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Cathedral of the Holy Cross to open with a new face on Palm Sunday

Construction worker Nick Martin made last-minute adjustments
Construction worker Nick Martin made last-minute adjustments(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)

Light filled the Cathedral of the Holy Cross Friday as workers with drills and paint brushes put the finishing touches on an extensive restoration of the historic building.

Warmly known among Catholics as the “mother church” of the Boston Archdiocese, the cathedral now looks as beautiful as it must have when it was first dedicated in 1875.

And on this Palm Sunday, the public will have the chance to worship in the main church for the first time since it was closed for renovation two years ago. Churchgoers will immediately notice how bright the place is. The colors of the stained-glass windows seem bolder and more vibrant. The stone floor is gleaming, the pews look brand-new.

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If you walked into the cathedral a few years ago, you would have been met by a vastly different sight, according to Michael Kieloch, director of communications for the cathedral.

The carpeting on the floor was worn and stained. The walls had water damage, and the attic was full of pigeons and bird detritus. The 19th-century German stained glass windows were dirty and in need of repair; some glass panels were held into place with tape. The historic paintings of the Stations of the Cross on the walls were dark and yellowed. Pews were cracked and creaked loudly whenever anyone sat down. The kneelers didn’t work well, often getting stuck.

The stone staircases leading to the side doors on Union Park Street were crumbling. There was no air conditioning to speak of, and the electrical system was essentially 1940s wiring grafted onto to 1920s wiring, Kieloch said.

“The electrical contractor said it was the second worst system he’s seen in his entire career,” he said.

The cathedral has long been a South End landmark. Built from Roxbury puddingstone with granite and sandstone trim, it’s the largest Roman Catholic church in New England. It also serves as an important resource for homeless families and others in need of food, health services, and other assistance.

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The $26 million renovation project, which was undertaken by Suffolk Construction at the request of Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, has given new life to the 2,000-seat church.

David P. Manfredi, the founding principal of Elkus Manfredi Architects, said he got involved in the project about a year and a half ago. He lives in the South End, about five blocks away from the cathedral, and passes by it when he goes to work at his office in the Seaport.

He said new lights that now illuminate the stained-glass windows make it a more welcoming presence on the street.

“This used to be a dark corner,” he said. “Now it’s a corner filled with light.”

Manfredi said the cardinal was very involved in the whole process of restoring the cathedral to its original splendor. He recalled how O’Malley climbed up on scaffolding one day to check out samples of paint colors. The cardinal also hand-picked the stone tiles for the new floor.

All the pews were taken out and refinished, and new kneelers were installed. Walls were repaired and repainted, and woodwork cleaned and varnished. The electrical wiring and fire protection system were replaced and upgraded. A handicapped-accessible lift and ramps were put in. Churchgoers will now be able to hear the services better, thanks to a state-of-the-art sound system, and the addition of air conditioning will make summer Masses more comfortable.

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John Fish, chairman and chief executive of Suffolk Construction, recalled that the cathedral used to feel rather cold, hollow, and bleak.

“Now, you walk in and it’s bright, refreshing, energetic, and inspiring,” he said. “It’s symbolic of the revitalization of the church itself.”

Dan Mulkern, 53, of Quincy, was one of the painters who worked on the church, and he was there Friday putting on some finishing touches. He has a lot of history with the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. When his mother graduated from high school in 1952, it’s where her graduation ceremony was held. It was also where his mother met his father for the first time (they both attended a wedding that was held in the chapel).

“It’s definitely the coolest place I’ve ever worked,” he said. “And it’s just amazing the transformation that’s happened.”

The Rev. Kevin J. O’Leary, the rector of the cathedral, can’t wait to reopen the main space to the public this weekend, so people can check it out for themselves.

“I’m looking forward to Palm Sunday, and seeing all the people come back in,” he said. “I’m excited.”


Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.