A Cathedral’s Treasure

The Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Sioux Falls

Bishop Robert Carlson is a believer. His raison d’etre as he encourages the talents and gifts of artists and architects can be best related to his Christian faith. He believes that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God. He believes that the beauty of the human person is rooted in something that transcends that person, yet dwells within. This bishop is in the forefront of what I hope will be a modern movement to encourage in this age what the people of the Middle Ages believed and understood. They were willing to support and express what they believed in their sacred buildings. They are our ancestors in the faith and in the concrete expression of that faith. We need to be connected to them once more. Somewhere in the modern expression this connection has been broken and often discarded. The Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus can be seen as an example of direct action taken to connect us once more with the living presence of our faith-filled predecessors. It is in relating to them again that we will raise ourselves up, joining with them in a new spiritual culture in this new millennium.

In his pastoral letter Duties of a Bishop: Contemporary Challenges, Bishop Carlson wrote of the need to satisfy spiritual hunger, of the need to respond generously to gifts in opposition to secularism, and of the more recent eradication of the sacred from our senses. It is his hope to enrich the liturgical celebration with spiritual sensitivity and to bring forth authentic expressions of faith. He sees the cathedral as the sign of health in the local Church, one that needs to be maintained and protected. People need to feel the presence of God here.

In many places in recent years, proper maintenance was often restricted by the financial burden. The cathedral in Sioux Falls was no different. One of Bishop Carlson’s first projects in the diocese was the multi-million dollar repair of the exterior of the church. The bishop appointed himself as rector of his own cathedral and went to work to correct the loss of foundations and to effect the repairs that had to be made because of the existence of springs below the building and subsequent water damage. Proper drainage needed to be established to prevent future structural weakness. For these tasks the bishop sought help from professionals who would understand, provide solutions, and be able to collaborate with the vision of the famous architect Emmanuel Masqueray, who designed and supervised the construction of the cathedral from 1906 until his death in 1917. Many feel that this cathedral is the most significant building in South Dakota. Many therefore came forward with the funds to complete the project. To those who would suggest that such monies would be better spent for the poor, the bishop is quick to respond: “We are definitely taking seriously our obligation to the poor in our diocese through many programs and charities, but I believe that we also must give our best to God in this regard.”

The bishop also reflects upon the need for his community to be a praying community. He continually refers to the vertical and horizontal elements of our relationships with God and with people. Much emphasis recently has been placed on the horizontal person to person approach. Has the vertical relationship between God and us, between the sacred and us, been eroded? The bishop brought this to prayer. He then took action. He called for a religious community, the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, to come into his diocese, to take residence at the cathedral, and by their presence to encourage adoration of the Eucharist. He envisioned a chapel for this purpose as well as for daily Mass, and believed that the present sacristy area would be ideal. Again he consulted with architects whom he knew would understand Masqueray’s work. He chose three architect firms: the first, Franck Lohsen Mc- Crery Architects, who would understand the space and the sense of prayer; the second, Robert Winkels, a local architect who served as the Bishop’s representative and could work with the city and its codes; and the third, Spitznagel, Inc., project architects who would facilitate agreement among all. The bishop’s wisdom led to a fine creation, one in union with the original structure, one that has brought back sacred art to the cathedral. The work respects the original building and connects the present age to its heritage of faith. “We live by our senses,” he notes, “and therefore good art is necessary and is to be encouraged. So much art and history was erased in the last forty years in an attempt to relate to the modern age.”

The chapel is accessed from the rear of the cathedral. It is in use continually as is the perpetual adoration custom. The site of the old sacristy is especially fitting given its stained glass windows and positioning away from traffic and the nearby school. Upon opening the door from the corridor that also leads to the cathedral, one enters into a small space where two confessionals are also located. Upon entering the chapel proper, one’s attention is immediately drawn to the front and the impressive 21-foot mural created by Leonard Porter showing Christ revealing his Sacred Heart in the presence of the saints and angels. These saints and angels are depicted harmoniously where one’s eye can move from the foreground to the distant horizon. Saints known for their devotion to the Eucharist and to the Sacred Heart are found on the right and left panels. The centerpiece is Christ himself, sitting enthroned upon the tabernacle and surrounded by scriptural saints. This mural is behind an altar upon which rests the monstrance for perpetual adoration. Above the altar is found a columned covering similar to a baldachino with hanging lamps across its front. The bishop’s quote that “Jesus is present and teaches us in the lives of the saints” is certainly true in this fine depiction and in this chapel.

Participants sit in pews arranged in traditional fashion, with kneelers. On the left side of the chapel are found seven icons representing the four evangelists and the three archangels, the creations of Fedor Streltsov, a Russian iconographer. On the right is an icon of the Blessed Virgin with child. A bronze ambo of an eagle with outstretched wings is a notable addition to the liturgical appointments. Overwhelmed by the spirituality of the place, one may fail to notice until last the magnificent Italian marble flooring throughout that gives the entire space dignity and brightness.

Bishop Carson delights in the fact that spiritual benefits have already been received since the commission. He tells of the conversions that have occurred with direct relation to perpetual adoration at the chapel. Although he admits that it is not always easy for those with busy lives to commit to hours of prayer in the chapel, scheduling has been successful, someone is always there, and the bishop himself takes his turn. He is positive that even more benefits will occur in his diocese. Perhaps what is also a factor is that there is a true sense of connectedness to be found here. These are the signs and symbols that are often missing in that secular world and in the secularized church building that keeps us on the horizontal plane. The living, breathing human being yearns for the sacred! We yearn for some connectedness that goes beyond the secular. This place can indeed lift people up in spiritual ways with the support of the saints that are remembered and depicted. Artists and architects have made these projects a reality and should well receive the support and patronage of the Church.

Bishop Carlson said it well as he contributed to the exposition entitled The Treasure of the Cathedrals: “The great artists of old knew that they were created in the image of God. They shared that similarity with early Christian artists. Their works show that they saw before them the face of Christ and it is their faith that rendered their works timeless and still powerful today.” Is not that same face here for us to see today when encouraged and brought out powerfully by such patronage of sacred art? As more patrons like this bishop make the attempt, and perhaps a leap of faith, so will this age and its art be connected with all that has been.

The work is not done at the cathedral in Sioux Falls. Plans are underway for a sacred renovation of the Cathedral itself throughout 2006 that will include a prominent altar and cathedra, representations of Joseph and Mary, and the use of color to accent the architectural appointments. The finest and most durable materials will be used so that the renewal will stand the test of time. Knowledgeable architects and artists will again be used, and their work will raise hearts and minds to God.

Bishop Carlson left me with one parting thought that I will remember. He summed up his enthusiasm as a bishop, as a patron of sacred art and architecture, and as a believer: he told me clearly, “I am continuing this work until God tells me to stop!” That is not likely to happen soon.

Rev. William J. Turner is a presbyter and pastor in the Diocese of Lansing, MI. He continues post doctoral research in the field of cultural anthropology, Catholic identity, and ritual.