In Your Midst

The Mystery of the Missing Cornerstone

Nov. 2005


Bishop O'Dea used this silver trowel at the blessing of the Cathedral's cornerstone, November 12, 1905.  The text reads:  "This Trowel was used by the Rt. Rev. Edward J. O'Dea in Laying the Corner Stone of the First Catholic Cathedral in Seattle, Wash, Nov. 12, 1905."  Bishop O'Dea used the same trowel in laying the cornerstone of St. Edward's Seminary in 1930.  Archbishop Thomas Connolly used the trowel again at the laying of the cornerstone of St. Thomas Seminary, 1956.  The trowel now resides in the Archives of the Archdiocese of Seattle.  Special thanks to Sara Nau and the Archives of the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle for the opportunity to photograph the historic trowel.

    Walk through St. James Cathedral, walk all round it, count the number of its towers, review its ramparts (to paraphrase Psalm 47); search as you will, you will not find the cornerstone. Bishop O’Dea dedicated dozens and dozens of churches, hospitals, and schools during his long episcopate; and on almost all of them the cornerstone can easily be found. (Look at the front of the Immaculate, St. Mary’s, or O’Dea High School.) Why is the Cathedral different?

    There are some tantalizing clues in the newspapers of the day, which covered this event in great detail. The Times even included a photo of “where the cornerstone will be laid," and though it is too small to give any sense of where this spot is in the building, it does suggest that the cornerstone was placed on an inside, not an outside wall. The Catholic Northwest claimed that “the spot chosen for the corner-stone… is immediately under the site of the high altar,” but that testimony is not corroborated by any of the other published accounts, which all describe a procession from the wooden cross marking the place where the high altar would rise to the place where the cornerstone would be laid.

    Though the Progress said that cameras were in abundance (“Three bishops, twenty-five priests, and many acolytes... formed a target for cameras which were freely employed to illustrate the report given by the daily papers”), the best record we have of this historic day is the photo of the dignitaries in the P-I, which suggests that the temporary platform may have been erected in one of the transepts, but which tells us very little more. Clearly, it will require the combined skills of Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones, and Chesterton’s Father Brown to unravel this mystery!

    The really important question, of course, is not where the cornerstone is, but who the cornerstone is. Jesus Christ, the stone “not made by human hands,” is the cornerstone of all that we do. And that’s something that we’ve never lost sight of, in all the chances and changes of a hundred years!

Do you have a theory about the cornerstone?
Any pictures of the celebration? Any family stories?
Tell us about it! Contact Corinna Laughlin

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