In Your Midst

1903: The Cathedral Fair

November 2003

No pains are spared, and no exertion grudged, so that the visitors shall be entertained to the full. All are invited. Bring your friends along with you and they will be treated to a few hours of rare enjoyment. Such a chance does not often present itself, so don’t miss it.

The Cathedral Fair Bulletin
October 29, 1903

He had purchased the land; he had written to Rome; he had granted interviews to the city’s newspapers; he had commissioned a preliminary design (in the Spanish Romanesque style); but Bishop Edward J. O’Dea knew that only the people of the Pacific Northwest could make his new cathedral a reality.

So he asked a priest of the diocese of Portland, Father E. D. Casey, for help. By 1903, Father Casey had made quite a career of helping bishops organize young dioceses. He had been in St. Paul, Minnesota, as assistant to Archbishop Ireland; then, in Portland, he was Archbishop Christie’s right-hand-man. His marvelous ability to organize, to convince, and to charm had given him great success in tackling some daunting fund-raising projects in both those dioceses. Father Casey arrived in Seattle in the summer of 1903, and immediately set about his first fund-raiser for Bishop O’Dea: a church fair on a scale the city had never seen before.

The Cathedral Fair, which began on October 19, 1903, was no parish basement bake-sale. It was a civic event, held at the Armory at Third and Union, and introduced by no less a personage than Mayor Humes himself. It lasted ten days, and was open each day from 11:30am until midnight (sometimes even later!). It offered an ice-cream bar, a candy shop, a cigar stand, a fortune-teller, a full-service restaurant, and even a “country store.” It invited the entire city of Seattle—Catholics and more particularly non-Catholics—to come and eat, drink, spend, and be entertained. And, not the least extraordinary aspect of this extraordinary event, the Cathedral Fair was run almost entirely by women—some hundreds of dedicated volunteers from all over the diocese.

An eight-page newspaper was published each day of the fair, filled with notices, advertisements, and snappily-written articles about the delights of the Fair.

The day before the fair opened, The Seattle Times described in superb detail the visual delights of this ragtime-era event. “Armory Hall will be handsomely decorated. The prevailing colors will be red, white, and blue. The Stars and Stripes in bunting and flags will cover the entire rafter and ceiling work, as well as the pillars in the big hall. Evergreens and flowers of every character will be distributed in various places.” Subtle the Cathedral Fair was not: and there was more—much, much more. When your dazzled gaze had grown accustomed to the transformation of the drab ceiling of the old Armory, your attention would doubtless have been arrested by the remarkable, octagonal, cigar-flowers-and-notions counter in the center of the room, decorated entirely in red, with great quantities of electric lights (still something of a novelty), and staffed exclusively by young, unmarried ladies. And then each of the sodalities—from the Ancient Order of Hibernians to the Catholic Order of Foresters to the Knights of Columbus—had its own booth, decorated in its own colors, also cunningly adorned with electric lights, and likewise staffed by ladies, some of them dressed in elaborate costumes. “At each of these booths,” reported The Times, “there will be articles of all kinds on sale, contests of an interesting character pulled off, and many features to interest the attendants.” Articles of all kinds there were, indeed, from violins and pianos to boys’ suits and Indian baskets, from guns and chafing dishes to sewing machines, shoes, champagne, and a hand-painted image of the Sacred Heart. There were even two modern rubber-wheeled carriages for sale—all items that had been donated to the Fair by the generous people of Seattle.

And, night after night, there was music of every description, from Irish reels to opera choruses, performed by almost every singing group in Seattle, including the Cambrian Glee Club, the Seattle Liederkrantz, and even the Norden Society of Ballard. Most notable of all, the Cathedral Fair marked the earliest known performance of the pro-Cathedral Choir. On opening night, their ranks swelled with singers from the other Seattle parishes, the pro-Cathedral Choir presented an ambitious classical program featuring solos by their most distinguished singers, and concluding with Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus.” Their director and organist, one E. P. Ederer, was a rope-and-twine manufacturer, by trade (later in life he began to build cranes for construction, and after one hundred years, the business he started on First Avenue still bears his name).

But it was the “contests of an interesting character” that gave the Fair its energy. There were competitions of every kind—for the most popular clerk in the city (male), and for the most popular clerk in the city (female); for the most popular Knight of Columbus; for the most popular young lady. Most rousing of all was the competition to determine whether Chief Cook of the Fire Department or Chief of Police Sullivan was more popular. Voting boxes were placed not only at Armory Hall but at various locations throughout Seattle (you cast your vote, of course, by dropping money into the box).

By the last night of the Fair, the excitement around the various contests had risen to its height. Police Chief Sullivan was trailing, and the men of the force rallied to his cause. In the last few minutes of competition, two of his supporters contributed a total of ninety twenty-dollar gold pieces, and Sullivan’s victory was secured. That evening he carried home a very fine silver service as his prize (Miss Nordhoff, who proved to be the most popular young lady in Seattle, was awarded a piano!).

When all was counted, the Fair cleared $17,000 for the Cathedral fund—considerably more than the $10,000 its planners had aimed for. A happy, and exhausted, Father Casey told The Times, “Whatever credit there is must go to the women of our church, who have worked so hard and faithfully for the success of this enterprise. The women in the booths and in other departments have labored night and day, and for that reason we did not fail.”

The Fair had accomplished something more as well. It had given Seattle Catholics an opportunity to open their doors to the whole city; and it had given all of Seattle—an ecumenical, inter-religious community if ever there was one—a stake in the new cathedral. “We feel grateful to the Seattle public,” said Father Casey when the Fair was over: “they stood by us nobly.” One of the advertisers in the Cathedral Fair Bulletin expressed it this way: “We congratulate the Catholic people on the prospects of having one of the finest church edifices in the Northwest. We are not Catholics, but are at the same time Christian people, and free to admit that we are all looking to the same result. May God speed the time when we shall all work together for the one purpose—the Glory of God.”

This article is the second in a series on the early days of the Cathedral.

No. 1:  "The Priest, the Bishop, and the Great Northern Railway"
No. 2:  "The Cathedral Fair"
No. 3:  "Making Music in Seattle"
No. 4:  "The Cathedral Builders"
No. 5:  "The Founding of the Cathedral Parish"
No. 6:  "Bishop O'Dea's Neighbors"
No. 7:  "An Innocent Abroad: Bishop O'Dea Goes to Rome"

No. 8:  "The Laying of the Cornerstone"

Corinna Laughlin is the Pastoral Assistant for Liturgy at St. James Cathedral.

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