The Cathedral Columbarium

The Cathedral Columbarium provides the opportunity for St. James Cathedral parishioners and benefactors to be inurned on the grounds of their parish church. It is an ancient tradition in the Church to be buried in or near the church itself. At St. James Cathedral, the Cathedral Crypt, built in 1907, has been in use since 1997 for the Archbishops of the Archdiocese of Seattle. The columbarium allows parishioners to be buried here as well. The Columbarium brings parishioners, family and friends to the Cathedral and makes it possible for their remains to rest surrounded by loved ones, prayed for, and tended by the community for generations to come.

The Cathedral Columbarium respectfully and discreetly complements the Italian Renaissance style of the Cathedral, making beautiful use of a neglected and little used part of the Cathedral campus. Family members and friends have access to the Cathedral Columbarium and can pause and remember their loved ones and all those who have died in a quiet and private prayerful place whenever they attend Mass or visit the Cathedral.

For Father Trung Pham, who is Assistant Professor at Seattle University and a Jesuit priest, there is no separation between art and faith. For him, art offers a way to reflect on theology and spirituality and to explore the complexity of the human experience.

Born in Vietnam, Pham immigrated to the United States with his family in 1990. His father, Hoang Pham, was a noted artist both in Vietnam and in the U.S. until he suffered a stroke twenty years ago. Trung himself focused on the sciences as an undergraduate, completing a degree in chemical engineering. After joining the Jesuits in 1998, he had the opportunity to explore his artistic side. He studied at the Pratt Institute in New York before receiving an advanced degree in Theological Aesthetics from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. “I have been so lucky to have these resources available to me,” he says.

Father Pham is no stranger to St. James Cathedral. Back in 2016, the Cathedral Chapel hosted an exhibit of his extraordinary paintings. In Wounds, his hope was “to depict beauty in vulnerability and brokenness.” The paintings showed “the grotesque, deformed, contorted look of wounds,” and yet at the same time, “the beauty of their tenderness and fragility emerges.” The paintings reflected on the wounds of Christ: “by his wounds, we were healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

It was natural, then, that when the time came to commission an image of the crucified Christ for the Cathedral Columbarium, Father Ryan should turn to Pham for the commission. The project was a major undertaking for Pham, who had created bronze sculptures before (including a beautiful crucifix for the chapel of Seattle Preparatory School), but never one on this scale.

Creating an image of the crucified Christ is particularly challenging because the image is so familiar. Pham researched the representation of the crucified Christ down through the ages, going back to the earliest images, which showed a victorious Christ, with no wounds. It was only after Christianity was legalized in the 4th century that the suffering Christ began to be represented. These images show Christ dying or dead. They are often bloody and sometimes grotesque.

As a priest and theologian, Pham notes: “We talk about the paschal mystery, but we don’t always show it. We show one or the other, suffering or resurrection. I wanted to show the ‘in between.’ Both living and dying. We profess all three—passion, death, resurrection. But how do you show that?”
Prayer was an essential part of approaching the task. Pham reflected on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which are at the heart of Jesuit spirituality.

“One of the contemplations that the Spiritual Exercises ask the retreatants to do, is to imagine when the Holy Trinity looked down on the earth, and asked, what are we going to do with them? And the Second Person decided, I’m going to help them. So the downward gaze is very important.”

After receiving the commission from Father Ryan in August, 2020, the first step was to make a miniature of clay. “This took about a month and a half, as I sought the right design,” Pham remembers. “It goes through a lot of changes, a lot of research. It takes infinite patience.”

Pham presented the miniature to Father Ryan and the team at the Cathedral in September, 2020. Pham sought to reconcile, in the design, both the living and the dying Christ. The pose suggests flight. “The hands suggest both resurrection—lifting--and crucifixion. The idea is to help viewers meditate about the resurrection within the crucifixion. Often we see Christ on the cross drooping, because he is dead. But the paschal mystery is both living and dying.”

Once it was approved, Pham set out to create the full-scale version in red clay, which posed its own challenges. Pham would work each evening, alone in his studio, for four or five hours. In the end, he calculated he probably spent seven hundred hours on the sculpture.

To create the feeling of “flight,” Pham sculpted the image suspended upright. “I could have used a traditional armature,” he reflects, “but that would be boring. I couldn’t have created the same feeling of flight, of floating, if the sculpture had been fixed in place.”

The sculpture fell to the ground three times during the process, something Pham found symbolic. “I can’t do art alone. I need grace. I cannot rely on my own talent. I can do 50%; God’s grace needs to do the rest. I even asked my friends to pray for me, I was so desperate about the piece. It was only then that things began to fall into place.”

“Without the Spirit,” Pham says, “it’s dead. With the Spirit, it’s a living thing.”

The team visited the studio in December, 2020, to view the work in progress, offer suggestions, and sign off on the work before it went to the foundry. At the foundry, the original clay sculpture was sliced into eight pieces so that a rubber mold could be made. From the mold, a wax model is created.

Corrections are made to the texture and the modeling in the wax stage. “This is an important stage for creating texture—the melted wax has a different texture from the clay,” Pham notes. “The finished piece will show both surfaces. I like a dynamic texture, that changes.”

Once Pham finished overworking the wax pieces, they were cast in bronze, and then the whole sculpture had to be assembled, soldered together, and given its dark patina.

Reflecting on the piece as a whole, Pham says: “It’s crooked, it’s active, it’s living, and it has a theological meaning. My goal is for it to be ‘both-and.’ Both art and theology. Both living and dying. Both suffering and hope. Some parts are rough, some parts smooth, some parts undefined. I hope to keep these things in tension.

“This is my life, forever. This is my art.”
Grant this this columbarium,
placed under the sign of the cross,
may, by the power of your blessing,
be a place of rest and hope.
May the bodies buried here sleep in your peace,
to rise immortal at the coming of your Son.
May this place be a comfort to the living,
a sign of their hope for unending life.

Prayer of Blessing for a Columbarium