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Catholic Vancouver Jul 23, 2016

Canadian 'empire builder' financed Minnesota shrine

By J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

His Great Northern Railway connected St. Paul for the first time with Seattle.

The B.C. Catholic



One of the most magnificent sanctuaries in North America is the National Shrine of the Apostle Paul in St. Paul, Minn. It is truly a pilgrim's shrine.

The interior sanctuary follows the design of what historians call a "pilgrimage church." The idea was to offer worshipping spaces separated from the pilgrims wandering about.

The design of the worship space is fascinating. The floor plan is a Latin cross with pew space divided into one massive nave with transepts, a chancel with a choir in the sanctuary, and a generous ambulatory showcasing many chevet apse chapels.

It is all to accommodate several clergy, various devotions, and different pilgrim groups. A visit is a stunning experience: this is not only a cathedral, but since 2009 has also been an American national shrine, declared such by the Holy See with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Planning for construction of the cathedral began in 1904. It was decided the scale would be grand and the style would be classical revival with French Renaissance and classical themes at the forefront. The cathedral design was roughly based on famous French churches: P‚rigueux Cathedral and Sacr‚-Coeur Basilica in Paris.

Construction began in 1906. The cathedral was opened with festive pomp in 1915. The interior decoration was later completed in the 1950s, just before its consecration.

Three ambitious men brought this dream to reality: Archbishop John Ireland, the first Archbishop of St. Paul, was driven to construct a European-size cathedral in the New World; Architect Emmanuel Masqueray translated the dream into stone; and Canadian-born railroad baron James J. Hill provided the money to build a cathedral worthy of the name.

Archbishop Ireland led Minnesota Catholics for 33 years, until his death in 1918. Born in Ireland in 1838, his fascination with church architecture began as a young student while he spent eight years of seminary training in France.

He toured churches, admiring the splendor of medieval Gothic and Neoclassical Christian art and architecture.

Enraptured with the beauty of these old churches he once said: "They were truly monuments of faith and piety, and more eloquently than the most eloquent pages of written history they tell us that in older times the children of the Church were giants in devotion to religion."

Masqueray was born in Dieppe, France, in 1861 and was raised in Rouen. In 1873 the family moved to Paris. In 1879 at 17 he entered the fabled Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the oldest and most prestigious fine arts school in the world at that time.

He lived in Italy for two years before moving to the United States, eventually settling in St. Paul, on the banks of the upper mighty Mississippi River.

At the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris Masqueray was taught the criteria for design used by the French philosophical eclectics earlier in his century to test the validity of an idea: truth, beauty, and goodness.

According to the Beaux-Arts tradition, truth demanded that the exterior of a building clearly reflect the purpose for which it was constructed. Location and climate were taken into consideration.

Beauty and goodness were achieved by following that classical style so familiar and acceptable to the public and the Church. Once having achieved its desired state, a design was never to be altered.

With his architect's pencil Masqueray drew religion's meaning, history, and purpose in his cathedral, creating the structure as a beacon set on a hill. He lived to see the exterior completed before dying in 1917.

Ontario-born railroad magnate James J. Hill was born in 1838. A Methodist his entire life, he had a devotedly Catholic wife and became close friends with Archbishop Ireland after his move to St. Paul.

Hill became known in 1893 when his Great Northern Railway connected St. Paul for the first time with Seattle, completing the link between the two oceans. This rail line still exists today; it earned its maker the title "Empire Builder."

Hill was generous: the cathedral cost $1 million. He was a firm believer in faith and public life. When he died in 1916, he was worth $53 million, much of which was given to charities and public and religious institutions in St. Paul and beyond.