POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 12, 2007:
Remaking an Icon
Historic cathedral weathers time, outlives wrecking ball
By Brian Ervin
Some scholars suggest the Roman Empire evolved into and through the White House, but less speculative is the certainty that as Western civilization has continually reinvented itself through the ages by innumerable social, political and cultural renaissances and revolutions, at least one constant has remained over the millennia: the influence of the Roman Catholic Church.
Similarly, but much more locally and somewhat more recently, the iconic Holy Family Cathedral has reflected the growth and evolution of the city of Tulsa, beginning as a steadfast presence and continuing amid the city's rising and falling fortunes.
As the state of Oklahoma celebrates its 100th birthday, Holy Family congregants are looking ahead to their own approaching centennial celebration of the building's completion in 2014, and are making preparations by upgrading and renovating the city's oldest continuous house of worship.
For the Church's third millennium and the Cathedral's second century, Assistant Rector, the Rev. Matthew LaChance told UTW that the Catholic Church's share of downtown Tulsa's skyline will sport "a more Gothic look" as a result of the ongoing renovations, as well as enjoying numerous other, albeit less visible improvements.
"This is being done with the idea that we'll preserve the structure for at least another hundred years," said LaChance.
In the interest of taking the Holy Family Cathedral into at least the 22nd century, he said the entire structure is being rewired, fitted with a sprinkler system, a new sound system, all new ductwork for the air-conditioning system, some new flooring and a new coat of paint throughout the interior.
Most noticeable for the rest of Tulsa, though, will be the new, retro-style roof in the works, which LaChance said will "restore the original beauty of the cathedral."
He said some elements of the roof were removed in 1959 when the asbestos tile roof was replaced, and it was discovered midway through the project that including them on the new roof was too cost prohibitive.
The priest said, while "we're very happy with the current decorative scheme, it's beginning to look very time specific."
"Our real hope is that, for the celebration of the centennial, we'll have restored some of the lost architectural grandeur," added LaChance, who is himself an architect.
He said replacement of the current aluminum shingles with copper material will "reintroduce the warm tones" of the Cathedral's original design and appearance.
LaChance also said "more pronounced edge pieces" and some decorative rings will be restored to the spires.
That doesn't sound like a drastic change, but LaChance said the overall effect will be to recreate the Cathedral in the Neo-Gothic architectural style, which will contain elements of later Renaissance architecture, while at the same time creating a timeless aesthetic for this monument to the city's formative years and history, for Catholics and non-Catholics and visitors to downtown Tulsa.
Monsignor Gregory Gier, rector of the Cathedral, said the planning for the project began long before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but the nationwide economic downturn resulting from the attacks presented a significant fundraising hurdle, sending them back to the drawing board for a short while.
Renewed planning began in 2002 and actual construction on the project in 2005, he said, which he called "the ultimate Pandora's Box."
For instance, when the workers hired to install the sprinkler system emerged from their attic reconnaissance, they said the rafters supporting the work weren't stable enough to withstand the project, so entire sections had to be replaced before the sprinklers were installed.
Gier said about $1.6 million has been spent between the roof and the attic in the past two years.
Also, another $1.5 million has been spent on the renovations to the main spire and the roof.
Another $1.2 million will be spent on the two front spires, and another $250,000 on the interior before the project's completion, Gier estimated.
At the end of the day, that amounts to about $4.5 million.
Manhattan Construction is the general contractor, with consultants from Philips Slaughter Rose.
Phillips Construction is doing the work on the roof, though.
The architectural consultants on the project are from the South Bend, Ind.-based firm, Thomas Gordon Smith Architects.
LaChance estimated that the entire renovation project will be completed in about a year, but Gier said his colleague is "being very positive in his approach" to estimating the completion date.
It's an optimism Gier happens to share, though.
He said funding for the historic project is being provided by the ongoing donations from Tulsa-area Catholics, many of whom offer up to $100,000 at a time.
"In the past three months, we've raised about $800,000, so I'm rather enthused about what's going on," Gier said.
He said a previous diocesan-level fund drive, the "Fund for the Future," also provided a significant amount of capital for some of the construction that has already taken place.
Place in History
While Holy Family Cathedral's century mark is still a few years off, the assembly that gives it life is well past its 100th year.
What would become the congregation of the Holy Family Cathedral began in 1893 with the arrival of the Eagan family from Iowa.
After opening a harness shop in town, the Eagans hosted the first Mass in Tulsa in their home above the shop, celebrated by the Rev. William Ketchum.
At the time, Bishop Theophile Meerschaert had begun planning the creation of a Catholic school in Tulsa, but the lot at 3rd St. and Franklin Ave. where it would eventually be located was not purchased until 1898.
After a fundraising campaign by the 10-or-so Catholic families in Tulsa, which was spearheaded by the newly assigned Rev. Charles Van Hulse, the small, wooden Holy Family Church was built on the lot, and the first Mass in that church was observed on Sunday, Sept. 10, 1899, according to Rev. James D. White's book, "Tulsa Catholics."
The next day, the school began its classes in the church building, which continued until construction was completed on the school building a month later.
It was dubbed the "St. Teresa's Institute for Creek Indian Girls."
The school was one of 63 Catholic schools in the nation to be partially funded by the famous "millionaire nun," Mother Katherine Drexel who was later canonized a saint of the Church.
Over the next few years, under the leadership of Holy Family's third pastor, Rev. John Heiring, the church building was expanded and renovated to accommodate Tulsa's rapidly growing Catholic population.
The church building was rededicated by Meershaert in the year of Oklahoma's statehood, but the new pews and windows had not arrived by the time of the scheduled ceremony, so the Bishop found himself consecrating a windowless and pew-less sanctuary.
Of course, the windows and pews eventually arrived, but the congregation's new trappings didn't accommodate them for long.
The population of Tulsa kept growing and Holy Family's membership kept growing as well, and the need for a new gathering place was all too evident three years later in 1910 when the Easter Sunday crowd swelled far beyond "standing room only" capacity.
So, a lot was purchased at 8th and Boulder for what would become the Holy Family Cathedral.
Ground was broken on May 23, 1912 when parishioners used their own farming equipment to prepare the land for the foundation to be laid by contractors in September.
Heiring modeled the new cathedral after the Gothic-styled St. Francis Xavier Church of his birthplace in Dyersville, Iowa, and had it built as a "proud symbol of Catholicism in Tulsa."
Construction was completed in 1914, and a parade from the old church building to the new commemorated the event on April 1st.
That day saw the christening of the building with holy water to chants of "Haec Est Domus Domini" ("This is the House of the Lord"), a Latin phrase eventually inscribed in marble script above the front entry.
Heiring called the brand new cathedral a "tri-spired gem."
Forward into the Future
Today, downtown's skyscrapers dwarf the almost centenarian sanctuary, but it was the tallest structure in the city for more than a decade, and remained so until 1925 when the Mayo Hotel was constructed.
That year also saw the cathedral's consecration by New York's Cardinal Archbishop Patrick Hayes.
While Hayes was in town in May of that year, he also laid the cornerstone at St. John's Hospital, broke ground on what would become Christ the King Parish, and promoted Heiring to the title of Monsignor.
As downtown Tulsa grew in the intervening years, residences surrounding the cathedral gave way to high-rise office buildings and other businesses, and plans were in motion for the church to be torn down, the property sold and a simple chapel built elsewhere.
However, Pope Paul IV himself intervened to avert those plans when he decreed in 1973 that Tulsa would be its own independent diocese, with the Cathedral of the Holy Family as its headquarters (Tulsa and Oklahoma City had been in the same diocese since 1933).
"There was serious consideration at one time of tearing it down and just eliminating it, and putting up a downtown chapel and putting the church somewhere else," recounted Gier.
"But then when we became a diocese and became a bishop's cathedral, there was a whole different feel to the place," he continued.
Since its construction in 1914, the basilica (actually, LaChance petitioned for this official designation, but it was denied) has seen numerous maintenance and renovation projects, but LaChance said the last project on the scale of what's currently taking place was in 1974.
The project was necessitated by "some downtown neighbors who decided they were cold and started a fire in our vestibule to warm up," he recounted. At that time Holy Family and most Catholic Churches around the world had been kept open traditionally 24/7.
The conflagration was somewhat serendipitous, though. It meant newer-looking facilities two years later when Mother Teresa visited the Holy Family Cathedral to tell of her work with the poor in India.
It was during Mother Teresa's visit in 1976 that Rev. James Halpine was announced as Holy Family's new pastor, in which capacity he served for the next 22 years.
In 1982, the Cathedral was listed in the National Registry of Historic Places by the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Today, about 700 families in Tulsa call Holy Family Cathedral their home church, LaChance said.
Also, Gier said it's common for many who do not worship regularly at the cathedral to hold wedding ceremonies within the landmark, or to just visit to admire the architecture, tradition and history that it represents.
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