Saint Cecilia Parish existed before the cathedral church. In March 1888 the bishop, James O’Connor, gathered several individuals together to establish a parish in the Walnut Hill District, beyond the city limit and the prominent ridge line above the city of Omaha. Land was leased from Charles Taggert and his wife Cecilia Furey Taggert, just west of Lowe Avenue (now 40th Street), construction of the 40’ x 60’ wood church was begun and dedication took place on December 2, 1988.
While this simple, small church was out of the way it was not without neighbors or reasons to journey into the near countryside. Dr. Mercer had already built a mansion in the area, Reverend Lowe had established a church nearby and both men had influence on various aspects of developing Omaha. The first several pastors (there were 12 pastors in the first decade) offered Sunday Mass only once a month. All of them lived with the bishop, because there was no residence at the church or in the neighborhood, and complained that the Catholics in the area were not attending the new church. Sometime at the end of the 1890’s Taggert surrendered the land and the parish lost its lease. Some kind of non-legal discussions took place but the impasse was broken when the little church was lifted from its foundation, placed on moving wheels and brought to Lowe Avenue and Page Streets. The pastor was Daniel P. Harrington, new pastor and only four or five years ordained.
The little church was expanded in size to accommodate the larger number of Catholics in the new location. In 1905 two significant events occurred: a priest’s house was built on the south side of the church (now the corner of 40th and Webster Streets) and the foundation of the new cathedral was begun.
The new cathedral had been announced in 1901, and the architect, Thomas Rogers Kimball, was hired shortly after that. Controversy over the location of the cathedral (even to the point of a group of priests petitioning the Pope to stop the project) stirred the Catholic community and fund raising became a major pre-occupation of the pastor of the parish church.
Construction on the new cathedral proceeded with “fits and starts” until the building was enclosed with completion of the roof. In 1906 the parish church was named “Pro-Cathedral”, which is to say it began to function as the bishop’s church. Meanwhile, the neighborhood began to fill in as more people, especially Catholics, were drawn up the hill and beyond to find housing and community.
The parish community prospered. While much attention was focused upon the construction of the new cathedral the parish of Saint Cecilia built a “grade” school which opened to approximately 300 children on October 7, 1907. It was the day after the cornerstone of the new cathedral was laid at the base of the north bell tower.
The parish church ceased to be on the evening of November 21, 1917 when a violent wind storm blew over heavy scaffolding used to erect the south bell tower of the new cathedral onto the structure. It was a total loss. The only place Mass and other religious services could take place was in the “still under construction” new cathedral.
The parish added a high school in 1919 and graduated its first class in 1923. The Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters committed themselves to elementary and secondary education from the beginning. The last teaching Sisters left the parish in 1997 and the final Sisters in 2010.
Through the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s the parish grew and matured. Its community of people came to take on more and more of the burden to pay for the continuing but slow completion of the majestic cathedral. Little thought was given to the once small parish church, first generation leaders were no longer mainstays but their families were devoted and the Dominican Sisters inspired and educated the children.
Following World War II times changed and so did the parish. Renewed energy was given to the decoration of the Cathedral’s interior, which was accomplished in 1952. The leadership of Monsignor Ernest Graham prompted the final push to cap the bell towers and put final touches on the rest of the interior decorations. Three bells were placed in the south tower and rang with jubilation in October 1958. The Cathedral parish, at that point, was the largest parish in the Archdiocese of Omaha and its two schools comprised 14% of the children in Catholic schools.
The 1970’s and 1980’s were times of transition and challenge. Young people continued to populate the school, energy and success were measured not in buildings and treasure but in perseverance amid social change and in personal involvement for the parish and the community in such groups as the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, Womens Guild, social justice/action endeavors.
The 1990’s tested the parish in ways most were not prepared for – the closing of the beloved high school (in its 75th year), further demographic changes in the neighborhood and the search for identity between parish community and the church of the bishop. The Jubilee Year of 2000 revived pride in the Cathedral because of its restoration and the recognition given to it as a place of the arts and performance. Its place as a house of prayer was renewed with a variety of groups and gatherings and events finding a home in its immense and personal spaces.
Recent energy and reflection during the first decade of the 21st century has resulted in the articulation of a vision and mission: Inspiring. Faith. Community. (the sequence of the words as well as the periods following each word are significant)
As disciples of Jesus Christ in the Roman Catholic Cathedral Parish of Saint Cecilia, through the ministry of the Archbishop, we share Christ’s presence with all we encounter by our sacramental participation,our parish community, and living the Word of God.
The parish celebrated its 125th anniversary late in 2013. It was a time not for nostalgia but for dedication to the spirit and faith which has stood the test of time and still retains the zest for the challenge and opportunity to witness for Christ as well as those who are the legacy we continue.