Catholics celebrate 'joyful, historic day' with Raleigh cathedral opening
With a mix of fanfare and solemnity, Triangle-area Catholics on Wednesday celebrated the opening of Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh.Posted — Updated
Years in the making, the $46 million cathedral off Western Boulevard becomes the home church of the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, which covers 54 counties in central and eastern North Carolina.
"This is holy ground," said former Bishop Michael Burbidge, who first announced plans for the cathedral six years ago. "Everything in this building – everything – is designed to lift people's hearts and souls to God."
Burbidge, who was named last fall as bishop of a Catholic diocese in northern Virginia, returned to Raleigh to lead a special dedication Mass for the cathedral.
"This (is a) joyful, historic day in the life of the church, in the life of the Diocese of Raleigh," he said. "For so many years, you're talking about a vision and ideas, and when the day comes that is becomes reality, you're overwhelmed."
Burbidge said "significant questions surfaced" when he first brought up the subject of a new cathedral, with the most pointed being, "Can we really do this?"
"Well, today, Diocese of Raleigh, you have answered that question," he told the packed cathedral, prompting applause. "We know we could never have built this cathedral except with God's grace, through the help of our Blessed Mother and with the sacrifices, generosity and prayers of so many across this vibrant, faith-file diocese."
The cathedral sits on property Father Thomas Price, the first native North Carolinian ordained as a Catholic priest, purchased in the 1890s as the site of a Catholic chapel and later an orphanage. The property also has served as the site of Cardinal Gibbons High School and Catholic Diocese of Raleigh offices.
It is the first Catholic cathedral to open in the Southeast in more than a century, officials said. The last one was in Richmond, Va., in 1909.
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Burbidge said naming the cathedral after Price's Holy Name of Jesus Chapel honors him and the work done by him and other pioneers to build the Catholic church in North Carolina.
"Reverence for God's holy name, a name never to be taken in vain, is a witness we need to offer society now more than ever," he said.
Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral seats 2,000 people, making it one of the largest Catholic cathedrals in the U.S. It succeeds Sacred Heart Church in downtown Raleigh as the diocese's cathedral. Sacred Heart seats only 300 – it was the smallest cathedral in the continental U.S. – and Burbidge and others said the growing diocese needed a larger space for the faithful to gather.
Referring to the 162-ton dome that soars about 170 feet above the altar and has become a Raleigh landmark, Burbidge noted that "dome" is derived from a Latin word meaning "home."
"This is our home. It's our mother church that will allow us to gather in great number to celebrate our diversity and the unity that is ours as brothers and sisters in Christ," he said.
Later, he added, "We want this to be a gift to the community. The doors of this church are open to all God's people."
Father Justin Kerber, rector of Sacred Heart, said the cathedral will relieve pressure on the small church, which has overflow crowds at all of its 12 Sunday Masses.
"This is a tremendous gift from God that will enhance our ability to pray," Kerber said, noting that Sacred Heart will still hold daily Masses during the week, as well as weddings and funerals, although Sunday Masses will move to the cathedral.
Catholics flocked to the cathedral on Wednesday. Vada Palma and Luellen Hardy drove three hours to see the cathedral even though they didn't have tickets to attend the dedication Mass.
"This is especially meaningful for many Catholics across the state who have seen the population grow so much," Palma said.
"It's a historic moment to have a church of this magnitude, a cathedral of this magnitude, open in North Carolina," Hardy said.
Michelle Tucker and her 8-year-old son, Nathan, were able to snag last-minute tickets after the Elizabeth City youngster wrote a letter to diocese officials explaining his intense interest in being at the dedication.
"I really want to become a priest," Nathan said. "I want to live a good, holy and Catholic life."
Through an extensive fundraising campaign, the diocese was able to pay for the cathedral – it opens without a mortgage or any other outstanding debt – and provide extra funding for outreach efforts to the poor, answering critics who said donations should target more pressing needs than a new building.
"We remained true to our promises that we would only build with what God's people gave us and nothing more and that we would never allow our project, in any shape, in any way or form, to deter from the gospel mandate, from the work for which this diocese is known – the compassionate care for the poor and the sick and all those in need," Burbidge said.
Wednesday's dedication included a ceremony in which Burbidge covered the entire altar with holy chrism and used the oil to bless 12 points inside the cathedral. Boxes containing the relics of saints were then sealed inside the altar.
Officials scavenged Catholic churches in Pennsylvania that were closing to obtain panels depicting the Stations of the Cross, as well as 46 stained glass windows. They also saved a bell from Father Price's Holy Name of Jesus Chapel to incorporate into the 50-bell carillon in a tower that rises over the cathedral.
"The population of Catholics has moved to new places, so this dedication today and the fact that those stained glass windows, the Stations of the Cross have found a new home is really reflective to the church in the United States, that we continue to be a vibrant church," Burbidge said. "It's a great blessing to this diocese to be part of that growth."
Despite his enthusiasm, Burbidge said after the Mass it was a bittersweet day for him. He saw his vision realized but immediately turned the keys to the cathedral over to his successor, Bishop-designate Luis Zarama, who will be formally installed next month.
"It was one of the most glorious Masses I've ever celebrated," Burbidge said. "Heaven came to Earth."