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A Community Treasure — St. Joseph Cathedral, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

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(Mouseover the bottom left of screen to play/pause the video; bottom right to mute the music.) Red columns — symbolizing Christ's blood and sacrifice — that frame our St. Joseph Cathedral Nativity — painted by Bulgarian artist Stoyko Stoykov — video will support the new baldacchino, designed by Liturgical Architect Duncan G. Stroik. It will rise high above the altar of the Cathedral and be crowned by a dome. (Architectural renderings by Duncan G. Stroik Architects, courtesy St. Joseph Cathedral.)



A symbol of faith — and of Sioux Falls — St. Joseph Cathedral.
 
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Amidst the flatness of the prairie the twin spires of St. Joseph Cathedral reach for the sky, making it visible for miles. At night, bathed in golden flood light, this instantly recognizable symbol of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, resembles the Beacon of Hope that the St. Joseph Cathedral logo proclaims (see image at left).

"St. Joseph Cathedral speaks to who we are," says Mark Conzemius. "The Cathedral represents the faith, the hope of the first settlers on the banks of the Sioux River, the faith and hope that continue to carry us forward today. Whether you ever stepped foot in it or not, the Cathedral is a big part of who we are."

Mark, a soft-spoken man in shirtsleeves and tie, stepped away from his desk as President/Director of the Catholic Foundation for Eastern South Dakota and donned a yellow vest to give me a hard-hat tour of the St. Joseph Cathedral renovation. I've known him as the Producer of the popular Christmas at the Cathedral, whose five performances sell out every year. (It's also broadcast, at Christmas, on CBS.) My friend Dan Goeller — who's arranged the music that accompanies my Crèche Tree video — conducted the South Dakota Symphony at the concert.

We enter on Duluth Avenue from the downstairs entrance that's cordoned off with yellow tape, a "Construction Site" sign hanging on the door. Inside, a thick stack of blueprints rests on a table. As I leaf through the floor plans and renderings Mark says, "We're so fortunate, to have Liturgical Architect Duncan G. Stroik in charge of this project."

I'm amazed how beautifully the architect's vision is suited to the architecture of the Cathedral. The baldacchino, alone, with its red solid-marble pillars enclosing a white-marble altar is a work of art, and I couldn't resist using elements from Duncan G. Stroik's inspired architectural drawings to create the Cathedral Nativity video frame (see top of page.) Thanks, Mr. Stroik!

I could have starred at the beautiful blueprints for hours, but I know Mark doesn't have all day for this tour. I follow him inside the lower level of the Cathedral where the bottom of the walls have been peeled away. "We started with tuck-pointing some ten years ago," Mark says. "Some of the stones had moved six inches! So we got the base all secured, and that's really where it began, under our former Bishop Carlson's leadership. The hall was redone, and the chapel, that features some of the most beautiful religious art in America, was created out of the former sacristy.

"But, down here, moisture has always been a problem. A spring flows right through the Cathedral foundation, and below the hill, on Spring Avenue, where Hawthorne Elementary School now stands, there was a plant bottling this water. Three large pipes now take the water away from the Cathedral, and all the moisture issues have been addressed.

"But the quartzite on which the Cathedral stands absorbs ground moisture, and we have condensation due to the temperature difference between the upstairs — which has never been air-conditioned — and the downstairs. With the restoration, we're going to air condition the upstairs, and so have the same humidity levels top and bottom. We feel if the temperature is consistent, and we keep air moving, that it will minimize, if not totally eliminate, the problem. There are always challenges."

Teams of workers are installing what looks like drywall, but Mark explains, "They're putting fiberglass on all the flat surfaces, because it will not crack. And, especially upstairs, this material also absorbs sound, which is great for the spoken word — we don't want echoes. But we also don't want to diminish the music — we want the sound of the violin to rise to the heavens. So how do we do both? Our audio engineers have worked in some 25 cathedrals around the country, and they say this is the most alive space they've worked in, because it has such a long reverberation."

We climb the stairs to the sanctuary, but this is not the Cathedral I've known. I find myself in a forest of scaffolding, rising seven stories high to the very top of the nave. This glorious space that usually reverberates with the sweet sound of the organ is filled with the cacophony of hammers, power tools, and big machines. In fact, the whole organ loft seems to have been sealed with plastic to keep out the dust. The pews and floor are gone, and the columns that line both sides of the Cathedral seem to hover in mid-air, their bases almost gone, pared down to bare brick.

Sensing my thoughts, Mark says, "At first, seeing the Cathedral so torn up was an emotional experience. It was hard, seeing something you love so much, in a state of demolition. But now you can see progress. See the two angels flanking the Host, where the scaffolding has been removed from underneath the Great Crossing? The censers of the angels symbolize our prayers rising to heaven, and the Eucharistic Prayer in particular: Lord, may your angels take this offering to the altar in heaven.

"You'll notice that the colors of the angels are much lighter, because angels are not physical beings. They're present, but you can't see them, so their coloration is more subtle."

A loud noise startles us as a large bucket hits the floor. "The workers don't want to climb up and down the scaffolding all the time," Mark says, "so their stuff goes up and down with buckets and ropes."


You won't have to climb seven stories, as Mark Conzemius and I did, to see the magnificent Nativity of St. Joseph Cathedral. All you need to do is click the video play button, above.
 
Some of the men are painting Gloria in Excelsis Deo et in Terra Pax Hominibus Bonae Voluntatis (Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth Peace, Good Will Toward Men) encircling the arch of the apse above the altar in flowing Roman capital letters. And just past this song of the angels, through a thicket of steel scaffold and wooden planks, I glimpse The Nativity (see photo, left.)

I'm ready to pick up my camera case and start climbing, but, seeing the peeling paint on the Stations of the Cross that in relief line the walls, I wonder: is this one of the things that prompted The Most Rev. Paul J. Swain, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, to set in motion this monumental project?

"Great question," Mark says."After almost 100 years, we may have gotten used to the state of the Cathedral. But when he arrived, Bishop Swain could see that the Cathedral was deteriorating at a rapid rate.

"Bishop Swain is a very thoughtful person. By his nature he's cautious, thinks about things, reflects on them, prays sincerely and discerns that prayer. He thinks, re-thinks, and re-thinks.

"Bishop Swain knew first-hand what it means to a community to lose its cathedral. When he was Rector of the Cathedral in Madison, Wisconsin, he woke up early one morning hearing the sirens of a four-alarm fire. And looking out of the window, he realized that the Cathedral was on fire.

"The loss of a cathedral is a loss to the entire community — to everyone, not just to practicing Catholics. It really rips a part of the community — its identity — away. Because the cathedral is a place where people come for healing, in many different ways, for the spirit to be lifted.

"Cathedrals are places of teaching. That's their ministry. Centuries ago, when many people could not read, the Gospel stories were on the walls, in the windows, on the doors. They had a meaning, a purpose, they weren't just beautiful.

"Now we live in a literate society, but we still have a responsibility to pass these important teachings and lessons on to the next generation. The Cathedral continues to be that place of teaching.

"In contemporary society, this is the place where the Bishop teaches about issues, and helps forms our conscience, although it all comes down to individual faith and choices, between God us.

"Besides teaching, this is where inspiration takes place. And the artwork is our best, yet humble effort, to give glory to God. Our best shot of saying, 'Thank You for the gift of life, all the great gifts You give us. We built this Cathedral to give You glory.'"


Mark Conzemius, President/Director of the Catholic Foundation for Eastern South Dakota, and Producer of the popular Christmas at the Cathedral concerts could have a second career as a great hard-hat Cathedral tour guide.
Preservation, restoration, beautification

"But to preserve, you first have to tear things up: the floor had to be lifted up, and that has given us the opportunity to restore it the way the original architect, Emmanuel Masqueray, had intended.

"Of course, the Cathedral's primary function is liturgical, and that's where the third step, beautification, comes in. We found Masqueray's original blueprints, some in the archives of the University of Minnesota. Which is wonderful, because Masqueray was the architect of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Minnesota's capital and the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. At that time, Archbishop Ireland sent Masqueray to Sioux Falls to help Bishop O'Gorman with the building of St. Joseph's Cathedral.

"Unfortunately, the architect died before our Cathedral was completed, and so not all his plans were carried out to the letter. Perhaps because back then — as it is true today — we do what we can afford. St. Joseph's Cathedral was opened for worship in 1919, but the stained glass windows weren't put in until the 1940s.

"All the relief art was intended to be painted, but for the first twenty-or-so years it was all one color. Once they had enough money, the stained glass went in, and the full-color painting of the reliefs was finished.

"The company that did the original painting, Conrad Schmitt Studios of Milwaukee is the same firm that's doing the restoration now. The present owner's grandfather painted here. So this isn't just a another job to Schmitt Studios; it means so much more than that.

"It's quite amazing, because you don't see relief work like this in many churches. We'll go up in a minute and see the work done on The Nativity. It's like a three-dimensional canvas. And the artist, who's from Bulgaria, Stoyko, says he's painted relief, but never to this extent. Not the entire church. He says this is really remarkable.


The pelican, a symbol of sacrifice, decorates a capital of St. Joseph Cathedral.
We start to climb, and have a few more stories to go, when Mark pauses. "And all of it has meaning," he says, pointing to a column capital. "Why would they have carved pelicans up here? Because of Psalm 102:6, 'I am like a pelican of the wilderness…' According to legend, in a time of famine a mother pelican would draw blood from her own chest and feed her young. So, in Christianity, the pelican became a symbol of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as well as the Eucharist.

"And why a nativity scene? The original Masqueray drawing is of the Redeemer, a depiction of the Lord with His arms outstretched, intended for the Cathedral of St. Michael, for whom the Cathedral was originally intended. We don't exactly know why, but during construction, St. Joseph was chosen as the patron saint.

"Perhaps this decision had something to do with the work of the hands. Ours was a hard-laboring community.So many people worked in agriculture, at the meat-packing plant, Especially back then. So St. Joseph the worker was chosen as the patron saint of the Cathedral.

"And where do we find St. Joseph? All four Scriptures tell us he was at the Birth of Christ, our Savior. So The Nativity is found in the apse of the Cathedral, and you will see, set in the ring that encircles it, the symbols of the four Evangelists. Isn't that beautiful?


Venite Adoremus Dominum: an angelic host proclaims that the King is born — detail of The Nativity, St. Joseph Cathedral.
"And what did the angels sing at The Nativity? The Hymnus Angelicus that we saw on the arch of the apse. So there's meaning and symbolism to everything that is in the Cathedral.

"When it's all done, it's going to be an experience of all these things working together to communicate the message of God. We're told the paint should last 100 years. This is a living, breathing church, a cathedral is a place that brings the community together. It's an asset to the community, a treasure of the community. In addition to the mass which is the ultimate prayer that we have in our Catholic tradition, we look forward to having concerts and sacred music. And we want the Cathedral to be a place where people come and reflect."

We're now at the very top platform and can touch the concave apse. The Nativity surrounds us, in relief and glorious color that Artist Stoyko Stoykov is applying.

I raise my hand to shake the artist's as Mark says, "The restored Cathedral will be a place of pilgrimage, a place that will bring the community together. You know how you take visitors to see the Falls? You're going to bring them into the Cathedral. It's a big part of who we are. And, while you're here, it just might cause you to think of God and to say a prayer…"

Next: the remarkable artist of the Cathedral Nativity, Stoyko Stoykov

Visit the St. Joseph Cathedral website for more images and news about its restoration.




The magnificence, and curved aspect, of the St. Joseph Cathedral Nativity is evident on this 55 x 45 inches poster presented to Bishop Swain.

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