As families entered the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Sunday morning, some craned their necks to see the newly gleaming ivory columns, the delicate gold accents handpainted onto ornately carved ceiling trusses, the stained glass glowing in tones of emerald, ruby, and lapis lazuli.
“Good morning! Welcome to the cathedral!” greeters called out as the faithful climbed the steps into the historic South End house of worship, some in dresses and blazers, but many in jeans, runners’ leggings, or athletic shorts.
Sunday was a time of traditions at the mother church of Boston’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese, but also of renewal. It was Palm Sunday, the solemn day commemorating Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and the beginning of Holy Week. Sunday also was the eve of the Boston Marathon and the day Cardinal Sean O’Malley traditionally blesses the runners.
And it was a day many parishioners had awaited for two years, as O’Malley celebrated the first Mass inside the cathedral since a $26 million restoration was completed.
The stately cathedral’s faded red carpet is gone, as are the steps into each pew that sometimes tripped congregants. New stone tiles that were handpicked by O’Malley gleam, and the aging pews have been refinished and fitted with new kneelers. When more than 50 runners gathered at the altar for O’Malley’s blessing, they stood on steps of shining marble.
“It’s a dream come true,” O’Malley said of the restoration in an interview after the Mass. “This is a great old cathedral, and there was a lot of benign neglect over the years. But, as in all of these old churches, if you don’t make the sacrifice to preserve it, eventually you’re going to lose it.”
In his homily, O’Malley recalled the long history of the cathedral and the immigrants, mostly Irish fleeing the famine, who swelled Boston’s Catholic population in the 19th century, making the construction of the 2,000-capacity mother church necessary.
About 40,000 people were present for the 1867 laying of its cornerstone, he said, and parishioners raised $1.5 million for its construction — the equivalent of about $30 million today, or just a little more than the cost of the recent privately funded restoration.
Boston was then becoming an increasingly Catholic city. But in recent decades, amid a growing number of scandals over sexual abuse within the church and a wider trend away from organized religion, congregations have shrunk. The cathedral’s restoration, O’Malley said, sends a timely message about the possibilities of faith.
“I see this as a sign of hope for our Catholic community,” he said, “and that was one of the things that made me most enthusiastic about the possibility of doing this renovation.”
“We have a long history — 2,000 years — and there’s always been trials and tribulations,” he added later. “But it’s our faith in Jesus Christ and our desire to carry on the mission that he’s entrusted us that gives us strength in the midst of all of our trials and all of our own failings, always calling us to conversion, to renewal, and hopefully the renewal of this physical building will be a call to all of our Catholics to renew themselves spiritually.”
Not every element of Sunday’s Mass went according to plan. As O’Malley drew near the end of his homily, incense from a Latin rite Mass downstairs set off a new smoke alarm, interrupting his reminder to the congregation of more than 1,000 that believers are called to witness their faith to others.
After a moment of confusion, O’Malley quickly recovered, joking, “The test is over.”
No one seemed to mind the brief hiccup. After the Mass was over, first-time visitor Micheal West said the service was “just beautiful.”
“I love the message, and the solemnness of this Mass is so important to me,” said West, 58, of Tampa, whose son and daughter-in-law are parishioners at the cathedral. “This whole week is so special. This is when you pray, and appreciate, and thank [God] for so many blessings that we all have.”
Bobby Travers, 44, a pastoral associate, said he has traveled with the cardinal and heard talk of the cathedral’s old reputation in cities around the world.
“People would say . . . it’s so dreary,” Travers said. “Now we have something to take pride in, because it’s really gorgeous.”Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.