Saturday, October 22, 2011

Blog Post No. 2011-17: What do you think it would take... appropriately cap off Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross?

Photo 1: Front facade of the cathedral. 

Photo 2: Close view of the lower front facade tower.

Photo 3: A side view of the front facade,
showing the low caps on the towers.

Photo 4: The north side facade at the transept.

Photo 5: View looking south along Washington Street,
with Cathedral High School gym just in front of cathedral.

Photo 6: Plaque on the front facade of the cathedral,
referencing the importance of the building to
newly-arrived Irish immigrants in the mid 19th century.

The Comment: As you can see from the photos, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, although it's been open and in operation since 1875, was never quite "completed" to the design of P.C. Keeley, despite the plaque's statement to the contrary. It is very obviously missing the spires that should rise from the two towers on either side of the front facade. And so, RTUF's question today is as indicated above: What would it take to appropriately cap off those towers? And I mean that question both architecturally and practically. What should they look like -- traditional Gothic spires in the spirit of the original design (shown directly below, and, at least according to the accompanying account, planned to reach 200 and 300 feet in height, respectively), or something more modern? And practically, how would the archdiocese, no longer flush with cash or the level of influence and good will it used to enjoy in Boston, pull it off in the first place?

Source: Boston Illustrated, 1881.

Now, this question occurs to me because I've spent several hours last Saturday and today attending mass at the Cathedral. I have done this not because the Cathedral is convenient to our house in Roslindale or because I'm looking for a new parish. Rather, my son's choir (based from the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School at St. Paul's Church in Cambridge) has sung at masses there the last two weekends. [Regular readers may recall that I blogged about the very flexible courtyard space at St. Paul's church earlier this year in Post No. 2011-2.]

So, I've spent more time there in the last 8 days than I've spent there in the last 14 years of living in the Boston area. Even as a pretty diligent, church-going Catholic, I'm not surprised. The Cathedral, almost since the day of its completion, appears to have occupied something of a disfavored place in the life and self-concept of the Boston archdiocese. This seems partly the result of its location in the South End, which was eclipsed as the most fashionable residential neighborhood in the city shortly after its completion when the filling and construction of the Back Bay got underway in the 1860s. It also seems partly the result of the leadership of the archdiocese's decision to affirmatively achieve the disconnect by decamping for Lake Street on the Brighton-Newton border starting in the 1880s. Under Archbishop Williams, the chancery (the central administrative offices), the archdiocesan seminary, and the archbishop's residence were all located out on the former Stanwood Estate by the turn of the last century, several miles from the place where worship was supposed to be centered. When Boston College, the region's most important Catholic higher educational institution, moved from its former location on Harrison Avenue (also in the South End and not far from the Cathedral) to an assemblage across Commonwealth Avenue from the archdiocese's new compound in the first decade of the 20th century, the relocation of Catholic Boston's power and attention was complete. I'd be curious to know if there is another example anywhere in the Catholic Church -- worldwide -- where the cathedral was so completely abandoned and cut off from the leadership of the diocese. The only thing the leadership appears to have left behind was Cathedral High School (the school gym is seen in Photo 5). And, then in the early 20th century, injury was added to insult as the elevated Orange Line was built down Washington Street, resulting in what Robert Campbell called "A Cathedral Trapped Behind an Iron Fence" in Cityscapes of Boston. So much, then, for the building that was supposed to be the main marker for the fully-arrived Catholic community in Boston.

But the tides against which the Cathedral swam for many decades seem to be receding, at least in some directions. As Campbell noted in Cityscapes, the elevated Orange Line was torn down in the 1980s when the subway was relocated to a new alignment in the Southwest Corridor. The South End has become a far more fashionable and desired urban neighborhood in the last several decades. Washington Street itself has substantially recoverd, as new construction to the north of the Cathedral has filled in major gaps in the urban fabric and the MBTA, City of Boston, and the Commonwealth recently collaborated on a reconstruction of the thoroughfare that improved the streetscape and provided for reserved bus lanes for the Silver Line's southern segment (they're the red-painted lanes seen in Photo 5). The archdiocese itself has undergone a major transformation as a result of several trends over the last half century, including, most significantly, the twin traumas of parish closings/consolidations and the clergy abuse scandal that directly led to selling off most of the old Lake Street complex to Boston College as a way to shore up the archdiocese's finances. The current archbishop and cardinal, Sean O'Malley, now resides next to the Cathedral (a move your faithful correspondent heartily applauds), while the chancery has been moved to suburban office space in Braintree and the seminary remains in Brighton.

Accordingly, a new day has, in many ways, arrived in the archdiocese and we are all -- leadership, clergy, laity -- feeling our way through it. It seems, to at least this observer, that one tremendously important symbol of really starting a new era might be to complete unfinished business with what remains, at least spiritually, the most important building in the archdiocese's built heritage. Why not give the old edifice something new to make it really stand out? Why not figure out a way to have the towers (however conceived) finally reach into the sky the way they were meant? Why not announce that the archdiocese really and truly is back, in and of the City?

Editor's Note: This post has been edited for flow and to correct spelling and punctuation since its original posting. -- MJL

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