History of St. Mary's Cathedral
Text by Dr. Richard Grace
Mike Dooley Photography
The First Stones
The first stones were set in place for St. Mary’s more than a century and a half ago. Begun in 1852, the church was completed in 1856, bringing to fruition Reverend Edward Murphy’s vision for a noble building to be the spiritual home of the Catholic community in Fall River. It replaced the small, wood-framed structure named for St. John the Baptist, which had served the parish for fifteen years.
The design was prepared by the famed church architect, Patrick Keeley, in response to Fr. Murphy’s request for a building that would accommodate twelve hundred worshippers, as the number of Catholics in the thriving textile-mill town was starting to grow briskly, and as St. Mary’s would be for some time the only Catholic church in Fall River. The galleries that Keeley designed, at Fr. Murphy’s request in order to accommodate such a congregation, wrapped around the church in a horseshoe from the west aisle and through the choir loft to the east aisle. Their removal in the 1951 renovation of the church meant less seating space but much more natural light for the center of the building and a fuller view of the windows along the west and east walls.
The Church of St. Mary of the Assumption was dedicated in 1855 and the finishing details of the construction work were completed by December of the following year. The steeple, a simple, unelaborated spire thrust 190 feet into the sky, was added in 1858.
The church was solemnly consecrated on September 7, 1901 by Bishop Matthew Harkins of Providence, and just three years later when the Diocese of Fall River was established by Pope Pius X, St. Mary’s became the cathedral church of the diocese, with celebrations lasting throughout the day on May 8, 1904. (Contrary to a common misunderstanding, a cathedral is not simply a big church, but is the site of the cathedra, which is the bishop’s chair. Accordingly, while a diocese may have a substantial number of very large churches that are very beautiful, the diocese may have only one cathedral church.)
Sacred Decorative Art
Numerous oak carvings grace the front of the church (including the statues of the apostles which line the front wall of the church above the oak wainscoting), but the most dramatic piece of sculpture in the cathedral is the great crucifix mounted on the right front column. This masterpiece, created in the early twentieth century, on commission by Monsignor Cassidy, then rector of the cathedral, is the achievement of Johannes Kirchmayer, a Bavarian artist who emigrated to Boston and came to be compared by his contemporaries to the great woodcarvers of the Middle Ages.
The beautiful hammer-beam ceiling, with its elaborated double-tier of carpentry, was restored during the 1951 renovations. The gold-leaf decoration of the ceiling was painted by Conrad Schmitt, and constitutes one of the richest elements of the overall plan of ornamentation in the church.
The sanctuary windows, which were created in 1915 by the New York studio of Alexander Locke, represent the fifteen Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries of the Rosary. (Pope John Paul II first introduced the Luminous mysteries in 2002). Locke’s pictorial style reflects influences from the Victorian English artists known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as well as from the American stained glass studio of Louis Tiffany. The central two panels, depicting Mary and the Archangel Gabriel, represent the first Joyful mystery, the Annunciation. Under the figure of Mary is a panel representing the Crucifixion and beside it a panel depicting the Resurrection. Thus the central windows summarize the life of Christ from conception to death and on to His victory over death.
The aisle windows, installed in the east and west walls in 1891, present a procession of saints, with equal numbers of holy men and women. Designed and made in Munich, Germany, the windows draw upon traditional Christian symbolism to illustrate the virtues and values associated with the saints (such as the palm symbolizing martyrdom and the crown representing virginity).
Above the choir loft is the great north rose window, with its double circle of petals around a central monogram of the name Maria. Below it, in a very different color scheme, is a set of lancet panels created in 1952 by John Terrence O’Duggan to depict the Assumption of Mary, in keeping with the name of the Cathedral.
St. Mary’s was designed by Keeley in a version of Gothic Revival style, following the lines of the “Early English” stage of medieval Gothic construction. Its forerunners in that style would include Salisbury Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral, built in the 1200s.
The overall plan of the church is that of a basilica, with a space called an apse in the front of the building where the altar is located, side aisles that have lower roofs, and a central nave that has an elevated roof (ninety feet high at St. Mary’s). The internal space of the cathedral is defined by nine great granite columns on each side of the nave, reaching from granite bases fifteen feet below the floor to Corinthian capitals below the clerestory windows. The sanctuary is framed by carved oak screens on each side of the space where Mass is celebrated. The current wooden altar replaced the 1900 marble altar (formerly where the bishop’s throne now is located) so that the celebrant can face the congregation, in keeping with the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.
East of the sanctuary is the Lady Chapel, completed in 1869 and extensively renovated in 1912, when the rood screen and a new carved altar were added. The windows of the chapel, which abound in angels, represent the Nativity, the titles of Mary in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, and the apparition of Mary to the children at Fatima. Long used as a vesting space, the Lady Chapel has for many years now been the site of daily Masses.
Complementing the Lady Chapel, an additional chapel to the west of the sanctuary was completed in 1935 and dedicated to the English martyrs, Thomas More and John Fisher, newly canonized as saints in that year (exactly four hundred years after their martyrdoms). Commonly referred to as the “Bishop’s Chapel,” this space has traditionally been the site of vesting by the Bishops of Fall River and the gathering space for clergy prior to major ceremonies at the Cathedral. The term “Bishop’s Chapel” also associates this part of the Cathedral with the Bishops’ Crypt, directly below the chapel, where the first four bishops of Fall River (Stang, Feehan, Cassidy, Connolly) await the trumpet’s call when the dead shall be raised incorruptible.
Many thousands like them no longer hear the choir or smell the incense or see the candles burning, but for those untold thousands, as for those who rest in the crypt, the old granite stones and the carved wood and the colored glass have made a dwelling for the Lord in their midst during their lifetimes. And we, the heirs of the builders and restorers, continue to commune with the Lord amid these hallowed walls and sacred images, hoping like those who preceded us, that this holy place is but a preview of the heavenly Jerusalem where the walls will be jeweled, the music glorious, and the light dazzling.
Among the historical writings on the Cathedral church and St. Mary’s parish, those by Rev. Francis McCarthy and by Rev. Barry Wall merit special attention.
Our Lady's Chapel
The Bishop's Chapel
Mike Dooley Photography
1838 – Establishment of the parish of St. John the Baptist in a small wooden church
1852-56 – Construction of St. Mary’s on the site of St. John’s
1855 – Dedication of St. Mary’s Church
1858 – Completion of the steeple
1869 – Construction of the Lady Chapel
1900 – Thanksgiving Day dedication of the statue of Mary (cast in France) on the lawn east of the Lady Chapel
1901 – Solemn consecration of St. Mary’s
1904 – Designation of St. Mary’s as the Cathedral of the new Diocese of Fall River
1935 – Construction of the Bishop’s Chapel
The major renovations of the Cathedral have occurred
in the 1890s (Rev. Christopher Hughes, rector),
1912-13 (Rev. Msgr. James Cassidy),
1951 (Rev. Msgr. James Gerrard),
1978-79 (Rev. Msgr. Thomas Harrington),
and 2000 (Rev. Edward Healey).