Largest Episcopal Consecration in U.S. History (Diocese of St. Paul)

The above photo commemorates one of the most solemn and forgotten liturgical events in U.S. history.  It was the day 6 missioner bishops were consecrated in one ceremony on the Midwestern frontier.  The date was May 19, 1910.  The ceremony is remembered as one of the most magnificent in American church history.  The location was St. Mary's Chapel on the grounds of the St. Paul Seminary, in the city named for the Apostle to the Gentiles.  The chapel is still standing today, an idyllic site perched on the upper banks of the mighty Mississippi River.  The only photo that exists of the ceremony is the one here.  The event is recalled in a history book on Catholics in Minnesota: "Neither before nor since have so many bishops been consecrated in a single ceremony in America, and on few occasions has such an event taken place in the long history of the Church" (Catholic Heritage, p. 7).   

The Holy Father Pius X named the 5 priests of the Province of St. Paul to serve as bishops to nearby sees and another priest of the province to assist the Archbishop of St. Paul as an auxiliary bishop.  This was just after the new Dioceses of Bismarck and Crookston were formed, and so it happened that the sees of Lead (Rapid City later replaced this as the see city of that diocese), Fargo and Winona had been deprived of their shepherds by death or transfer.  

The new bishops were left to right: James O'Reilly, John Lawler, Patrick Heffron, Timothy Corbett, Abbot Vincent Wehrle, O.S.B., and Joseph Busch.  Fr. Patrick Heffron, elevated to the see of Winona, was until then Rector of the St. Paul Seminary.  These men were pioneers who laid a strong foundation and should be remembered.  Such a memorable day continues to live in the memory of Catholics who benefitted spiritually from this great celebration, with the new bishops destined for dioceses in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota.     

The music for the liturgy was conducted by Fr. Francis Missia, a Slovenian-born musician who emigrated to Minnesota in 1903 from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was ordained priest in 1908 by Archbishop John Ireland. He was professor of sacred music and choirmaster at the seminary, a position he held for 47 years. The chapel was packed with clergy and faithful alike, many who had been born in distant lands, having emigrated to the New World. 

The interior of the chapel after the 1929-1934 completion of the interior.

St. Mary's Chapel was new at that time, completed in 1905 in Roman Basilica style.  In the image of the ceremony can be seen the original, temporary altar.  The interior of the chapel remained relatively undecorated until 1926.  The exterior was designed with an earthbound, solid, fortress-like quality in Romanesque-Byzantine style with a Renaissance Revival tympanum.  The architect was Clarence H. Johnston who had been the Minnesota State Architect (and one of the most gifted and prolific architects in Minnesota history).  

A glowing page was added to the annals of ecclesiastical art and design in the Midwestern U.S. when the interior and exterior were later decorated beginning in 1926 under the direction Archbishop Austin Dowling, who oversaw the artistic completion of the chapel at the end of his 11-year stint as the Archbishop of St. Paul.  The firm chosen was Maginnis & Walsh of Boston.  The famous artist selected was the muralist Bancel La Farge, highlighted in this LAJ article.    

Maginnis & Walsh were the same firm Dowling had previously selected to build for him a diocesan minor seminary, at a time when Pius XI had encouraged dioceses to build minor seminaries to help facilitate vocations to the priesthood.  That was Nazareth Hall in Roseville, Minnesota, built between 1922-1923.  Dowling was impressed with their work and was thrilled with the design and decoration of Nazareth Hall's beautiful chapel of the Annunciation.  Beginning in the spring of 1923, Maginnis & Walsh subsequently worked on the Cathedral of St. Paul - completing the interior decoration, while also designing a rectory and sacristy worthy of a European cathedral (another busy project!).  

The interior of the chapel as it appeared from 1929-1988.

St. Mary's Chapel is historic for many reasons - it is the place where Fulton Sheen began his practice of a daily Holy Hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament before his ordination in 1919 (he was a student there from 1917-1919). In 1928 he had his first radio show in NYC, and it went national the following year, making him an early celebrity priest and the first Catholic televangelist.  

The interior of the chapel after the infamous renovation of 1988 - that effectively removed the sanctuary.

In 1988 the chapel interior was renovated beyond recognition.  A miserable event, we hope it will one day be restored.  The architect was John Rauma (1926-2005), whose papers on the project can be seen at the University of Minnesota.  The liturgical designer was Frank Kacmarcik (1920-2004), remembered for his utopian "revisioning" of liturgical spaces (another infamous casualty of his work was the Sacred Heart Chapel of the Sisters of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota).  

The renovation was an amputation.  The art and color of the old scheme stands in marked contrast to the almost grim sobriety of the new design.  Precious sheet marble from Italy and old growth forest oak pews were removed and disappeared in dumpsters.  The imported marble floor was covered in granite.  Many in the community tried hard to absorb the astonishing developments when news came of the wreckovation.  The new look produced a blend of reactions that included a profound feeling of bewilderment, disappointment, and in some instances, indignation.  

Distinguished alumnus Professor Ralph McInerny of Notre Dame published in 2006 his autobiography entitled I Alone Have Escaped To Tell You: My Life and Pastimes in which he bemoaned the chapel's 1980s renovation: 

"The major seminary was not sold, but it has been cannibalized by St. Thomas University, an institution in ceaseless metastasis.  Jim Hill's boxcars are now college dorms.  The seminary has been pushed into a corner of the grounds near the chapel.  And, my God, the chapel.  The choir stalls are gone and one now enters from the opposite end, where the sanctuary used to be.  The place would look like a basketball court if it weren't for the stained glass windows and stations.  Such iconoclasm must have been driven by hatred of the sacred.  A generation of post-conciliar revolutionaries wreaked havoc on the church.  Well, God is merciful.  But I find it hard to forgive such sacrilege."

One of the main coterie of innovators behind the renovation plan was the official acting vice-rector at that time, Fr. James Moudry. Formal plans to renovate the chapel took motion in 1984 when Fr. Moudry, who had joined the faculty in 1961, was named the chairman of the sub-committee in charge of the the chapel renovation project. After a sabbatical taken during the academic year 1988-1989, he left the priesthood. When he returned for the dedication of the newly renovated chapel on Saturday, Sept. 23, 1989, he had abandoned the priesthood only a few months before. In 1993 he became "life partners" with a woman who under his tenure taught "liturgical performance" at the seminary. 

Let us pray this historic chapel will be restored to its lost beauty. Given these challenging times, it is more important than ever to teach people that truth exists and we can know it. The Incarnation happened.

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