In Your Midst

One Hundred Years Ago

July 2007

The Dedication of St. James Cathedral

Edward John O'Dea
Bishop Edward O'Dea in later years.  He proudly declared St. James Cathedral to be "the greatest Catholic Church building west of Pittsburgh and unequalled for beauty of architecture and design in the world."

         A not insignificant portion of the Old Testament deals with the Temple, the center of the life and worship of the Hebrew people.  The psalms praise the beauty of God’s house, and sing of the joy of those who go up to Jerusalem; the prophets lament the destruction of the Temple, and envision a time when it will be rebuilt.  The historical books are full of incredibly detailed information about the Temple—its measurements, its decorations, its materials; who built it, how long it took them, and how much it cost.  Second Chronicles even includes Solomon’s correspondence with the king of Tyre, inquiring about supplies (cedar and cypress, gold and silver, the finest of fabrics) and the availability of skilled workers.  For the Israelite chroniclers, no detail about the building of the Temple was considered unimportant.  For the Temple was the visible reminder of the people’s covenant with God.  It was the gift of their ancestors to the generations that would follow.  It was a reminder of tremendous struggles and sacrifices, a tangible testament to their love for God.

         God does not need temples.  The Lord of heaven and earth needs no house made by human hands to dwell in.  But we need temples.  We need sacred places, holy ground to stand on as we offer our prayers to God.  And God yields to this human desire for a holy place.  As God told Solomon:  “Now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever; my eyes and my heart also shall be there always” (2 Chronicles 7:16).

         Bishop O’Dea understood that in building a new Cathedral in Seattle, he was doing more than completing a complex construction project, more even than creating a new center for the Catholic Church in the Northwest.  He knew that in building a Cathedral, the people of the diocese were making a statement of faith, not only to their contemporaries, but perhaps even more importantly, to subsequent generations.  And so they worked on a large scale, an ambitious scale, just as King David had.  “I will not offer to the Lord a sacrifice that cost me nothing,” David said (I Chronicles 21: 24).

        And they were part of a tremendous movement, an inspired age of cathedral building.  For Bishop O’Dea was not the only bishop building in 1907.  No fewer than twenty-eight other Catholic cathedrals were in various stages of construction around the country, including the cathedrals of Newark, Pittsburgh, Richmond, St. Louis, St. Paul, Omaha, and Denver.  And Seattle was building, too—in fact, 1907 was a record year in which almost twenty new churches were built.

Letter from Benziger Brothers, 1907
Last minute details: Benziger Brothers writes from Chicago to give Bishop O'Dea instructions on installing the sanctuary lamp.  The dedication of the Cathedral is less than three weeks away!  Courtesy of the Archives of the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle.

         By the beginning of 1907, the scaffolding on the outside of the Cathedral was mostly gone, and people were already getting used to the sight of the magnificent temple rising from the top of First Hill.  The work of Heins and LaFarge was complete, for their designs were limited to the outside of the building.   For the decoration of the interior, Bishop O’Dea was on his own.  Throughout 1907, he carried on a detailed correspondence with Benziger Brothers, the firm which supplied almost all the interior furnishings.  January of 1907 found the Bishop inquiring about altars and altar rails.  He wanted a double gate for the altar rail, measuring seven feet wide; but was informed that fifty inches was as much as Benziger Brothers could manage.  The gate would be equipped, however, with “patent hinge swings… We do not know whether your Lordship has ever seen these patent hinges especially made for heavy brass gates, but we guarantee same to give satisfaction in every detail… a child can open or close them.”  In February, Bishop O’Dea looked at designs for a baptismal font, “in the Renaissance style.”  In March, Mr. Haye of Benziger Brothers came to Seattle from Chicago to talk with the Bishop in person.  But in May the “Rt. rev. dear Sir,” as the letters from Benziger Brothers were usually addressed, still had not made up his mind about the altar rail.  “The sooner we have your answer the better we like it,” wrote Mr. Haye frankly.  Bishop O’Dea promptly sent him a wire.

         Bishop O’Dea ordered angels holding electric-powered candelabra, which Benziger Brothers assured him were “in the best Renaissance style.”  In July, he placed a huge order which ranged from major purchases like the sanctuary lamp, processional cross, and Tenebrae candelabra, to smaller items—tabernacle keys, pew numbers, collection boxes, not to mention 1,000 hat holders with nickel finish, priced at 25 cents each.

         When Bishop O’Dea returned from a brief holiday in mid-August, he received some distressing news.  “We are sorry to state that the men who have been working on the Pulpit and Lamp left us before the work was completed and this causes the delay of these two articles until October 1st, or perhaps one week sooner.”  Mr. Haye then inquired as to the date of dedication of the Cathedral to ensure that the two items would arrive in time.  On the top of this letter is a notation in Bishop O’Dea’s handwriting:  “Dedication probably Nov 28, 1907, Thanksgiving.”

         But as November drew nearer, it became clear that the Cathedral would not be ready in time.  There was Rome, for one thing:  Bishop O’Dea still had not received the formal permission from the Holy Father to remove his see to Seattle, and to change the name of the diocese from Nesqually to Seattle!  (It finally came through on September 11, 1907, reaching Seattle about a month later.)  And then there were more delays of various kinds.  A recession hit, and Benziger Brothers was suffering:  “It is impossible in the East now to get any advances from the banks, but we hope it is much better in the West and should Your Lordship be therefore in position to send us another payment shortly, we would certainly be under lasting obligations, for we feel that we are asking too much, especially as the Cathedral is not dedicated.”

         The correspondence became increasingly urgent as the day of the Cathedral’s dedication drew near (Bishop O’Dea had finally settled on December 22—the Sunday closest to his ordination anniversary).  On November 15, Bishop O’Dea wrote that the keys of the new tabernacle were nowhere to be found.  Mr. Haye responded sympathetically but not helpfully:  “We are sorry that we cannot send your Lordship any duplicates as same do not exist.  We hope you will find the set in the meantime.”  On December 4, Bishop O’Dea wired in a panic that the sanctuary lamp could not be hung properly.  Haye’s response to the “Reverend dear sir” could hardly have clarified the situation:  “When the lamp is to be hung the balls and tubing are to be slipped over the cable and then a cord is let down from the attic and the cable fastened to it.  It is then pulled up.”

Dedication of St. James Cathedral
This historic photo shows the crowds gathered outside the Cathedral on the day of its dedication, December 22, 1907.  Thanks to Paul Dorpat for the photo.

         Everything must have worked out to Bishop O’Dea’s satisfaction, however, for on December 20, just two days before the dedication, he sent to Benziger Brothers the last check for the many, many items he had ordered from them.  Mr. Haye responded promptly with thanks and a request—“Your Lordship would greatly oblige us with a testimonial for the special articles, Pulpit, Altar Rail, and Baptismal Font, as also for the Marble Statues imported especially from Italy.”  And so closed the voluminous correspondence.

         In the meantime, anticipation was building about the approaching ceremonies, and the local papers were very interested in the goings-on on the hill.  The arrival of the decree from Rome was much discussed.  “ROME DIGNIFIES QUEEN CITY,” ran the headline in the Times.  And the Seattle P-I announced that “SEATTLE WILL BE CATHOLIC CENTER:  ROME YIELDS TO FACTS.”  Bishop O’Dea must have spent a good deal of time answering the questions of journalists during those final days before the Cathedral’s dedication.  He certainly was not reticent in expressing his opinion of his new Cathedral.  “Catholics have been waiting since the early part of 1904 for the completion of a building which Bishop E. J. O’Dea declares to be the greatest Catholic Church building west of Pittsburgh and unequalled for beauty of architecture and design in the world.”  The proud Bishop sent invitations to the dedication ceremonies far and wide.  The Times observed, appreciatively, that “it was notable that in the special invitations sent out by the church authorities, the religious views of the recipients were not regarded.”  Fully one-third of those who gathered for the dedication of the Cathedral were non-Catholic.

         The new Cathedral was so much larger than any other Catholic church in the region that it was not until very late that Bishop O’Dea began to wonder if perhaps they might run out of seats.  On December 21, 1907, a headline ran:  “Getting Ready to Dedicate.  Problem of How to Seat All the Applicants for Admission Perplexing the Ecclesiastical Authorities.”  (As it turned out, seating was indeed a problem.  People packed into the Cathedral, filling the side aisles and even cramming into the center aisle, while hundreds more stood hopefully outside in the December weather.)

         On the eve of the Cathedral’s dedication, John B. and Florence Agen hosted a dinner at their home not far from the new Cathedral, at Seneca and Boylston.  The guests included Bishop Carroll of Helena, who was to preach the dedicatory sermon, and who was staying with the Agens.  Bishop O’Dea was there, of course, as were the members of the Building Committee, who now assembled for the last time.  As Mrs. Agen looked over this august gathering, perhaps she remembered another night, more than three years before, when the Building Committee had gathered around that same table for one of their earliest meetings.  One member, caught up in the moment, had taken up pen and ink and sketched his vision of the new Cathedral on Mrs. Agen’s spotless white tablecloth.  According to the family story, she was not particularly pleased when she discovered the ruined tablecloth.  But tonight, there was no sketching of plans.  For now the dream had become reality.

         At nine o’clock the next morning, the ceremonies began; they would not conclude until well after two in the afternoon.  Only the clergy assisted at the first part of the ceremony—the consecration of the altars.  “In the dedication ceremonies ancient customs will be followed and what will be seen tomorrow will be a repetition of every ceremony of its kind that has taken place since the first Catholic church was dedicated,” wrote the reporter from the P-I with more enthusiasm than accuracy.  “Bishop O’Dea says customs may change, men may change, but the church never.”

         The huge crowds outside waited patiently for more than two hours before they were rewarded with a glimpse of Bishop O’Dea, as the procession came out of the Cathedral, and the Bishop blessed the exterior of the building, pausing at each of the four corners to chant a prayer.  Then, at last, the doors were thrown open, and the people flooded in for the solemn Mass.  The interior of the Cathedral was not yet complete—in fact, only the altar and the organ case could be described as finished.  And yet, with its airy interior, flooded with light through the many clear windows, and its impressive, forty-foot dome (“practically indestructible,” the Times reported) the interior did not disappoint.  And simple as it was, the sanctuary was most impressive when filled, as it was today, with the visiting bishops, many of the priests of the diocese, and no fewer than 32 acolytes.  “Clothed in their rich and varicolored robes, from gold and purple to pure white, the assemblage presented an imposing spectacle.” (P-I)

Cathedral Interior looking East, 1907
The interior of St. James Cathedral at the time of its dedication... airy and full of light.

         The music—conducted and in part composed by the Cathedral’s gifted new music director, Dr. Franklin Sawyer Palmer—was extraordinary; but the most thrilling part of the day was the sermon, delivered by Bishop Carroll of Helena.  The Times—at that time, not always entirely sympathetic to Catholic causes—was completely won over by Bishop Carroll’s eloquence.  “Bishop Carroll enjoys the reputation of being the greatest Catholic orator in the West and he lived up to his reputation in a speech of forty minutes’ duration.  He spoke extemporaneously.  At many of his periods the audience evinced an intense desire to applaud and appeared to be restrained only by the sacred character of the proceedings.”  The P-I agreed that Bishop Carroll’s discourse was “one of the most statesmanlike sermons ever delivered from a Seattle pulpit.”

         Bishop Carroll, like other orators of his day, had no use for understatement.  He traced the remarkable growth of the Pacific Northwest since 1850 in grand terms.  “Irrigation has made the desert blossom as the rose, and from Europe, from Asia and from the islands of the sea men have come and by their intelligence, their industry and their fidelity, have built up this territory until today it is one of the brightest and most beautiful spots on the face of the earth.”  And Bishop Carroll was confident that St. James would prove a worthy Cathedral for such a city.  “It is your privilege to build up a church that will be in keeping with, and even outstrip the growth of this wonderful city and state.”

         But Bishop Carroll was never one just to congratulate; his sermon also challenged his hearers.  “If the child doesn’t receive religious instruction daily he begins to think religion is not a thing for everyday use, but only for special occasions, such as Sundays, when we enter the house of worship.  This is the great scandal of American civilization.  When all men begin to realize that religion must go hand in hand with intellect, then will be built up in this country a truly great republic…. then we need have no fear that Seattle will not become the queen city of the Pacific coast.”  The historic day concluded that evening with Vespers and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
         Bishop O’Dea received telegrams of congratulation from Archbishop Falconio, the apostolic delegate to the United States, and from Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, the most respected prelate in the country; but he understood well that the work now triumphantly accomplished was not his alone.  The priests and people of the diocese, both Catholics and non-Catholics, had made tremendous sacrifices to build their new Cathedral.  They could say, with David, “I will not offer to the Lord a sacrifice which cost me nothing.”

Corinna Laughlin
Director of Liturgy

Back to the July 2007 Issue of In Your Midst