As one of the last men from Fairfield County to be ordained to the priesthood in the original St. Joseph Cathedral (the year was 1953; before the year was over, Bridgeport would become a new diocese; and Hartford, an archdiocese), I hardly knew the old Cathedral of St. Joseph except for Church ceremonies. As college seminarians, we were on hand during Holy Week, including Tenebrae services (which ended after Vatican Council II in the early 1960’s).
The original structure, dedicated in May 1892, was the scene of my priestly ordination. For that alone, it occupies a special place in my heart. Since The Catholic Transcript’s offices in 1956 were adjacent to the Cathedral school (though facing Asylum Avenue) when the Cathedral burned down, I was close by, sadly watching it being consumed by fire. On the last day of December 1956, the beloved brownstone Cathedral had become an empty shell.
Six years later – 1962 – the present, rebuilt Cathedral was dedicated. I was privileged to be there. Now, 50 years later, this new Cathedral continues to be part of my priestly life, especially because it is the sacred place where I am privileged to offer Mass regularly.
Cathedrals, Henri Daníel-Rops explains in the third volume of his monumental eight-volume Histoire de l’Eglise du Christ, help us understand the whole civilization during which they appeared. They epitomize the perfect flowering of culture. "Unique and irreplaceable," they testify to the noble spirit of humankind as no other artistic work can.
A cathedral, in which the Teaching Chair of the local bishop is located (the word, "cathedral," derives from the Latin cathedra, meaning "chair"), does not simply "happen." As it is planned and raised, it reflects the faith, genius, artistry and labor of countless believers, rich and poor alike. Hence, cathedrals remain monuments to the very best in civilization. Notre-Dame at Chartres, for example, continues to be a breathtaking reminder not only of man’s ability to express the beautiful, but also his capacity for solving apparently insoluble mathematical problems. (The contemporary masterpiece of the Spanish Catalan Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona has been widely acknowledged as one of the "10 wonders of the modern world," drawing over a million pilgrims annually.)
The new Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford, now marking its 50th anniversary, has itself become a pilgrimage, not only for the faithful here in the Archdiocese of Hartford, but also for visitors from across the country and also from Europe and beyond. Some come alone: others, in family units; still others, in tours, with requests for formal guidance.
In an online piece about the Cathedral of St. Joseph, I cited some sentences from Daníel-Rops’s history to the effect that every cathedral was raised as a sacred task, and that "not even the poorest… dared shirk so high a duty." One record, detailing the building of the incomparable Cathedral at Chartres, reads in part: "We saw powerful men, proud of their birth as of their wealth, and accustomed to a life of ease, harness themselves to a cart and haul a load of stone, lime, wood, or some other material. Sometimes… a thousand persons, men and women," were involved.
Surely, one would think, this description describes figuratively the collaboration that went into the building of the present Cathedral of St. Joseph, a holy endeavor first led by Archbishop Henry J. O’Brien (who ordained me a priest) and then continued by Archbishop O’Brien’s successors, up to the present day, under Archbishop Henry J. Mansell and the current Rector, Msgr. John J. McCarthy.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the almost countless cathedrals that still identify the historical character of Europe is that they served as "houses of the faithful" in a real and extraordinary way. Not only were they the places of worship for various communities (suitable venues for the Church’s magnificent liturgies), but also meeting halls for the locals, who knew that cathedrals were literally their ancillary "homes." In Daníel-Rops’s words: "precisely because he was a Christian, medieval man was not frightened of God…" Besides, a cathedral gave the faithful "the most relevant lessons in aesthetics. An incomparable place of prayer, it was also a museum in which all forms of art were brought together."
One of the medieval cathedral’s characteristics still puzzles many, however; namely, the use of gargoyles. Even as a teenager I used to find gargoyles difficult to understand, much less explain.
The answer finally came to me in a college English literature class at St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester; I discovered it during a required course in G. K. Chesterton. Among his famed essays was a piece entitled "On Gargoyles." Therein, he concludes (this is classic G. K. C.): "Christianity, with its gargoyles and grotesques, really amounted to saying this: that a donkey could go before all the horses of the world when it was really going to the temple."
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of
The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.