St. Mary’s turns 50

‘We have a unique cathedral, literally: the first church built to be a cathedral after the Second Vatican Council.’

By Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone

In the lifespan of an average person, 50 years would be well along life’s journey, but still well within what we call “middle age.” At this age, those who live life well have been able to learn from their life experiences and yet still have much of life ahead of them to benefit from these lessons. In Church time, though, 50 years is quite young, almost comparable to a newborn baby!

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone,

We have the great grace this year of celebrating the 50th birthday of our Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption (delayed one year due to the COVID pandemic). This jubilee year celebration brings together both perspectives of time: our cathedral is still new, yet it is already beginning to show that it can stand the test of time with its design, concept and art. It is at once contemporary and timeless. This is the mark of all true great works of art: reflecting the contemporary culture in which it was created and yet transcending that culture to inspire all future generations with its beauty.

We have a unique cathedral, literally: the first church built to be a cathedral after the Second Vatican Council. The newly arrived Archbishop at the time, Joseph T. McGucken, advised his architects that he wanted “a cathedral that would accommodate large numbers of people; one that would enable even large crowds to surround the altar; and a structure that would be a statement that God is present in beauty in the earthly city.”

In building this edifice, then, the fifth Archbishop of San Francisco was building on his predecessor of a century earlier, the first Archbishop of San Francisco, the Dominican Joseph Sadoc Alemany. › In building the first St. Mary’s Cathedral, Archbishop Alemany constructed the tallest building in San Francisco at the time, not only to minister to the spiritual needs of the city’s inhabitants but also to serve as a major educational and cultural center, including hosting sacred music programs with full orchestra. From the start, our cathedral has fulfilled her vocation of being a center and focal point of the life of her community.

St. Mary’s Cathedral celebrates its 50th anniversary — a year later due to COVID. (Photo by Dennis Callahan/Archdiocese of San Francisco)

The cathedral, of course, is the bishop’s church, as it houses the “cathedra,” the bishop’s chair which symbolizes his teaching authority. More completely, as chief shepherd of his local church and successor to the apostles, the bishop serves as pastor, teacher and priest in the midst of his people. This is his vocation, and so it is also the vocation of his cathedral, a vocation that centers on unity. As the bishop is the focal point of unity for the many parishes and communities making up his diocese and linking them with the universal Church by virtue of his communion with other bishops and the successor of St. Peter, the bishop of Rome, so the cathedral is to serve as a central gathering place for the local community for prayer, formation, fellowship and service.

This points to another call of the cathedral especially pertinent to the modern age, and in particular here in the United States: the vocation of hospitality, that is, to be a place of gathering for people of all backgrounds and all faiths, to come together in prayer and solidarity at times of crisis and at times of rejoicing, a common gathering space for the entire community. Every cathedral, however modest, has this vocation. But it has been customary whenever possible to embellish cathedrals with beautiful art and make them centers of the finest liturgical music. This is wholly fitting to their purpose as places of worship. According to the Second Vatican Council, the liturgy is celebrated to glorify God and sanctify his people (SC 10), and music and art play an essential role in this regard. Our Catholic faith is inherently incarnational: a sacramental vision of reality has always inspired us to build beautiful churches and fill them with solemn and joyful music. We do not neglect the needs of the poor to do this, and cathedrals have also been traditionally centers of social service. But uplifting places of prayer are themselves a notable gift to the poor.

We are blessed to inherit the legacy of a cathedral that lives up to this vocation: a place of beauty in sight and motion and sound (including the Sunday concert series which continues the original vision of Archbishop Alemany, as well as the bright and gifted St. Brigid school choir), a sacred space which by its design takes the soul up to heaven while reminding us that we are in the world to sanctify the world, a place for the wider community to gather to collaborate on issues of common concern, a place of service to the poor and homeless (exemplified especially in our cathedral’s participation in the San Francisco Interfaith Council’s winter homeless shelter program).

The Winter Shelter for homeless men is hosted by the Cathedral every year as part of a project with the San Francisco Interfaith Council.

In this jubilee year, we give thanks that St. Mary’s Cathedral has been true to her vocation of service, teaching, hospitality and – the ultimate purpose of it all – sanctification. And she even gives us a reminder of this last point when we leave her sacred space. It is seen, yes, as one exits from the main doors, serving as a reminder to the worshippers of who they are called to be as they go back out into the world. For as they finally turn to leave, the panel above the doors, now seen from inside, reveals something unexpected: the side figures are no longer men and women climbing a hill, as is seen from the outside of the cathedral. Instead, with light streaming through the glass, one now clearly sees a golden chalice, the embodiment of the Eucharist, and in the cup of the chalice, there appears the ascended Christ, returning to his Father in glory.

May the Blessed Virgin Mary, our mother gloriously assumed into heaven, intercede for us, that, helped by the grace of her divine Son, we may, like her, live lives pleasing to him, and one day come to share the fullness of his glory.

Happy birthday, St. Mary’s!