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Restoring and reimagining: Transformation at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross


  • Workers from Suffolk Construction move around the top level of scaffolding just under the ceiling of the Cathedral of Holy Cross, Aug. 16. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy
  • An architect’s rendering of the interior of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross once renovations are complete in 2019. Pilot photo/courtesy Cathedral of the Holy Cross
  • Scaffolding several stories high fills the interior of the cathedral in mid-August. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy
  • Details in the cathedral’s woodwork are being cleaned and made more visible. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy
  • The cathedral is pictured in June 2017 with the pews removed for restoration, before the start of major interior work. Pilot photo/Patrick E. O’Connor
  • Among the “surprises” encountered during construction was the discovery of a still-functional sink behind a hidden door under what had been the media platform. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy

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BOSTON -- Considered by many to be the heart of the Archdiocese of Boston, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross is the largest Catholic church in New England, able to accommodate 2,000 people -- that is, when it has pews for them to sit in.

Currently, four stories of scaffolding fill the building's interior. On an intermediate level, art restoration specialists are touching up one of the canvas paintings depicting the Stations of the Cross. Higher up, the ceiling is being painted and new energy-efficient lights are being installed.

"Almost nobody gets to see this stuff eye-level, and probably won't for God knows how many years," said Michael Kieloch, the cathedral's director of communications, surveying the work being done on the uppermost reaches of the cathedral.

John Fish, chairman and CEO of Suffolk Construction, and David Manfredi, CEO and founding principal of Elkus Manfredi Architects, are leading the $25 million renovation of the cathedral.

The project began last year and is expected to be completed by April 2019, in time to celebrate Holy Week and Easter. By then, the pews will be repaired, refinished, and reinstalled with new kneelers. In the meantime, Masses are being celebrated in the cathedral's lower church and Blessed Sacrament chapel.

Father Kevin O'Leary, the administrator and rector of Holy Cross Cathedral, said he has been thinking of cleaning and restoring the building ever since he came to it in 2010. Part of the reason it is happening now is due to "a whole new resurgence in the South End," with greater numbers of people attending Mass.

The cathedral serves a diverse and thriving community of believers in the South End. Each week, 21 Masses are celebrated in four languages and attended by more than 1,200 people. The historic building is a destination site for pilgrims and tourists visiting Boston, and a center of a variety of community services and resources for the poor, the sick, and the homeless.

Manfredi, who lives about five blocks away from Holy Cross, said, "The cathedral was, and is, an anchor in the South End neighborhood," because "it provides so many services to the neighborhood, and has for so long. I think it's really important in the neighborhood, kind of beyond its primary function as a place of worship. It's a center of all kinds of community activities."

These activities include free health services through Cathedral Cares Clinic, weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, an off-site shelter for victims of human trafficking, homeless outreach, a food pantry run by Catholic Charities, and spiritual care for Cathedral High School.

Suffolk Construction's offices are located in Roxbury, not far from the cathedral. Fish drives by the building frequently and makes sure to stay updated on progress from one week to the next. In his view, the cathedral "represents the soul of the community."

"This church is symbolic of bringing back life to a community that had been quiet for quite some time, and I think it's inspirational," Fish said.

Improvements have been made for many of the cathedral's premises in recent years. The old elementary school was renovated; "major work" is being done on St. Helena House, housing for low income seniors sponsored by HUD; and bells from Holy Trinity Church were restored and placed in the cathedral tower.

In 2015, the exterior of the cathedral itself underwent renovations. Layers of dirt accumulated over 150 years were removed, revealing the original colors of the brownstone, limestone, and locally sourced Roxbury puddingstone. Now, the building's interior is getting its turn.

"Every time I'm in here, I see something new. It never stops being just incredible," Kieloch said.

There have been surprises along the way. One was the discovery of a fully functional mop sink located behind a hidden door under the press platform at the front left corner of the cathedral. Another has been the daily, anonymous delivery of artificial flowers outside the cathedral entrance.

"Things that have been unexpected have been for the better," Fish said. One such example is that while cleaning the ceiling, workers discovered quatrefoil patterns inlaid on the ceiling beams that had been painted over.

"Whenever you identify details like this, it brings back the original feeling of the building itself. I think this gave a lot of the workers, and I know gave the church and the cardinal, great pride to be able to identify that and bring it back to its original state," Fish said.

When they opened cavities in the floor, Suffolk project manager Robert Kountz was amazed to find the original subfloor completely structurally sound.

"They built this so well, back then, and now you realize, when you drive home, you're humbled by what you've been trusted with. In 150 years, when someone opens this up, I hope they're going to say we did everything in such a way," Kountz said.

Highlighting History

Boston's first cathedral, also named for the Holy Cross, was built on Franklin Street in the first years of the 19th century. In the 1860s Bishop John Fitzpatrick realized the local Catholic population was outgrowing this church, so he proposed building a new one.

The current Cathedral of the Holy Cross was designed by Irish-American architect Patrick Keely, who designed 16 cathedrals and hundreds of other ecclesiastical buildings in his 49-year career.

The Civil War forced the diocese to postpone building the cathedral, which finally broke ground in 1866. Archbishop John J. Williams presided over the rite of dedication in 1875.

A century and a half later, great care is being taken to restore the cathedral's decor to its intended appearance. At the same time, efforts are being made to highlight features that have dulled or gone unnoticed.

The apse will be better lit and more of its stenciling and painting will be visible. Gold-leaf is replacing the dark red trim on the ceiling trusses, bringing out previously invisible details. The walls are being painted and the stained glass windows are being cleaned. Art restoration specialists from EverGreene Architectural Arts are helping to brighten the canvas paintings that make up the Stations of the Cross.

Comparing the restoration of the cathedral to other projects, Fish said, "There are scopes of work that are analogous to this, because of the historic nature of New England and the Boston downtown area. So we encounter this type of program on an ongoing basis, but typically the programs that I'm referring to don't have the significance that this building has in the community that it's in."

"We want to design and build for the next hundred years, but be very faithful to the original mission and intent of the cathedral," Manfredi said.

He added, "I feel like we've touched a certain part of history. We've done it with great care, and our goal is to be as true to the original intent as possible, while at the same time making it a more modern building in terms of its infrastructure, but also a little bit more responsive to the way the liturgy happens today and the multiple services that the cathedral provides."

A space for worship

"How do we blend the history of this beautiful church together with the needs of the liturgy in the 21st century?" That is the question Father Jonathan Gaspar, archdiocesan master of ceremonies, says is guiding the decision-making throughout the renovation.

"We want to honor and respect the historic nature of the Keely construction and architecture, but at the same time we need to construct a place that is conducive to the liturgy that the Church has inherited since the Second Vatican Council. As much as we can, we want to preserve all of the elements of the transcendent and the sacred that are in the church," Father Gaspar said.

Every decision is made with consideration of how it will impact parishioners' worship experience. Every aspect of the art, layout, and infrastructure is intended to serve the liturgy.

"What's most exciting about this project is that the changes we'll see coming will make for a much better experience of the liturgy. It'll enhance the beauty that's already there in the cathedral, but a lot of things that we couldn't see before will now be visible to our eyes from the ground," said Father Gaspar.

Significant changes will be visible in the sanctuary. There will be a new marble altar and ambo modeled after Keely's work. The baptismal font will be on the nave floor in front of the St. Joseph Shrine, providing room to accommodate large families during baptisms. The choir section will also be moved to the nave floor, and the sanctuary platform will be extended and feature a handicap-accessible entrance.

Because of these changes, "We'll be able to accommodate a larger number of priests for concelebration, and this will especially be helpful on days like ordinations and the Chrism Mass during Holy Week where we have a larger number of concelebrants than usual. And they'll all be able to access the altar, even our elderly priests who, in the past, weren't able to access the altar because of all the stairs," Father Gaspar said.

The original stairs to the high altar will be restored, so the cathedral can also be used for the extraordinary form of the liturgy, Father Gaspar said.

There will be several invisible but important new features: new sprinkler and fire protection systems, a heating system and, for the first time in the cathedral's existence, an air conditioning system. Electrical wires are being hidden behind or inside columns.

The cathedral will have LED lights and different types of lighting concepts. More energy efficient lights are being put into the original lighting pendants. At night, the building will be lit from the inside, illuminating the stained glass windows for passersby to see.

"A lot of people used to complain that the cathedral was just too dark. Now I think, with the work that's being done, the lighting will be not only energy-saving but beautiful, (and) help to highlight some of the architectural patterns that we weren't able to see before," Father Gaspar said.

Robotic cameras will help CatholicTV broadcast cathedral events, eliminating the need for the press box, which has been removed. A state-of-the-art digital sound system will also make services easier to hear throughout the building.

"We're hoping that with the new restoration of the cathedral we can get the proper equipment and amplification in there that will lend to a more natural sound in the cathedral, not an amplified sound like a radio, but more of a natural, clear sound, like you would expect of a live group of performers," Father Gaspar said.

The wood floor will be replaced with marble, which in addition to be more durable than the original wood, will also improve the acoustics and reflect more light to brighten the cathedral.

Everyone involved in planning and organizing the cathedral renovation is keenly aware of the legacy they are inheriting from previous generations and creating for future generations.

"We look at this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we're thrilled to be involved," Fish said.

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