For the Glory of God
The 1980s for the American Church was a time of liturgical experimentation and implementation. In the minds of many caring Catholics, formality was associated with distance and coldness. Its opposite, informality, was interpreted as being casual. It seemed necessary to some to apologize for grand buildings and the demands they made upon worshippers. Ceremonies should be accessible, and should be brought to the people. In the 1980s, a movement arose to dole out celebrations and liturgies to parishes rather than to locate them in a cathedral. This movement could often lead to a lack of focus in the philosophy of ecclesiastical procedures.
The late 1980s and the early 90s, however, brought a rediscovery of the longer tradition of the cathedral as being the heart of a city. In the Middle Ages, a cathedral had been the center of the cultural life. Americans, of course, had always been pioneers, striding ever forward to "modern" ways in preference to the old. But contrary to the easy ideas of shallow enthusiasts, serious church leaders once again perceived the wisdom of many Medieval practices.
Archbishop Elden Francis Curtiss loved Omaha's Cathedral, and major events in the life of the archdiocese returned to Saint Cecilia. Participants in Masses in the largest church in the are sensed the liturgical and civic implications of the structure as the seat of a bishop as high priest. The fullest expression of community in religion would take place at the Cathedral. All of its ministries would be models for daughter churches. From its hilltop location, Saint Cecilia would be a beacon for the Faith. It would impart to the Catholics of Omaha a renewed sense of their being part in a deeply symbolic sense of a "City set on a Hill."
All this set the stage in the late 1990s for a dramatic physical restoration and renovation program. Things that had been lost would have to be put back. A heritage had to be reclaimed--and proclaimed.
Paul Jeffrey, A.I.A., of the Omaha architectural firm of Bahr, Vermeer and Haecker, led the project. To do so, he said, he would have to "put on the mind of Thomas Rogers Kimball." He began the renovation with the roof. Frequently allowing rainwater to enter the church, the red Spanish tiles had to be replaced. But where could appropriate replacement tiles be found?
Amazingly, separate strands of Omaha's architectural history came together just at the right time. Early in the twentieth century, another of the city's most gifted architects, John Latenser Sr., had built for himself a mansion on a rolling acreage in Ponca Hill, just north of the Omaha city limits. He patterned his house after those he had seen in his native Liechtenstein and roofed it with red tiles. In 1997 the Ponca house had become the headquarters for a new congregation, the Intercessors of the Lamb. They were in the process of renovating it and found that they had red roof tiles to spare. Thus the legacy of Kimball, nearly ninety years after his masterpiece was erected, would be enhanced by materials from the time of one of his (always congenial) competitors in the architectural profession.
Brother William Woeger, F.S.C. served as the "client representative" in the restoration process. Once the roof was restored, the long and challenging task of renovating the interior began. Fortunately, some of Kimball's original drawings for both the roof and the interior were discovered and could be used as guides. Brother Woeger's goal was to recapture the richness of the Spanish Renaissance with an Iberian decorative scheme, achieved through the master-craftsmen of the firm of Evergreene Studies of New York City, with the artist Jeff Greene doing most of the work. The clerestory walls were given warm colors to complement the cooler blue of the stained glass windows. Stenciling combined traditional Italian and Moorish patterns with those reflective of the indigenous peoples of New Spain, the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs. The blue outlines around the stencils especially exhibited the Mayan (Central American) influence.
Nicolette Amundson, A.I.A., with Bahr, Vermeer and Haecker since 1990, directed much of the architectural work of the restoration. Upon the recommendation of Robert Mahoney, an acoustical expert from Colorado, interior ceiling tiles were replaced and plaster was restored on the ceiling vaults.
The renovation occurred under Archbishop Elden Curtiss' leadership. He was committed to the mission of celebrating the humanities for the Glory of God. The restoration/renovation was unveiled in 2000, a year of pilgrimage in which many hundreds of people from each of the archdiocese's deaneries came to see what had been achieved with their financial support. It was a common opinion among experts and non-experts alike that Omaha's Cathedral had become an outstanding venue for the liturgical arts in the United States.
Brother Woeger was the designer of another major contribution to the physical appearance of the Cathedral as its centennial approached. For forty years a rolling, movable altar stood in the sanctuary, symbolically expressing an orientation towards the congregation. This allowed flexibility and adaptation to different ceremonies and varying numbers of celebrants and participants. But it also reflected a kind of architectural uncertainty. A directive from Rome in 2004 declared that a high altar must be permanently placed. This demanded a major change, a difficult effort from one standpoint but a splendid opportunity from another.
Thomas Kimball had designed the original high altar long before the Second Vatican Council, and his original ideas had been sound both liturgically and artistically. Sight lines according to his plan made it possible for worshippers in every part of the Cathedral to focus on the celebrant at the altar. With the rolling, movable altar this had not been so. Now the original focus has been regained, and a new altar designed by Brother William contributes another element of Spanish Baroque magnificence. Its bronze body was fashioned by Omaha artist John Lajba. The baseboards are of Vermont Green marble matching the baseboards of the rest of the church. The altar platform, or pradella, is a white Virginia marble, making a visual connection with the white baldachino. American-quarried Napoleon-grey marble is also used, and the top of the altar is a slab of Rojo Alicante, a marble from Spain.
~The Beauty of Thy House, 2005
Saint Cecilia Cathedral continues to be a work in progress. Here are some 2010-2011 restorations:
At the first of the year 2011 an automated interior door became operational at the South Entry. It became a fitting complement to the exterior automated door at the handicapped ramp. Senior citizens, those with walkers, canes and wheelchairs, as well as those making deliveries, handling small children or regular visitors have found this new door ideal. The Knights of Columbus, Council 652, stepped forward to fund this project.
At the same time, a band of dedicated Knight of Columbus volunteers, prepared and re-installed more than two dozen bronze “kick plates” to the bottom panels of the exit/entry doors of Saint Cecilia Cathedral. These plates, removed during the restoration, “shine” as never before.
Spring 2011 saw the public restrooms in the narthex of the Cathedral given a new look and new efficiency with new drop-ceiling panels, improved lighting, replaced or repaired fixtures and a thorough cleaning of the marble surfaces.
The lighting system of the Cathedral is more than twenty-five years old. With advancements in technology there was a need to create a better “interface” between the bulbs in the fixtures, the key pad controls and the control tower in the basement of the church. While lighting in a residential house might be a simple matter of changing light bulbs, purchasing a new lamp or changing a light switch or outlet, the “house of God”, which is Saint Cecilia Cathedral, is considerably more complex, especially with the variety of fixtures, their height from the floor and circuitry which connects and regulates the system.
This summer the on-site work will begin to replace the speaker system in the Cathedral. Saint Cecilia is known for its rich, reverberant sound produced by singing voices and by skilled musicians. Choirs and musicians from near and far have been full of praise and gratitude for the opportunity to assist at liturgies or to present concerts. The spoken word, however, does not fare so well. In fact, the spoken word in Saint Cecilia Cathedral is often a victim of the very large space, which swallows words whole.
Research into speaker system technology from Europe and repeated testing and discussions over the past half dozen years has resulted is a plan and a decision to make the change. An anonymous donor has agreed to provide the major portion of the costs.
Exterior work on the red tile roof of the Cathedral was done during the entire month of October in 2010. There is some remaining work and plans are under way to arrange for workmen to return to Omaha. This work, related to the restoration of the Cathedral in late 1990’s, focused on recurring and damaging water leakage in a number of places both exterior and interior. Fortunately for Saint Cecilia, this recent repair work came under warranty.
The Cathedral campus shines more brightly these days with newly installed exterior lamppost lighting and with new signage at the Monsignor Ernest Graham Building (formerly the Cathedral High School) identifying the gymnasium, the Cultural Center, the Parish Center. The grade school has prominent new signage also.
A Cathedral is never finished. There is always a need to “re-invest” in the property and to show the Cathedral’s continuing commitment to the work of God and service to others in the community. The generation of World War II and its subsequent years became known as “The Cathedral Builders” for its commitment and sacrifice for completion of the structure and decoration of Saint Cecilia.
That was a time of special energy, and special pride. The modern times and the present generation have another mandate — not only to preserve and protect the gift and legacy of “the Cathedral Builders” but to reclaim the church and its campus as a continuing monument of faith and center of a community which takes pride in that Faith.