Friday, May 04, 2007

Ireland's Triumph... in Minnesota

No history of American Catholicism's movers-and-shakers would be complete without mention of Archbishop John Ireland, the first great ecclesiastical strongman of the Midwest.

From 1884 to 1918, Ireland reigned over the church of Saint Paul and Minneapolis through his gifts of strong will, captivating oratory, and friends in high places whose roles gave the prelate's advice and ideas an outsized clout far beyond the confines of the Twin Cities. But while even these were passing, much of his work remains in the apparatus of the local church he's largely responsible for having built.

A native of the sod whose name he bore, like many of his contemporaries Ireland sought to place the definitive stamp of the church's arrival on the civic scape of his fiefdom, and his contribution to the patrimony is being celebrated in the coming weeks as the Cathedral of St Paul marks 100 years since the laying of its cornerstone:

Impossible, some said. Too grandiose. Too costly — especially for poor immigrant families struggling to start a new life in a new land.

But St. Paul’s first archbishop, John Ireland (1838-1918), had a vision of a shining church upon a hill. Naysayers aside, the powerful prelate would allow nothing to obstruct that vision from materializing.

In 1907, Archbishop Ireland, in characteristic larger-than-life style, began construction on not one, but two majestic cathedrals.

The Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul and its sister church, the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, were “a statement in stone” for all to see that Catholicism was a permanent fixture in Minnesota, according to historian Father Marvin O’Connell, author of the biography “John Ireland and the American Catholic Church.”...

The two church sites, high on a hill overlooking downtown St. Paul and on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, were strategically chosen for their high visibility...

“[Archbishop Ireland] wanted everybody . . . to see physically the Catholic Church is in the secular city, and it’s here to stay,” the priest said.

Archbishop Ireland hired French architect Emmanuel Masqueray, whom he had met in St. Louis at the 1904 World’s Fair, according to Father O’Connell, to carry out his vision for the twin cathedrals.

Although the price tag for the dual projects seemed indomitable, Archbishop Ireland capitalized on his notoriety to persuade people that their contributions, no matter how small, would be an investment in the church’s future.
Full coverage from a special edition of The Catholic Spirit.

While the St Paul landmark underwent a restoration project in recent years, similar work continues on the Minneapolis basilica -- the co-cathedral of the archdiocese, and possibly the only basilica to hold an annual "block party."

...not a bad idea, that.