The experience of entering Saint Cecilia Cathedral prompts a sense a sense of wonder in most visitors. The immense space, created by the long nave and nearly eight story ceiling, hits a person first. Then the beauty of the proportion in the space and the color everywhere both excites and gives rest to the eye.
The Thomas Rogers Kimble vaulted ceiling was given new life during a restoration in 1998-1999. Evergreene Studios of New York City, in collaboration with Brother William Woeger, gave an eye popping make-over to the ribbed vaults as well as a retrieval of the original design of a ribbed apse ceiling. The beauty of this restoration is highlighted by up-lighting throughout the nave.
Few admirers of this breathtaking sight will wonder what makes this sight possible. In other words, what is the other side of our vaulted ceilings? This area of the Cathedral is not available to the general public or even special tours. The occasional maintenance person will venture to the heights over the high ceiling to change light bulbs or hang the Advent wreath or the Easter topiary. Other than these occasions, no one disturbs this cloistered space.
We know from historical records that the support of the main Cathedral roof is 100 tons of metal girders and support structures. What does that look like from the other side?
Try to envision curved and humplike bridges--the ribbed vaults of the ceiling are the larger bridges and are linked and bound with smaller bridge structures. There is a difference of six to eight feet in height as the larger bridges lay next to the smaller bridges. Criss-cross girders tie all of these large and small bridges to the top of the wall of the building.
There is a “cat “walk”, about two feet wide, down the center of this array of girders and struts. The roof of the Cathedral is peaked, so anyone walking the cat walk is moving beneath a triangle of metal supports. Even a short person has to walk in stooped fashion to make the passage along the cat walk. The available walking space is about four and a half feet in height, and the highest open space is just over six feet. The cat walk has no hand rails, so an open drop below to the bridge structures forming the vaulted ceiling is between six and twenty feet.
This space is its own wonder of construction, but it is not for the faint of heart. The air is still and hot, the tops of the bridge work are dusty and dirty, and the lighting is dim fluorescent tubes set at intervals along the cat walk. Some might call the whole experience, “spooky”.
Over the years, various repairs, such as the 1998-99 restoration project and even the complete re-wiring of the cathedral which took place in the latter 1980’s, has resulted in the litter of trash, old lighting equipment left behind, and various plastic sheeting used to collect or divert rain or water from melted snow coming through leaks in the roof.
A one-man special project (that one man being the Cathedral Pastor) has set about the task of cleaning up this unseen but important space in Saint Cecilia Cathedral. Dozens of old metal light fixtures are being removed, trash (by the large trash bag full) is being collected and removed, wiring (disconnected or discarded in previous projects)is being collected for recycle.
Climbing across the humped bridge structures is like climbing the side of the mountain. These structures are made of stiff wire mesh holding various thicknesses of a cementlike material and reinforced with metal banding, both vertical and horizontal, and then anchored to the girders which stretch to the outer church walls.
Strange as it may sound, there is minimal danger in falling down but there is always danger in banging a head against all of the metal work supporting the entire structure. The edges are sharp and the surfaces are hard.
Even though the clean-up project will be completed this summer, there will be no tours of this hidden area of the Cathedral. Exciting as it might be for many to see, there are simply too many liability issues keeping us from offering passage into this space. There are numerous locked doors for security purposes and to keep out curiosity seekers.
Suffice it to say that Thomas Rogers Kimball, the Cathedral architect, made sure that the top of the Cathedral would be as solid as the footings and the foundation of the building. In their own way, each space has a practical beauty, because there is no question that the workers applied craftsmanship with attention to detail. This realization explains why all the parts of the Cathedral we can enjoy are able to dazzle us with their beauty.
~Fr. Michael Gutgsell, July 2013