Blessed Mother and St. John.  This unique architectural element divides the chancel and nave, seen surmounting many church sanctuaries in some parts of Europe, intended to be parallel with the Communion rail below.

The side altar in the adoration chapel

The only words seen in the church are carved in wood and painted in yellow high above in the reposeful sanctuary, aspiring in their strength and taken from a popular hymn:
Adore Te Devote Latens Deitas (I Devoutly Adore Thee, O Hidden God). Below are images of the original candlesticks, thankfully still in use today, reflecting the quatrefoil pattern reflected throughout the church. 

Candlestick high altar

Candlestick side altar

The early visitors to Nativity who came for Mass in the lower level basement chapel with its green terrazzo floor were surprised when they noticed something different.  The altar was free-standing and the priest was standing behind it for the duration of Mass.  This was something unheard of in those days, causing Nativity to stand out in its early years as significantly avant-garde with its lower chapel boasting the first “Mass facing the people” altar anyone had ever seen.  Although the sight of a priest celebrating Mass facing the people was something common enough in Rome in select basilicas, in North America in the 1930s it was something novel and edgy, at the fore front of a new trend that was soon enough to become commonplace in the 1960s.  

A rare image of Mass "facing the people" in the basement of Nativity

Interestingly, the movement for free-standing altars was inspired by studies proposed by the twentieth century liturgical movement and promoted by some Benedictines at the nearby St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Spring colors

The 1939 church dedication booklet spells out the change, reminding the faithful: “Members of Nativity parish should feel proud that they have the first (in these second thousand years) altar facing the people in the United States.”  
It continues, “They should also be grateful to their Most Reverend Archbishop, who has granted them permission to have their altar so, and to have the recited Mass*.  Without doubt, there is no better way to show gratitude than by actually assisting at Mass more perfectly.”  [*The “recited Mass,” Missa Recitata or “Dialogue Mass” was another novel innovation of the time, when the congregation would recite the Latin responses along with the servers.  Before that time, the servers said the responses alone in the name of the people]. 

Early 1990's image of Nativity by Karen Ritz

Nativity’s baby boomer parishioners have fond memories from their youth of a weekly packed Sunday Mass in the downstairs chapel, especially on Nativity’s patronal feast of Christmas Day, when two Midnight Masses were celebrated simultaneously upstairs and downstairs.  The precious wooden sanctuary cross in the basement chapel, suspended above the altar, was uniquely two-sided, depicting on the side of the priest the crucified Christ while on the side of the congregation the risen Christ.  The chapel also had an organ.  
During an overly enthusiastic late 1960s renovation the original scheme of the basement chapel suffered a thorough and injurious remodeling and nothing of the historic original altar or sanctuary remains.  At the same time the original hand-carved Communion rail in the upstairs church was tragically removed and lost.  Some of the custom sanctuary kneelers, that matched the rail, ended up at St. Boniface in St. Bonifacius, MN.    

Crosier of Bishop Byrne, with Irish cross, used at many ceremonies at Nativity

One of the earliest documents in Nativity's parish archives is an article describing the first Christmas Mass in 1922, mentioning the fine choir and beautiful singing. Fr. Moore, who had founded Nativity in 1922, served at the parish for 26 years. He passed away at age 78 on a Wednesday morning, Jan. 21, 1948 at St. Joseph's Hospital. His successor was 39-year old Bishop James J. Byrne who came in February of the same year. Fr. Moore's time at Nativity was a time of building. New homes, new schools, new churches, with people putting down roots in the new neighborhood. The construction cost of Nativity church was about $1.25 million. The debt was completely paid before Fr. Moore passed. He preferred to give in secret. After he died, it was revealed he had given at least $21,000 of his own money toward the construction, revealed after his death by an examination of the books. His first five years at Nativity he took no salary whatsoever.  

Burial place of Fr. Moore at Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights, Minn.

Plaque commemorating Bishop Byrne's life at his burial place in Dubuque

No history of Nativity is complete without a prominent mention of Monsignor Clarence Steiner, who was assigned to Nativity as a young priest in 1944. He remained until 1998. Msgr. Steiner was much loved by everyone. He is remembered for his holiness and kindness. His favorite activity was hearing confessions.  In 1970 he was named an honorary prelate, with the title of "monsignor," an honor bestowed upon him by the pope.  Msgr. Steiner was quite an athlete and in his younger years he would play baseball with the kids in the school parking lot and he would come to their games. On Sunday nights when the kids would be playing all in the school play area, he would come out to the playground and raise two fingers, which meant he needed two servers for Sunday night Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The boys would race to see who got their first. 

The liturgical life of Nativity reached a golden age in the 1950s under the pastorate of Bishop James J. Byrne, auxiliary to the Archbishop of St. Paul and pastor from 1948-1956.  The young bishop traveled a lot, but his daily Mass at Nativity was well attended, served by 4 altar boys, the tradition in those days for the Low Mass of a bishop. Bishop Byrne was the first Minnesota native named an Archbishop and the second native of St Paul to be elected to the episcopate. His brother went on to the be Mayor of St. Paul. Bishop Bryne grew upon on Sherburne Ave. in St. Columba's Irish parish. He attended Cretin High School (when it was located downtown St. Paul), and was one of the first students at Nazareth Hall. Ordained priest in 1933, he spent for years (1933-1937) as a graduate student at the Catholic University in Louvain (Leuven), Belgium. When Archbishop Murray was hit by a car in 1947, Byrne's name was put forward to be his new auxiliary bishop. 

Bishop Byrne of Nativity as Bishop of Dubuque

Bishop Byrne was a familiar sight at diocesan events

Bishop Byrne appreciated sacred music. He installed a new Wicks pipe organ and hired local musician, Fr. Richard Schuler, to be a weekend assistant and choir director of Nativity's 4 choirs.  For 16 years Fr. Schuler directed at Nativity, introducing the first orchestral Mass on Christmas Eve 1956, a tradition that continued for many years.  That same month Fr. Schuler had the first performance of his newly founded Twin Cities Catholic Chorale, which is still in existence today, thriving at St. Agnes parish. When Fr. Schuler left Nativity, several choir members and the organist followed him to St. Agnes. Parishioners remember his enjoyable choir practices in the basement of Nativity school. The Gregorian Chant schola wold practice 20 minutes before Solemn Mass in one of the side chapels of the church. The Nativity choir was renowned during this period, not only for preserving the best of the past, but also for fostering famous modern compositions as well, such as Pietro Yon's Victimae Paschali, an Easter motet first published in 1919, it was Bishop Byrne's favorite. 

Bishop Byrne with Fr. Steiner

Bishop Byrne celebrates Solemn Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, assisted by Fr. Steiner, his associate curate.  Bishop Byrne is remembered for his giant, black Buick Roadmaster parked on the street across from the rectory, with a bumper sticker that read: "The Power of Prayer."

In 1961 color photos of Mass celebrated at Nativity in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite were featured in a hand missal and prayer book created for the laity, called the Cathedral Daily Missal, published by the E.M. Lohmann Company of St. Paul, once the city’s largest church supplies provider. The owners of Lohmann's were parishioners at Nativity, Adolph and Bernice Block, who lived on Juliet. Other well-known parishioners included the Al Matt family, publishers of The Wanderer, who lived on Palace Ave. 

Nativity image in the missal depicts the altar rail, with linen cloth hanging behind it  

Below is an image of the portable altar that was used at Nativity for several years after Vatican Council II. It was elevated on a carpeted platform that took up a considerable amount of space in the middle the sanctuary. The altar was custom made for the space in the mid-1960s and was used until the early 1980s.  

Nativity's former portable altar, seen in many wedding photos from the time
In the early 1970s Fr. Eugene Tiffany, a well-liked associate at Nativity (remembered for throwing footballs with kids on the rectory lawn and riding his motorcycle down the river to invite teenagers having fires on weekends to get get to church on Sundays), invited parishioner Bob Berendt (a high school English teacher and art collector) to work at Nativity. Bob and his wife Pat were from Mankato and had joined the parish in the late 1950s when they moved to the neighborhood. Bob became the church sacristan for 10 years and Pat began the tradition of funeral lunches, originally served from the basement art room in the school. Bob was a former seminarian and had a keen interest in all things church related. During his time as sacristan he helped amass a substantial relic collection for the parish, a treasure of inestimable value. Bob and Pat later donated to Nativity a precious icon written in Pennsylvania. Fr. Lannan had it framed and placed in the adoration chapel in the 1980s, where it remains to this day, seen below.  

Nativity's icon, donated by Bob and Pat Berendt, from Pennsylvania

Nativity's gifted architect, James Bertram Hills, A.I.A. lived in Delano, MN with his wife Margaret (née Witman) and 2 daughters. He passed away on January 29, 1979 in Anoka County and is buried in Delano Public Cemetery, never to be forgotten. The collection of his architectural records, known as the Hills, Gilbertson Papers, are kept under the care of the University of Minnesota, Northwest Architectural Archives. Very little is known of James Hills. He was born in New York and lived in St. Louis before his move to Minnesota. His influence as an architect is felt across the nation.

The grave of Nativity's architect, James B. Hills, on the Crow River in Delano, Minnesota  

East wall of the church with signs of water intrusion  

Unfortunately, due to an apparent design flaw, Nativity's walls - almost since the beginning - have had a long history of water intrusions primarily on the east side of the church. This is due to a lack of eaves. Over the years this has proven a major burden on the parish community - a costly problem exceeding the annual budget. Readers are asked to pray for a solution. The damage includes spalling of the precious stonework and extensive plaster damage. Tuckpointing of mortar joints and redoing failing areas continues into the future.

Nativity's record released in the 1970s

In 1994 Fr. Lannan had an outdoor manger scene installed for Christmastime in front of the rectory, seen below, capturing the magic of Christmas for both children and adults alike.

Outdoor manger scene acquired by Fr. Lannan

The outdoor manger was donated in 1994

For the celebration of the Holy Year 2000 many artistic improvements were made during the tenure of pastor Fr. Peter Christensen. An artist himself, Fr. Christensen was the man of the hour to supervise countless updates and improvements to the church through a successful major renovation that included new statues and a monumental new organ. Various motifs were added thanks to his artistic eye, seen in the new iron gates, new organ casing, new doors and door windows, new vents, and even the new bulletin holders, seen below. The clever motifs include the rose of sharon (a symbol of beauty, taken from the Song of Solomon), the lily (a symbol of purity, the object which St. Joseph gave to Our Lady on that March day at the time of their betrothment), and quatrefoil (a symbol of the cross flowering into the resurrection).
  The bulletin holders (above) and door windows (below), designed by Nativity pastor, Fr. Peter  

The quatrefoil, a popular hidden symbol in Nativity church, reminiscent of the cross flowering into the resurrection -- take a look around the church and count how many you can find...don't forget to include the choir loft!

One of the major improvements made at that time was the installation of a new organ, dedicated in 2003. The original organ, which had performed for six decades, was used from the start and was in need of replacement.

Nativity has long had a special connection with the Holy Land and the grotto in Bethlehem, the oldest church in Palestine. Fr. Patrick Lannan, Nativity pastor from 1986-1998, had a great devotion to the Holy Land and led five parish pilgrimages there during his tenure. The same tour itinerary with the same guide is now offered by BesTours of Nazareth. Fr. Lannan's favorite place to visit was the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. He always said that Christmas began there with Mary's "yes," her fiat, when Christ was conceived in her womb. He celebrated his last Mass in the Basilica in 1998, the same day of his untimely death, saying in his sermon: "Let go and let God."

Nativity pastor, Fr. Pat Lannan, who led Holy Land pilgrimages

The message of Nativity church is the joy of Christmas, marking the beginning of our redemption through grace to the supernatural life.  Carved in limestone above the main entrance on the front facade of Nativity are the words: Christum Regem Incarnatum Venite Adoremus: Come Let Us Adore Christ the King Incarnate!     

One of the first weddings in the new Nativity Church was a Sonnen family wedding on June 27, 1939 (John and Georgiana Kippels Sonnen).

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