In Your Midst

Bishop O'Dea Goes to Rome

July 2005

    Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart is renowned as the holy foundress of the Sisters of Providence in the Pacific Northwest, an extraordinary woman who was a teacher, a nurse, and the first architect in Washington Territory. In addition to her many other claims to fame, Mother Joseph was a close friend of the O’Dea family, and encouraged the priestly vocation of Edward J. O’Dea (or “Eddie” as she called him).

    And it was Mother Joseph who gave the young O’Dea his first experience of the process of design and construction. In 1874-75, during the building of St. Vincent Hospital in Portland, the teenaged O’Dea accompanied the wise Mother Joseph on her secret tours of inspection. When night had fallen and the workers had gone home, she would examine their progress, surveying foundations, walls, and stairwells with an expert eye, while Eddie carried a lamp for her.

    Mother Joseph’s hands-on approach surely influenced O’Dea, who throughout his long episcopate—and even when the Great Depression hit—never stopped building. While he himself was neither carpenter nor architect, he shared Mother Joseph’s gift of pushing projects along, of making things happen. He held the meetings of the Cathedral Building Committee in his own home on Friday evenings, and he was personally involved in every aspect of the project. Later, he would carry on a voluminous and sometimes comically detailed correspondence with Benziger Brothers of Chicago, who provided most of the furnishings (“we received Your Lordship’s telegram asking for instructions to hang the sanctuary lamp”).

    By 1905, the work was finally underway. On January 21, Heins and LaFarge’s plans for the cathedral were made available to local contractors. By mid-March the contracts were assigned, and the final plans were filed with the city on March 31, “for a brick and stone building, 220x144 feet in size.” And in May, work actually began. “The grounds for the new cathedral are being rapidly put in order for the foundation,” reported the Progress, adding hopefully, “it is expected that the construction of the edifice will require a year and a half.”

    With his dream cathedral now in the capable hands of the builders, Bishop O’Dea left Seattle on May 15, 1905, for his second ad limina visit to Rome, accompanied by Father Verwhilgen of Vancouver. His intention was to be gone about four months. Bishop O’Dea would also visit “other parts of Europe in the interest of the church in Washington.”

    The term ad limina literally means “to the thresholds.” It refers to the obligation of each bishop to journey to Rome (to the “thresholds” of the Apostles) at stated times, to pray at the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul, and to give an account of his diocese to the Holy Father.

    1905 was an exciting time to go to Rome. The Eternal City was perhaps even more picturesque in those days before subways and the autostrada, when dozens of frulloni, or closed carriages, rattled across the Piazza San Pietro, disgorging their splendidly-attired pontifical passengers on the steps of the basilica. It was perhaps from the windows of such a carriage that Bishop O’Dea looked out on St. Peter’s Square that Thursday, June 8, when he arrived for his ad limina (though one prefers to think he imitated his patron, Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, who arrived for the 1903 conclave dressed in ordinary black clerics, with a straw hat concealing his red skullcap, causing great consternation among the easily-shocked Italian cardinals).

Pope Saint Pius X

    It was an exciting time in the Church, too. There was a new Pope, Pius X, who had been elected on August 4, 1903, following the death of Leo XIII, whose 25-year pontificate had seemed as if it would never come to an end. (“We elected a Holy Father,” one Cardinal had commented, “not a father eternal.”) Leo XIII led the Church through difficult times, and made some tremendous contributions, including allowing scripture scholarship—which had been suppressed under his predecessor—to enter the modern age, and making social justice an official part of the Church’s mission with his revolutionary 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. But Leo XIII was also somewhat rigid and aloof, ruling more by the force of his extraordinary personality than by love. Visitors under the rank of Cardinal were received on their knees. (Cardinals were permitted to stand throughout the interview.)

    Leo’s successor, the Patriarch of Venice, Giuseppe Sarto, who took the name Pius X, was in many respects his opposite. Saintly, intense, and strikingly youthful in appearance compared with his predecessor, he began to change things immediately. He made himself available to visitors, and the papal apartments, which had formerly been as silent and inaccessible as the holy of holies, were now full of activity, with busy comings and goings of friends and visitors. Life at the Vatican was simplified, humanized. At audiences, the new Pope urged visitors to sit down, sometimes even offering them his own chair. A gifted pastor, Pius X began the unprecedented custom of giving informal explanations of the catechism to the faithful on Sunday afternoons, a move which (of course) shocked the curia but which won him the love of the people.

    The genuine kindness and holiness of the new Pope did not, however, prevent him from being a strict disciplinarian. In Mantua, where he had been bishop early in his career, the diocese had been rocked with scandal when one of the most popular priests became a Protestant, and another abandoned his faith entirely. No wonder, then, if from early on Pius X had seen his ministry as a kind of damage control, a mission to keep the flock together, and to fight against the forces which might draw his sheep away—forces which were various in nature but which he grouped under the general heading “Modernism.” During his pontificate, and in spite of his own efforts to be open and accessible, an atmosphere of fear and distrust developed as the effort to root out Modernism began to seem like a new Inquisition. Vatican visitations would descend with little warning; one bishop came home from a holiday to find an apostolic observer in residence at his seminary. As Cardinal Mercier of Brussels would describe it later on, “sincere hearts were troubled by unrest: the more honest consciences suffered in silence.” The sense of distrust would only intensify with time. It was without a doubt the most unfortunate aspect of Pius X’s reign, whose love for children inspired him to change the age for First Communion, and whose constructive reforms of the liturgy and canon law helped to pave the way for the Second Vatican Council.

    Following his ad limina visit with Pope Pius X, during which he surely updated him on the progress of his new cathedral, Bishop O’Dea spent the remainder of his summer touring Europe. He stayed some days in Milan, and it is tempting to think he might have made a visit to nearby Bergamo, to meet its highly-regarded Bishop, Giacomo Maria Radini-Tedeschi. Bishop Radini-Tedeschi had been a confidant of Leo XIII, and it was rumored that Pius X had appointed him to Bergamo to keep him out of the way. But this extraordinary man was not so easily silenced. In Bergamo, he made countless improvements, such as installing running water and central heat in the seminary, where he also introduced science labs and physical education. He visited every parish in his diocese, on the model of St. Charles Borromeo, and encouraged spiritual renewal. He boldly stood by striking workers, and he urged the formation of lay organizations that would promote the common good through cooperation and dialogue between social classes. No wonder, then, that under Pius X his diocese was the object of repeated “apostolic visitations” which Radini-Tedeschi took to calling “apostolic vexations.”

    It is also tempting to think that (if they did make that side trip to Bergamo) Bishop O’Dea and Father Verwhilgen might have shaken hands with Radini-Tedeschi’s secretary, the round-faced, 24-year old Angelo Roncalli, ordained less than a year. Roncalli admired his mentor tremendously (he always referred to Radini-Tedeschi as “my bishop”), and under his guidance he had already begun to develop the spirit of openness and dialogue which would characterize his pontificate when—a lifetime later, in 1958—Roncalli became Pope John XXIII.

    The Catholics of Seattle had to do without their bishop for quite some time. There were occasional hints of his progress through Europe—“when last heard from Rt. Rev. Bishop O’Dea was in Milan, Italy”—but no real news. Finally, towards the end of September, 1905, it was confirmed: Bishop O’Dea would return sometime during the first week in October. And that was cause enough for celebration! The Catholics of the Northwest decided that “a reception on a grand scale will be tendered his Lordship,” and Bishop O’Dea received a hero’s welcome.

    The travelers reached Everett on October 6, where they were met by a group of priests and laymen, including the clergy assigned to the pro-Cathedral, and several members of the Building Committee. (On the way down to Seattle, they must surely have updated the Bishop on the considerable progress made on his cathedral.) They arrived home rather late—it was already 8:45pm—but Bishop O’Dea went directly to St. Edward’s Chapel, “where he made a short address and gave the papal benediction to the throng that filled every nook and corner of the edifice.” The following Sunday Bishop O’Dea again gave the papal blessing to a “vast congregation,” and the same afternoon a public reception was held at the Grand Opera House downtown, complete with speeches and toasts. Bishop O’Dea was as gracious as usual, responding “in an eloquent and feeling manner, expressing his deep sense of pleasure in the heartfelt demonstrations of welcome tendered to him, and his joy in being once more among his own.”

    Clearly, the Bishop was glad to get back to work. On the very day of the grand reception, he announced that “the corner stone of the new cathedral will be laid sometime next month.” And it was not long before the date was set: November 12, 1905, on the first anniversary of the dedication of St. Edward’s Chapel and the founding of the Cathedral Parish.

The distinguished members of the Cathedral building committee were among those
who greeted Bishop O'Dea on his return from Italy.

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

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This article is the seventh in a series about the early days of St. James 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"

Other articles in the July 2005 issue:

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