Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception celebrates centenary

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By Jennika Baines
Sun Associate Editor

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is a landmark in the City of Syracuse, an oasis of solitude amidst the bustle and a place where rich and poor alike come to feel closer to God. On Sunday, Sept. 26 Bishop Robert Cunningham celebrated a Mass which marked the 100th anniversary of its official consecration as a cathedral.

“This is perhaps the most human spot in Syracuse — a place where one feels the heart of humanity and shares its penitence and its aspiration,” Bishop Cunningham said. “Here everyone is welcome and everyone can find a home, for in the Cathedral our many parishes are bound into one.”

He spoke of his admiration for the architecture and beauty of the Catholic churches he has seen in his travels. Yet whether these churches were ornately decorated or sparse and simple, he said he always takes comfort in the shared experience of Catholics who worship there.

Bishop Cunningham encouraged those who gathered to rededicate the Cathedral to take the opportunity to rededicate themselves to the same principles which form the foundation of the faith they share with millions around the world.

“Celebrating the birth of the Cathedral is a wonderful milestone, but celebrating the birth of Christ within us is even more important,” he said. Bishop Cunningham said that events like this serve as reminders of the joy that comes to those who faithfully follow the Lord.

Tours of the Cathedral were available to the public that afternoon. The tours included visits to the crypts under the altar, descriptions of some of the stained glass windows and the opportunity to see some of the vestments worn by former bishops.

In 1872, the present site for the Cathedral was purchased by Father James O’Hara for $35,000. It was purchased to house St. Mary’s Church, which was located nearby on the corner of Montgomery and Madison Streets, the site of the former Cathedral School.

According to a history of the Cathedral written by Ed Long, the archivist of the diocese and historian of the Cathedral, “Throughout the building of the new church delays were rampant and almost always due to money.” To cut the cost of construction, Father O’Hara often asked parishioners to donate their time and horses on Saturdays to help haul stone.

“Sadly,” Long writes, “the new church became known as ‘O’Hara’s follly’ and was roundly criticized for its cost and delays. The final building cost $250,000.”

Originally, the cathedral for the Syracuse Diocese was the now closed St. John the Evangelist Church in Syracuse. In 1903, the same year that the sanctuary was designed and built by an architect named Archemedes Russell, St. Mary’s was designated as the new cathedral. The dedication by then-Bishop Patrick Ludden took place on March 13, 1904, and the official consecration took place six years later in 1910 when Russell’s sanctuary was complete.

Long argues that the Cathedral moved from St. John’s to its current location for a number of reasons, the first of which was that St. John’s was located by a train line that often disrupted services.

There were also political reasons for the move, as Bishop Ludden was protesting the location of the “La Concha” bath house next to St. Mary’s as well as the mayor’s plans to build a firehouse across from the church building. Long writes that city politicians were reluctant to take part in a public quarrel with the bishop and dropped the plans for the new firehouse in deference to the “new” cathedral.

Many renovations have taken place over the century to include changes from a dark Gothic interior to a bright marble design, repairs to the stained glass windows and the organ and renovations that brought the church in line with Vatican II teaching.

Bishop Cunningham reminded those gathered of the generations who helped to build the church.

“For so many throughout the diocese, this has been the seat of God and the gate to heaven,” he said. “This day is not just a chronological event, but rather a moment of grace.”

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