Our Lady of Victory Chapel at St. Catherine University

Photos by OC-Travel
One of my absolute favorite churches in North America is the Romanesque Revival chapel of Our Lady of Victory at the University of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota.  The structure was built by the school Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ) in Roman Basilica style, complete with a 116-foot campanile bell tower with tiled roof.  It is inspiring and comforting to contemplate its beauty and pure joy to pay a visit.  I spent my boyhood visiting here, riding my bike nearly every day in summer months to sit in its shadows, feeling comforted by its majestic walls and ivy-covered tower.  At sunset I would watch the changing colors of the luminous sun-drenched facade, bathed in a cascade of late afternoon sunlight.  I still visit here on occasion and now bring my daughter to pray and admire the same greatness.  

The chapel is an architectural triumph and a delight.  It justifies itself by announcing itself as a visitor from the past, an ideal example from a golden age of church architecture.  The old language speaks of something great that has gone before, providing for an experience which seizes visitors and warms the heart and stirs the soul.  It speaks to a city whose walls are to be eternal, from whose temples the celestial powers shall never depart.    

The architectural art blesses the human spirit with something like a vision of redemption.  It is so nice, it would be great to see the same design replicated and copied for other new church construction in other cities.  It is clear an immense amount of thought and planning went into the design and decoration.  The church even includes living quarters and offices for the chaplain and priests on the faculty, a nice touch (seen below), attached to the sacristy.  This is connected by an ambulatory passageway behind the sanctuary that connects both sacristies.    

Beautiful gardens surround the chapel with an excellent selection of flowers that bloom all summer.  Today the chapel is in a fine state of preservation and is popular for alumnae weddings, when students who have graduated from St. Kate's return for their dream wedding celebration.  The outstanding semi-circular tympanum of the main portal is the main artistic jewel (seen below), showcasing in the middle a hand-carved image of Our Lady of Victory with the Christ Child, modeled after the famous statue of Our Lady of Victory found in the east transept of the Basilica of Notre-Dame-des-Victories in Paris, France.  

The chapel was built in 1923 by a local architect, Herbert A. Sullwold.  The model for inspiration chosen was the Cathedral of St. Trophime in Arles, near Avignon, in the South of France.  Mother Antonia McHugh, CSJ, the nun who was Dean of the College of St. Catherine from 1914-1929, oversaw the building of the chapel and its fundraising.  She had traveled to Europe and became fond of the French Cathedral in Provence, which had been built between the 12th and 15th century.  The highlight of the Cathedral's exterior in its west portal is a magnificently carved tympanum, considered one of the finest examples of Romanesque sculpture in the world.  The general structure of the church and portal entrance with tympanum were copied beautifully in the new chapel in St. Paul.  The architect had visited and studied the cathedral in France to sketch and take measurements when he went to Europe in 1921 for an extended holiday to study architecture.  In the end everyone was more than satisfied with the new church.  One significant change made was the addition of a magnificent rose window added to the front facade.  The final cost was about $400,000, paid largely by prosperous northern farmers with ties to the college.  The architect himself was very proud of the finished product, and described the style as, "Modern-Byzantine-Romanesque."  Paul Steenberg Construction Co. was the builder (headquartered in downtown St. Paul's beautiful Endicott Building).    

The elaborate entrance portal features friezes depicting Our Lady with the Christ Child, the Twelve Apostles, as well as the patroness of the University, St. Catherine of Alexandria, a saint from Egypt.  St. Joseph is also depicted, the patron of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.  St. John the Evangelist is included in honor of Archbishop John Ireland who helped found the college.  St. Theresa of Avila is included because the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet became a congregation on her feast day.  Meanwhile, St. Thérèse of Lisieux is also included because Mother Antonia had great devotion to her (she was canonized the year after the chapel was completed in 1925).  The artist had a sense of humor and the statues of the saints are a kind of "who's who" of the college from that period.  Legend avers Mother Antonia is depicted as one of the sainted nuns while the Archbishop is depicted as a bishop, St. Augustine.  

Hand-crafted door hinges can be seen along with exquisite outdoor polychrome ceramics (seen below).  Shamrocks were included in the design of the bas-relief molding (see below), a wink of the eye to the Irish-American nuns who founded the college, including Mother Seraphine Ireland, Provincial Superior from 1882-1921 (and sister to Archbishop Ireland, who helped found the college).  All the details, small and large, display classical influences giving inspiration and voice to objective artistic values.  The nuns were eminent in their good taste, lovers of art, patrons and promoters of beauty and elegance by reason of their fine appreciation and keen critical judgment developed through years of patient and persevering study of classical works and the masters.  

Beauty, symmetry, and harmony of soul, these the Church had taught taught them to cherish and love.  The nuns had been formed by the wisdom of the ages, holiness, high-mindedness and the will to carry out courageously the fine purposes which the Christian religion demands.  Mighty in word, and more mightily in deed, the sisters can still be seen by those with an imagination, in their long flowing habits, the epitome of elegance and refinement, praying in the chambered recesses of the hallways and parlors of St. Kate's, the murmurings of their prayers echoing faintly through the chapel, the golden melodies of Gregorian Chant in Latin.      

The chapel was dedicated on October 7, 1924, its titular feast celebrating Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, also known as Our Lady of Victory.  The Mass and rite was celebrated by Archbishop Austin Dowling, Archbishop of St. Paul.  Once the debt of construction had been finally paid, the chapel was consecrated on May 1, 1958 by Archbishop William Brady, Archbishop of St. Paul.  The chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.  Hundreds of contributors gave to the 1995-1997 chapel restoration campaign that restored the chapel from a state of desperate decay, found crumbling with age. 

After the restoration, alumnae return more than ever for weddings and other quiet visits.  Both students and graduates commonly describe the scene as a place of beauty, color and silent stillness, a place of pleasant memories.  Across the manicured slope in front of the chapel is the Dew-Drop pond, a great attraction to escape and enjoy a moment of revery, an abstracted state of absorption, released from reality.  For over 70 years a massive willow tree had stood tall in front of the chapel, which since died - many alumnae hope the administration will some day replace it with a new one.     

When the chapel was built, the school - St. Catherine's College - was one of the most prestigious women's colleges in the world, with wealthy female students coming from across the country and abroad.  Not only did the nuns own and operate the college, on the same campus they also had their own high school for girls, on the second floor of Derham Hall.  Both schools went hand in hand, acting as feeders to the convent.  In fact, the two buildings are covered with an ivy-covered bridge that was modeled after the bridge of a Venetian canal, spanning between the chapel and Derham Hall.  

Convent, chapel and classroom were all united in the work of womanly formation - the results were to be shown in the homes the graduates would found.  In those days American nuns were the most educated women in the world, wielding tremendous power and influence with a national multi-million dollar apparatus of schools and hospitals.  The nuns were pioneers in the areas of education and health care.  Then as today, the education of Catholic women was paramount for the survival of Catholic life in the New World.  In the worlds of Fr. Virgil Michael, OSB, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, who addressed the Minnesota Council of Catholic women in 1936: "The worst that can happen to a civilization is that its women descend to the moral depths of the unchristian men of the age.  We are at that state today."

Above is detail of the hand-carved bas-relief located above the main entrance portal.  The cornerstone (seen below) reads: "Erected in the year nineteen-hundred and twenty three, with a carven version of the Jerusalem Cross.  Such a more interesting cornerstone the author has never seen.  In some ways it brings to mind a quote from The Odes, the Latin lyric poems of Horace: "I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze" (The Odes of Horace, III, 30, 1).

The exterior walls are a fascinating creation with peculiar stonework, revealing a genuine contribution to the science of art and decoration.  The architect's design incorporated an unusual pattern of large mostly rectangular-cut ashlar masonry stones, with inlaid red brick borders and polychromatic ceramic tiles.  These brick-bordered ashlar blocks of shot-cut Bedford travertine are totally unique in their clever placement.  The sheer creativity, inventiveness of design and execution are nothing short of brilliant.  Architectural historian Larry Millet has described the visual effect as, "visual jazz."        

The interior sanctuary has a stained-glass window of Christ the King, a popular devotion in the 1920's.  The Stations of the Cross are polychromatic ceramic creations of great artistic merit.  Throughout the interior can be seen ornate earth-hued tile designs, reflecting symbols of the Faith and Humanities.  

The barrel vault in the ceiling reaches a height of 126 feet (38 meters).  The original Reuter pipe organ is sill in place, with a newer organ added in 1991.  The original altar was unfortunately replaced in the 1960's with "modern" one of granite and Mankato stone.  The interior walls and pillars are covered with distinctive Batchelder ceramic tiles, a product of the American Arts and Crafts period, an ingenious way to decorate the interior walls and floors.       

The altar of repose boasts a lovely statue of the Sedes Sapientae (Seat of Wisdom), a devotional title of Our Lady, displayed on a background of black marble.  This type of madonna image is based on a Byzantine prototype and is a common sight in Catholic universities.  

The black and white photo above, taken in the 1950's, displays the fervent devotion of the students and faculty with graduating seniors kneeling on the campus street during an outdoor Corpus Christi procession on a beautiful June afternoon.  On the portable altar is exposed the Blessed Sacrament carried by Bishop James J. Byrne, pastor of nearby Nativity of Our Lord parish.  Boys from nearby Nativity school serve with high school cadets from nearby St. Thomas Military Academy carrying the processional canopy.  Dominicans from Minneapolis and other priests on the faculty can be seen.  Indeed, those were the days.  An age of faith on the campus of St. Catherine's.  The voices of the Catholic ladies, with Gregorian strains but added to the quiet dignity of the ceremony.  The ever-faithful sisters in their habits lent an air of gentle dignity to the temporary sanctuary.    

The message is eternal architecture, which brings to mind a quote from Plato in The Philebus written in the 4th century BC, "The knowledge which is stable, and pure, and true, and unalloyed, is that which has to do with the things that are eternal." The pursuit of that only real knowledge so revered by Plato which makes us look to eternity and "hate that which we ought to hate and love that which we ought to love" should be the ideal ever more deeply understood and ever more closely followed by those who would be crowned by wisdom's wreath of laurel.  The chapel is a symbol of eternity, a place where we belong, a plant of heavenly growth, captivating the imagination, a creature destined to work mightily for values which are everlasting.   

In concluding, the chapel recounts the achievements of the nuns who built it.  It gathers the reverberations of glad times and sad.  As the last handful of nuns (now venerable in age) pass into the next world, let us hope and pray they will be replaced with fresh new vocations.  And may heaven reward the generations of nuns who have gone before us, the pioneer sisters who stood on Catholic truth as their bedrock and created something great.  May their memory be eternal: "They that instruct many into justice shall shine as stars through all eternity." -Daniel 12:3

Finally, a black and white archival photo of what the chapel looked like before the altar was wreckovated:

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