St. Raphael’s Cathedral: A Proposal by Michael Bursch

St. Raphael’s Cathedral: A Thesis Proposal

by Michael Bursch

In 2005, the stately, old cathedral of Madison, Wisconsin burned to the ground overnight from a case of arson. Ever since, the diocese has needed a new cathedral.

Whether the daily Mass-goer or the simple passerby, all people need reminders of Heaven, to lift their minds to God amidst the busyness of life. A cathedral serves as this reminder, connecting to and serving as a symbol of the heavenly reality to the individual worshiper, the city in which it resides, and the global Church. This occurs via its architecture: With prominence on its site, a cathedral is the “head” of a diocese, a physical manifestation of faith that draws people upwards towards the immaterial through its beauty which inspires deeper belief. With richness in its ornamentation, a cathedral is also the “heart” of a diocese, drawing people together by fostering prayer, worship, outreach, and the sacraments. This proposed cathedral is located on the same site as the old cathedral. Only two blocks from the Wisconsin State Capitol, this prominent location calls for an equally prominent building: As a result, the proposed cathedral is rotated from the street grid—its previous orientation—and instead aligned with the cardinal directions, with the apse facing east. 

As a symbol of the Light of Christ in the rising sun, the cathedral is set apart from the rest of the urban fabric. The only other building in Madison that aligns with the cardinal directions is the State Capitol. This creates an architectural conversation between the capitol and cathedral, which continues in each building’s massive classical dome. Both of these domes–which are similar in size and style but distinct in character– rise above the skyline of Madison, allowing for an easy identification of the city’s two most important buildings This intimate relationship between capitol and cathedral, the “heads” of government and religion and hallmarks of a good society, is a dynamic found in many other American state capitals such as St. Paul, Minnesota.


The proposed cathedral holds the dual identities of both Catholic and American, each of which is manifested through the cathedral’s architecture. Drawing on various traditional styles of Catholic architecture, the cathedral incorporates classical elements including a dome and Corinthian columns, as well as Gothic elements including vertical proportions, rose windows, and a radiating ambulatory. Both styles have been used in Christian architecture for centuries and are seen in countless churches around the world—The use of these styles helps one to clearly identify this building as a Catholic church. However, the combination of these two distinct styles—Classical and Gothic—is uniquely American and draws on the American drive for innovation. Indeed, many American churches have similar syntheses of style such that they remain similar yet distinct from the old cathedrals of Europe. In both its form and function, the cathedral intentionally directs the viewer towards the heavenly reality. Outside, two domed pavilions at the entrance give way to the two towers, dome, and campanile of the cathedral, which sequentially direct the viewer’s attention upwards. Additionally, the large front piazza creates a space in which people can gather in fellowship and community. The interior composition of the cathedral also points towards the heavenly reality. Exquisite Corinthian pilasters, iconographic side altars, gilding, and colored marbles all create a sense of profound beauty. All of this beauty leads to the focal point of the cathedral: the ciborium magnum (often called a baldacchino, see the difference here) beneath the dome of the church. The ciborium draws the worshiper into the liturgy by providing “honor and majesty to the altar, ‘emphasizing the importance of the sacrificial table as the center of Christian worship’” (Shawn Tribe) and foreshadowing the heavenly reality.


The cathedral is also intentionally designed to bring people together in liturgical worship of God. Indeed, the sacramentals within the cathedral are carefully crafted in order to minister and symbolize the sacraments—efficacious signs of God’s grace—to the people. For example, the baptistery is located in the first side chapel, which symbolizes how Baptism is the entrance into the Faith. The baptistery’s octagonal form is architecturally distinct, which shows the importance of Baptism to the Christian life. Furthermore, the confessionals are also located near the entrance to the church, pointing towards the importance Confession has in one’s preparation for the Mass and Eucharist. In order to show the power and permanence of the Confession, the confessionals are built of solid stone instead of wood, which can be moved or removed. The tabernacle is covered in resplendent gold and designed as a stylized effigy of the cathedral. This domed “cathedral” houses the Body of Christ, just as the cathedral itself houses the people gathered in worship—the body of Christ. Finally, the ambry, the place where the holy oils are reserved, has been thoughtfully designed and prominently placed in order to remind the faithful of the many sacraments that are connected to the holy oils: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. Ultimately, each and every one of the sacramentals are designed to draw worshipers deeper into the sacraments, the manifestation of God’s infinite love and grace.

The cathedral is a physical catechesis of the faith in stone, a beautiful space that utilizes both form and function to evoke the heavenly reality. The cathedral’s form draws the worshiper upwards towards the immaterial: Both the architecture and art depict stories of the faith, provide prominence to the sacraments, and create a space that is a reminder of heavenly glory. The cathedral’s function allows for the gathering of the community in celebration of the Sacraments and the Mass: The liturgy is aided by the architecture, which in turn helps the worshiper to draw closer to Christ. Ultimately, the individual is drawn into deeper prayer and community, the faith community is drawn into deeper charity and worship, the urban community is given a great witness, and the Universal Church is called together during the sacrifice of the Mass where Heaven and Earth unite. This cathedral uses earthly creation to remind us of, point us to, and join us to the transcendency of Heaven.

Michael J. Bursch is a graduate of University of Notre Dame in architecture and theology. He enjoys working at a sacred architecture firm as well as researching topics at the convergence of architecture and theology, including the churches of the Roman Forum.

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