In Your Midst

An Enduring Sign of Gratitude

Xmas 2007

Father Michael G. Ryan 

O'Dea InscriptionIt was the evening of Easter Sunday, April 3, 1994.  The crowds had dispersed following the 5:30 Mass, and I got to witness a bit of Cathedral history.  As soon as the sacristan locked the Cathedral doors—they wouldn’t be opened again for 9 months—a small group of us from the Cathedral staff approached the high altar in the Cathedral’s east apse.  Our mission was to remove from the huge granite altar table the relics which Bishop Edward O’Dea had sealed in place there some 87 years earlier.  There was a reason for doing this, of course.  The Cathedral was about to undergo a major renovation and restoration, and it would involve, among many other things, the building of a new altar at the central crossing of the building.  The relics from the old altar needed to be rescued so they could later become part of the new altar.

Burying relics in or under altars may seem curious to some but the practice has long been part of our Catholic tradition.  It goes back to the early days of the Church when many of the earliest churches were built over the tombs of martyrs.  St. Peter’s on the Vatican Hill is a good example; so is St. Paul’s on Rome’s Ostian Way.  Over time, as churches came to be built all over the Roman empire and beyond, it became less and less possible to build them over the tombs of martyrs, but the tradition was carried on by making sure that a saint’s relic (usually a piece of bone) was placed in the altar or beneath it.

On December 22, 1907, when Bishop O’Dea dedicated St. James Cathedral, he followed the tradition as we discovered on that Easter evening so many years later.  When we gently chipped away some mortar in the center of the granite altar top, we found the relics safely sealed within a glass vial along with a piece of rolled-up parchment with a Latin inscription that read:

On the twenty-second day of December, 1907, I, Edward John O’Dea, Bishop of Seattle, consecrated this altar in honor of St. James and placed within it relics of the holy martyrs Adeodatus, Fortunata, and Boniface.

We carefully removed the vial with the relics and stored them in the sacristy safe.  Many months later, on November 11, when the renovation work was nearly completed except for the building of the altar, Archbishop Thomas Murphy placed the old relics and the inscription in a bronze box along with a new inscription in handsome calligraphy which reads as follows:

On the twenty-second day of December in the Year of Our Lord, 1994, I, Thomas J. Murphy, Archbishop of Seattle, in the presence of God’s Holy People including Raymond G. Hunthausen and a number other brother bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and lay people, consecrated this altar in the Cathedral named in honor of St. James the Greater, Apostle.  Prior to that, on the eleventh day of November, 1994, I placed beneath the altar the relics of Saints Adeodatus, Fortunata, and Boniface which had, on the twenty-second day of December, 1907, been placed in the Cathedral’s original high altar by my predecessor of happy memory, Edward John O’Dea, and to those relics I added one of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini who, when in Seattle, prayed in this Cathedral.  The consecration of a new altar in 1994 was necessitated by the major restoration of the Cathedral, carried out according to the norms of the Second Vatican Council.

Then, with Cathedral staff and musicians chanting the Litany of the Saints, and construction workers looking on (in cleaner-than-usual overalls, and with hard hats removed!), Archbishop Murphy carefully set the bronze box into a niche in the stone platform immediately below where the altar now stands and covered it with a white marble cap engraved with a cross.  A keen eye can detect it through the openings on each of the altar’s four sides.

That’s the story of the Cathedral’s altar relics.  But you may wonder whatever happened to the huge granite altar or mensa.  Wonder no longer.  For the past thirteen years our friends at Northwest Marble in Bellevue have given it a home in their yard but this month it made its way back to St. James Cathedral where it has now been mounted in the Archbishop Murphy Courtyard just above the source stone of the water feature.  On Saturday evening, December 22, one-hundred years to the day after Bishop O’Dea consecrated it, Archbishop Alexander J. Brunett will bless it in its new home immediately following the 5:30 evening Mass.  It looks just the way it did on that December day one-hundred years ago except for two things: the small cavity where the relics once rested has been neatly filled and patched, and on the great granite slab itself—the altar on which tens of thousands of Masses were celebrated in the Cathedral over 87 years—handsomely engraved in Roman letters is the following inscription:

THE MOST REVEREND
EDWARD J O’DEA
BISHOP OF SEATTLE
DEDICATED THIS
CATHEDRAL CHURCH
AND OFFERED
THE FIRST MASS
ON THIS GREAT STONE
WHICH WAS THE ALTAR
OF THE CATHEDRAL
22 DECEMBER 1907
 
AFTER THE SECOND
VATICAN COUNCIL
A NEW ALTAR WAS BUILT
AND CONSECRATED
BY THE MOST REVEREND
THOMAS J MURPHY
ARCHBISHOP OF SEATTLE
22 DECEMBER 1994
 
IN THE CENTENNIAL YEAR
OF ST JAMES CATHEDRAL
THE MOST REVEREND
ALEXANDER J BRUNETT
ARCHBISHOP OF SEATTLE
PLACED THIS STONE
AS AN ENDURING SIGN
OF GRATITUDE TO GOD
WHO FOR ONE HUNDRED YEARS
HAS BLESSED
THIS HOUSE OF GOD
THIS GATE OF HEAVEN
22 DECEMBER 2007
Mensa Mock-Up
The Archbishop Murphy Courtyard as it will appear with the mensa in place.

Father Michael G. Ryan
Pastor


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