National Shrine of the Apostle Paul

Photo: OC-Travel
One of the most magnificent shrines in North America is the National Shrine of the Apostle Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota.  I have always said it is one of the most perfectly laid out sanctuaries of any church I have seen anywhere in the world.  An ideal liturgical space with adequate room for any variety of the most solemn of liturgies.  A nationally-recognized "edifice of merit," the Cathedral of St. Paul was consecrated in 1958 in a five-hour ceremony and will forever assume its rightful place as one the world's premier houses of worship.

First Holy Communion photo on the front steps of the St. Paul Cathedral, circa 1926.  

My grandfather, Robert Donald Western (above photo, 1919-2014) grew up here and attended Cathedral School where he graduated in 1934. He served daily Mass in the 1920s and 1930s under both Archbishop Austin Dowling and Archbishop John Gregory Murray. He was also present for the historic visit in 1936 of Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, future Venerable Pius XII, when Catholic high school students were bused in to attend the morning Low Mass of the Cardinal Secretary of State. In those days many priests lived in the rectory, my grandpa said, and there were many nuns from nearby St. Joseph's Academy and the Cathedral School.

Plaque commemorating the visit of Cardinal Pacelli on October 27, 1936.

The Cathedral of St. Paul is truly a pilgrim’s church, following the design of pilgrimage churches in Europe, offering worship spaces separated from pilgrims who may be wandering about the church visiting and praying their own devotions. The design of the floor space is fascinating. The floor plan is a Latin cross with pew space divided into one massive nave with transepts, a chancel with a choir in the sanctuary, a generous ambulatory showcasing multiple chevet apse chapels – all for the purpose of accommodating multiple clergy, various devotions and different groups in prayer.

Interior view of the Cathedral of St. Paul.  

To see and visit this stunning shrine is a phenomenal experience - it is not only a cathedral, but since 2009 also a national shrine, declared such by the Holy See and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The story of the cathedral goes back to 1904 when plans were first set in motion for its construction. It was decided the scale would be grand and the style would be classical revival with French Renaissance and classical themes at the forefront. The cathedral design was roughly based on famous French churches, PĂ©rigueux Cathedral and Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Paris. Construction began in 1906. Nearly ten years later, the cathedral was opened in 1915 with festive pomp. The interior decoration was later completed in the 1950s, just before its consecration.

Three ambitious men made this dream a reality. Archbishop Ireland, the first Archbishop of St. Paul was a man with a vision and a drive to construct a European-size cathedral in the New World. Architect Emmanuel Masqueray was the man of the hour who was capable to translate into stone the full significance of this dream. And Canadian-born railroad baron James J. Hill was there to put forward the finances necessary to build a cathedral worthy of the name.

Archbishop Ireland led Minnesota Catholics for thirty-three years until his death in 1918. Born in Ireland in 1838, his fascination with church architecture began as a young student while he spent eight years of seminary training in France. Touring various churches his admiration grew for the splendor of Medieval Gothic and Neoclassical art and architecture. Enraptured with the beauty of the old churches he encountered, he remarked: "They were truly monuments of faith and piety, and more eloquently than the most eloquent pages of written history they tell us that in older times the children of the Church were giants in devotion to religion."

Masqueray was born in Dieppe, France in 1861 and was raised in Rouen before the family moved to Paris. In 1879 when he was just seventeen he entered the fabled Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the oldest and most prestigious fine arts schools in the world. Later he lived in Italy for two years and then moved to the United States, settling on the banks of the upper mighty Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was while at the Academy of Fine Arts that Masqueray was taught the criteria for proper design – in fact, these were the same criteria used by the French philosophical eclectics around the same time to test the validity of an idea: truth, beauty and goodness.

According to the Beaux-Arts tradition, truth demanded that the exterior of a building clearly reflect the purpose for which it was constructed. Vagaries of location and climate were also taken into consideration. Further, beauty and goodness were achieved by following the familiar classical style so familiar and acceptable to the public and the Church. Finally, once having achieved its desired state, a design was never to be altered. With his architect’s pencil, Masqueray drew religion's meaning, history and purpose in his cathedral, creating the structure as a beacon set on a hill. He lived to see the exterior completed before passing away in 1917.

And who to finance this ambitious project? The men looked to a Canadian-American Protestant to save the day. Ontario-born railroad magnate, Mr. James J. Hill was born in 1838. A Methodist his entire life, he had a devotedly Catholic wife and became close friends with Archbishop Ireland after his move to St. Paul. Hill became known in 1893 when his Great Northern Railway connected for the first time St. Paul, Minnesota with Seattle, Washington – completing the link between the two oceans (this rail line still exists today, known as the “Empire Builder”). It was thanks to Hill’s financial generosity that the cathedral became a reality – with a price tag of one-million dollars. Hill was more than happy to support this worthy cause. As a faithful Christian businessman, he was a firm believer in faith and public life. When Hill died in 1916 it is said he was worth fifty-three million dollars and much of that was given to finance various charities, public and religious institutions in St. Paul and beyond.

Unique cornerstone of the Cathedral of St. Paul.  

The Cathedral of St. Paul continues strong to this day. Fortunately the interior survived untouched the devastating effects of the 1960s spirit of iconoclasm while the "table altar" remains, a symbol of the simulacrum of our times. The Communion rail and high altar - due to unfortunate political machinations - are still no longer used, not even for special occasions such as First Communions or weddings. I would like to see a daily Mass offered in the Extraordinary Form in the Sacred Heart Chapel, which I would be happy to serve daily in the footsteps of my grandfather, God rest his soul.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.