In Your Midst

One Hundred Years Ago: The Laying of the Cornerstone

Nov. 2005


"The bishop felt as if a new life had been born in Seattle on this day of the laying of the cornerstone of the big cathedral"

On the twelfth day of November in the year of Our Lord 1905,
Theodore Roosevelt being President of the United States;
Albert E Mead Governor of the State of Washington;
and Richard A Ballinger Mayor of the City of Seattle;
I, Edward John O'Dea, by the grace of God and favor of the Apostolic See,
Bishop of Nesqually, blessed and laid the cornerstone
for the building of this church to the glory of God

    The fall of 1905 was an exceptionally beautiful one in Seattle. Day after day of “charming sunshine” blessed the rainy city during the last weeks of October and the beginning of November. The ceremony of the laying of the cornerstone of Seattle’s new cathedral was scheduled for Sunday, November 12, 1905, just a day short of the first anniversary of the founding of the Cathedral Parish. It seemed too much to hope that the good weather would hold out—but it did. “The weather was ideal for an outdoor ceremonial,” The Catholic Northwest reported; “a clear sky, sunshine and warm breezes instead of the usual lowering skies of November.”

    The celebration stretched across the city. Up at the brand-new Church of the Immaculate Conception, the men’s lay associations were gathering for a grand procession down Madison Street to the building site. First came the Ancient Order of Hibernians, looking something like a brigade of Irish firemen in their crisp uniforms, complete with silver belt buckles bearing the letters A O H. Next were the Catholic Foresters, led by their High Chief Rangers. Then came the Young Men’s Institute, and bringing up the rear were the Knights of Columbus, complete with swords and nodding plumes. They all set forth from the Immaculate under the direction of J. L. Fitzpatrick, who was the marshal of the day. He must have made abundant use of his megaphone and whistle to get this cavalcade on its way!

    When they reached the Cathedral block, they joined the women’s honor guard outside the pro-Cathedral, St. Edward’s Chapel on the corner of Terry and Columbia: the Women’s Auxiliary of Hibernians, the Women’s Catholic Foresters, the Young Ladies’ Institute, and the Concordia Society of St. Mary’s Parish. All together, the societies and sodalities lining each side of Terry Avenue numbered five hundred strong.

    One can only imagine the din inside the pro-Cathedral, where almost all the priests of the diocese were gathered with Bishop O’Dea, and his two distinguished guests (Bishop Dontenwill of New Westminster, BC, and Bishop Carroll of Helena). The Benedictines of Lacey were there in their distinctive habit, and the Jesuits of Seattle College came over for the occasion, too.

    Meanwhile, the Catholic and the curious were gathering inside the walls of the unfinished structure, which had risen to a height of about 30 feet, and were actually beginning to resemble the plans of Messrs. Heins and LaFarge. The people came and kept coming. Thousands strong—estimates ranged from 5,000 to 7,000—they packed into the building.

    The rites were scheduled to begin at 3:00pm, and, not the least extraordinary occurrence of that extraordinary day, they actually did. At a few minutes before three, the procession of clergy emerged from St. Edward’s Chapel. Led by Father Barry of La Conner, who served as cross-bearer, the priests and bishops passed through the honor guard towards the building site. The procession entered the unfinished building by the Marion and Terry door, and the ceremony began.

Bishop O'Dea blesses the cornerstone for St. Edward's Seminary in 1930

    The prayers and texts of this vivid rite were, and are, at once humbling and inspiring. They remind us how small we are compared with God, the true builder, whose work stands unshaken forever; but at the same time they urge us to see our own labors as a reflection of God’s infinite creativity.

    Upon entering, Bishop O’Dea first blessed the cornerstone, which had been placed on a temporary altar for this purpose. The stone itself was quite small—a box a foot square, with a cross carved on each side of it. Bishop O’Dea blessed it with an ancient prayer (in Latin, of course) which recalled Christ, “the stone not made by human hands.”

    Next a procession “wended its way throughout the building” (so the Times reported). Led by the cross, and accompanied by the priests, Bishop O’Dea walked through the building site, blessing various parts of the cathedral-to-be with holy water. They paused before a simple wooden cross that marked the place where the high altar would soon rise. During the procession the choirs sang. There were three of them, including “a quartette of local priests who have earned no little renown as musical artists.” All were under the direction of the indefatigable Edward P. Ederer—choir director, organist, rope and twine manufacturer, and crane builder. They sang of the heavenly city in the wonderful words of the forty-seventh psalm: “Walk through Zion, walk all round it; count the number of its towers. Review all its ramparts, examine its castles, that you may tell the next generation that such is our God, our God for ever and always.”

    Bishop O’Dea then returned to the cornerstone, for the most memorable part of the ritual. In a wonderful meeting of the temporal and the eternal, he placed inside the stone, the symbol of Christ, two cylinders containing a kind of snapshot of his own time. A glass tube held “the act recording the event of the stone laying, names of contributors to the building fund up to date, names of the priests, societies, and institutions of the church in the diocese, and various public documents,” including the day’s newspapers and photographs of each of the cathedrals built since the diocese of Nesqually was founded. The other tube contained “coins, medals, and souvenirs of the church,” together with a lead plate on which had been engraved some truly lapidary Latin sentences commemorating the moment (see the English translation above). Then, reported the P-I, “the stone was conveyed to the spot where it is to rest and was placed in position.”

    Using a solid silver trowel which had been specially made for the occasion, Bishop O’Dea sealed the stone into the wall. As he did so, the choirs sang the antiphon, based on Psalm 126: “May the Lord build our house, and watch over our city.”

Above, a newspaper clipping shows a view of the Cathedral as it appeared in January 1906.  Below, an obscure image of the resting place of our lost cornerstone.

    The cornerstone was laid, but the festivities were far from over. Now the principal clergy proceeded to an elaborate stand that had been erected at the center of the building. From the height of this platform (the decoration of which must have severely depleted the city’s stores of red, white, and blue bunting and American flags) Bishop Carroll delivered the sermon. It was more than a sermon, according to the Catholic Northwest: it was “an eloquent address,” and the “immense throng… listened with rapt attention to his words.” The usually more sedate Times agreed: “In the hour that he took to deliver the sermon he held the attention of the audience in a remarkable way. In every respect it was a discourse worthy of the occasion. Rarely before has such an eloquent sermon been delivered in Seattle. Bishop Carroll is a man of striking personal appearance with a clear liquid voice that carried to the outmost edges of the 5,000 persons that thronged the edifice.”

    That hour gave Bishop Carroll ample time to explore his theme (his text was drawn from the gospel reading of the day, which happened to be Matthew 22: 15-12, “render unto Caesar.” That didn’t always happen in the grand sermons of yesteryear!). Carroll traced the history of the Pacific Northwest, emphasizing the great material success which had been Seattle’s portion, and challenging the people of this city to put equal energy into their spiritual endeavors. “The erection of a cathedral by the generosity of the people was in the speaker’s mind a sure indication that the spiritual side of life was not being neglected in Seattle. He declared that the cathedral when completed would be the most magnificent, largest, and most beautiful in the entire Northwest” (Times). Bishop Carroll “brought his sermon to a close,” the P-I tells us, “by declaring that he felt as if a new life had been born in Seattle on this day of the laying of the cornerstone of the big cathedral.”

    At the conclusion of this remarkable address, Bishop O’Dea gave the solemn blessing, and then the entire assembly joined in a thundering rendition Holy God, We Praise Thy Name. “So ended the ceremony, which is a prophecy and a promise of great things for the Church in Washington” (The Catholic Northwest).

    It had been the largest gathering for an event of the kind the city had ever seen. “Nothing of a religious nature in Seattle has hitherto attracted so large a gathering of our people as assembled … to participate in the laying of the foundation stone of the new Cathedral,” reported the Progress. “There will never again be so many persons within its walls at one time. Fully five thousand people stood jammed too close for comfort during the long ceremony.” Such a turnout would be remarkably high even by today’s standards. But in 1905, when the population of Seattle was less than 175,000, it was nothing short of extraordinary. The laying of the cornerstone of St. James Cathedral was a shared experience for a not insignificant percentage of the city’s population. The thousands who witnessed the ceremony surely knew what a rare privilege it was to stand inside the unfinished walls, to look past the scaffolding to blue skies and afternoon sunshine, in the midst of a city that was literally growing up all around them.

    As the Catholic Northwest emphatically stated: “Sunday, the 12th of November, was a red-letter day in the annals of Catholicity in Seattle and in the state of Washington.”

    And the next day, the builders were back at work.

Corinna Laughlin is the Director of Liturgy at St. James Cathedral.

Read more about The Mystery of the Missing Cornerstone


This article is the eighth 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"


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