The Cathedral of St. Paul: Massive, ornate structure reflects city’s diverse history

The Cathedral of Saint conveys a message of inclusiveness, with its Shrines of Nations and the catholic (in the broader sense) nature of its construction.

The Shrines of Nations were a ‘thank-you’ to the countries of origin of the people who made the cathedral a reality. The six shrines are behind the cathedral’s altar, and five commemorate a group of immigrants with a statue of a saint: St. Anthony for the Italians, St. John the Baptist for the French, St. Patrick for the Irish, St. Boniface for the Germans, and St. Cyril and St. Methodius for the Slavic peoples. The sixth commemorates Saint Therese of Lisieux, the patron of missionaries. Interestingly, the early plans for the shrines included a slightly different set of saints. St. Austin was to represent the Anglo-Saxon, St. Remy the French, and St. Ansgardius the Scandinavian, according to a letter written by Archbishop John Ireland in 1905. It turns out the different saints were selected simply to reflect the population of the city, and the immigrants themselves constructed the shrines. In an informal contest to see who would finish first, the Irish won, but all were completed in 1928.

In each shrine behind the statue and on the floor in front of it is marble from the country represented. In the chapel of St. Therese, there is a stone from Joan of Arc’s cell in the Castle of Rouen where she was incarcerated in 1431 before she was martyred. This stone was a gift from France. The shrines are especially beautiful in late afternoon when the setting sun lights the stained glass windows.  

As for the catholic nature of the cathedral’s construction, the ceremonies surrounding the laying of the cornerstone in June 1907 are instructive. They were seen as a civil as well as a religious event, and the cathedral was construed as a civic as well as a Catholic monument. “It [the laying of the cornerstone] drew to St. Paul not only the soul of each country parish, but the sympathy of the non-Catholics of Minnesota,” says Acta et Dicta, a publication of the Catholic Historical Society of St. Paul. “The courtesy of the Protestant vied with the homage of the Catholic…. The corner stone was claimed, not only as the first prop of a new Cathedral, but as the pedestal of a Commonwealth’s pride.” Both the pope and the president of the U.S., Teddy Roosevelt, sent greetings and good wishes. “The most remarkable feature of the day,” according to Acta et Dicta, “was the blending of church and state….how rare to find in modern days…”


The parade attendant to the cornerstone ceremonies involved 30,000 Catholic men, and a crowd of 60,000 (including visitors from Minneapolis) was estimated in attendance. A group of nine men who had been involved in 1841 in the building of the first St. Paul cathedral were honored in the ceremonies.

The laying of the cornerstone was a significant early event in the long history of the cathedral’s construction. That construction was obviously no small task, and Archbishop John Ireland and his successors made it a pay-as-you-go undertaking, not contracting for work until funds were collected for each phase. In all, the cost is estimated at $1,700,000. Ireland strove to get all Catholics in the region to donate, even if they could only afford a small amount. A Book of Names was set up with a list of all contributors and the amounts they contributed; it is now on display at the Cathedral in the Founders’ Chapel. People who have longtime St. Paul roots can search for their relatives in the book.

Ireland was a persuasive fundraiser, as evidenced by his letters and sermons. In 1914, when the amount raised had reached $860,782.55, he exhorted potential contributors: “Others there are who opened their purses only half way–not wishing to give themselves too much pleasure at one time. You, who so far have done nothing, now come forward. You who have not done all you intended to do, now come forward” (Acta et Dicta, July 1914). As his use of the word “pleasure” implies, Ireland emphasized the joy of donating to a heavenly cause. He also appealed to St. Paulites’ competitive spirit, noting, “Even now Pittsburg, St. Louis, Richmond, Omaha, Harrisburg, Newark and Seattle are building their Cathedrals.”

Preceding Ireland’s efforts, the roots of the cathedral lie in the region’s first Catholic clergyman, Father Lucien Galtier. In 1840 Galtier was assigned to the Diocese of Dubuque and lived at Fort Snelling to attend to around 600 Catholics in the area. The area across from the fort near Mendota was known as St. Peter. In October 1841 Galtier met with 13 Catholic families from four and a half miles downriver who wanted their own church and donated land and a cabin for it. It was Galtier, coming from St. Peter, who named the new ministry St. Paul, because St. Peter and St. Paul were so intertwined in the Bible. The city of St. Paul got its name from this church.

The diocese of St. Paul was created in 1850, and Joseph Cretin was named its first bishop. The congregation needed larger quarters. In 1851 it moved downtown and built the second cathedral at Sixth and Wabasha streets. This cathedral held around 500 people but was too small from the start, Simmons said. Cathedral number three was built next door, where the Hamm Building now stands at St. Peter and Sixth streets. This version held about 1,000 people and lasted 57 years.

John Ireland had been an altar boy for Bishop Cretin. When he decided he wanted to be a priest, he spent eight years in France preparing for that vocation. He was a chaplain in the Civil War in the United States. He was named St. Paul’s first archbishop in 1888.

Archbishop Ireland made the decision in 1904 to pursue this massive project. After the owner of a desirable site on St. Anthony Hill, Norman Kittson, died, Ireland purchased the land for the diocese. Its commanding view made it a natural choice for the cathedral. It was also “well out of the growing downtown area of St. Paul and free of the downtown traffic congestion,” according to Franklin T. Ferguson in his “Historical Sketch of the Cathedral of St. Paul.” Ireland said the site was unparalleled in all America, and the cathedral sitting on it would be the “first signal to the incoming traveler on steamboat or railroad car that he is approaching the Capital of the Northwest.”

Part of the subsequent preparation of the site involved razing the Kittson mansion and re-routing Summit Avenue. Residences along the new roadway were also razed, and the resulting gentle arc in the avenue assured that the cathedral would have roadways on three sides. A streetcar line ran through a tunnel near where the proposed cathedral’s foundations were to be, so the Twin City Rapid Transit Company was consulted, and its representatives said the cathedral construction posed no threat to the tunnel. They even proposed building a new station near the rear of the cathedral, Ferguson notes.


Ireland was a forceful man, and he moved quickly once his decision was made. The architect was chosen that same year. He was Emmanuel Masqueray, an architect of “no small repute” (Ferguson) who had attended the Ecole de Beaux Arts in France, won several prizes there, and moved to New York, where he eventually set up his own practice. He was acclaimed for his work as the chief designer and consultant for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 in St. Louis, Missouri, where he met Archbishop Ireland. Ferguson notes how much the two men had in common–they were both Paris-educated and both Catholics–and implies that bond may have helped their long years of work together on the Cathedral.

Before beginning the St. Paul Cathedral, Masqueray spent six months in France studying the cathedrals there.

The two men took great pride in their work. Msr. Lawrence F. Ryan, who knew both men, said, “How many hours the two dreamed and planned. Now they talked calmly. Now they soared on the wings of enthusiasm and Masqueray throwing aside his halting English broke into French until he had the Archbishop equally fluent and eloquent…. Hands were going like a Dutch windmill.” Often, Ryan said, “I saw him [Masqueray] standing at different angles and at different distances from ‘his’ cathedral viewing it with a sense of joy and satisfaction. That was little short of rapture.” As for Ireland, Ryan reports he “would sit in one of the pews back near the main entrance and look up into the dome with delight or look towards the altar now bathed in the light of eventide.” When his health declined, Ireland lived in the Wilder Residence across the street, and on his better days would be moved to the north porch upstairs where could view the Cathedral.

This, St. Paul’s fourth cathedral (“cathedral” refers to “cathedra,” the bishop’s chair), modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome, has been a work-in-progress since its conception. The original interior was barren, with only pews. The sanctuary was finished from 1920 to 1928 during the post-WWI economic boom. According to Simmons:

–Painting, plasterwork and gilding was done in 1920.

–The baldachin, a gift from one of the Hill children, was built in 1922-1924, its massive pillars ordered from Italy. Eight were ordered when six were used, in case of breakage en route or during construction.

–In 1920 the stonework was added to the walls, covering and enhancing the basic brick structure.

–Charles Connick from Boston wanted to and did create some of the stained glass windows, starting in 1926, finishing the Window of Resurrection in back in 1932, and completing the side rose windows in 1940. His students continued his work after he died 1945, including the confessional windows.

–In 1927 the cathedral added the Skinner organ behind the altar, and the Aeolian Skinner organ with its 5970 pipes in the back of the cathedral arrived in 1963.

–The Shrines of Nations were added in 1928 at a cost of $20,000, each featuring marble from the country it honors.

–The nave was constructed in the 1950s, and representing the root of the word ‘nave’ (Latin ‘navus’ for ‘ship’) features waves depicted in stone seven feet from the floor, along with waves carved on the ends of the pews.

–The dome also was finished in the 1950s, with Chester Westin of Minneapolis creating its 24 “windows of the angels.”

–Two long-awaited frescoes were completed in 1995 and 1996 by Minneapolis artist Mark Balma. One shows the arrival of Bishop Cretin in 1851, with the log cabin that became St. Paul’s first cathedral in the background. The other shows Archbishop Ireland leading the people into this cathedral on Palm Sunday in 1915 when it first opened for services.

–And a large restoration project begun in 2000 and completed in 2003 reworked the dome and ceiling, which were suffering from water damage.

The stunning interior of the Cathedral, including the Shrines of Nations, is accessible to the public 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Sunday through Friday and 7:30 to 6:00 p.m. Saturday, and guided tours are provided free of charge at 1:00 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Details and event listings can be found at, and under “Visit Us” both a video tour and a 360-degree virtual tour are available.

Throughout its lifetime, the Cathedral has been a symbol of the city as well as of the church. Archbishop Ireland said, “There should be no one who, entering the Cathedral, is not able to say–it is mine.”

Revised September 2016 and February 2017, originally written December 2005. Detailed citations available on request.

2 thoughts on “The Cathedral of St. Paul: Massive, ornate structure reflects city’s diverse history

  1. Lisa was my professor during my master’s program in mass communication at St. Cloud State University. She served as the chair of my master’s thesis Committee. Because of her immense contribution to my master’s work, I invited her to be an external member of my doctoral dissertation community at the University of North Texas, Denton. She always gives a professional touch to my writings with her super editing “eagle-eye” skills. I’m so glad to see Lisa sharing her knowledge and life experiences through this blog.


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