Shall We Build for Christ this Temple?

On the Building of the New Cathedral of Saint Louis, sermon preached by the Most Reverend John J. Glennon, Archbishop of Saint Louis, circa 1905. This sermon was followed by a design competition in 1906, ground breaking in 1907, and the cornerstone laid in 1908. In 2014 we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the cathedral’s dedication.

“Thou knowest the will of David, my father, and that he could not build a house to the name of the Lord his God, because of the wars that were round about him, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet. But now the Lord my God hath given me rest round about; and there is no adversary nor evil occurrence. Wherefore I purpose to build a temple to the name of the Lord my God.” - 1 Kings 5:3-5 (Douay-Rheims)

These words were spoken by Solomon the King, more than three thousand years ago, and they furnish us his purpose—namely, to build a great temple. In its elaboration, the chiseled stone, the stately cedar, and the feted gold blended to produce a temple worthy of the God of Israel.

That temple became at once the symbol of unity and center of the practice of the Jewish religion. There the Lord appeared between the flaming cherubim, announcing His judgments and proclaiming His laws. Holy was it by His presence, the holiest place in all the world. And such it remained: the pride, the consolation, and the hope of the Jewish people.

Photo by Mark Scott Abeln

Forty years ago our predecessor, the illustrious Archbishop Kenrick, spoke these same words: “Thereupon I propose to build a temple to the name of the Lord, my God.” His cathedral city even then was rich in the number and piety of its people. It had wrought nobly and well for charity and education; its traditions were those of faith and sacrifice. A site was purchased and an association formed for the purpose to procuring the necessary funds. It would appear an easy task, yet delay followed delay until finally the project fell in abeyance with the hope that more auspicious conditions might by degrees manifest themselves. So the years passed, and with them too the venerable archbishop.

Then came the lamented Archbishop Kain, who, accepting in all earnestness the trust imposed upon him, threw all the energy of his vigorous life, all the consecration of his heart, into the work before him. He purchased the present site, had sketches prepared for the edifice, and plans formulated for the payment of it—when all too soon he was called to his reward.

From the first day I came amongst you, I found pressing on me with ever-increasing urgency this great work, the fulfillment of which is so evidently the will of God. Indeed, we would be recreant to the duties of our holy office, faithless to the traditions of the diocese and to the memories of the dead, forgetful of your spiritual interests were we to delay any longer in the performance of this manifest duty. We must now do so, and, with God’s help, we hope to see the work soon commenced. And should we not live to see its completion, we can at least feel, in joining the group in Calvary, that their hopes were ours also.

In this matter I feel I am only echoing your wishes, and that you are as anxious as I am to begin the great work. Yet there may be some who, for reasons more or less praiseworthy, would advise against it. “This,” they might urge, “is not a cathedral-building age—the purpose which it answered in the past exists no longer. Religion requires today consecrated lives, not magnificent temples. The true building is that not made by hands—the building of character, principle, purpose; the elevation of lives through sacrifice, prayer, devotion. It is thus we should worship God ‘in spirit and in truth.’” And if there is a surplus of goods, we are told that it is on the poor and sick and lowly it should be expended, for our love and service of humanity is best expressed in the love and service of God.

There is much in these statements that may be held as true, and we can readily agree with them. But I might ask to reply, are we forgetting the poor?

When we ask for a cathedral, we set up no rivalry to the mission of charity. Rather we fulfill it to the last degree. If it be charity to house the homeless, the cathedral will be such for them, and it will serve at the same time as a home for the living God. A home for the poor, I say, because among the poorest must be counted those who have lost their faith, whose hearts are loveless—in whose lives there is no light or hope. They, the orphaned of heart—they whose poverty is most pitiful—will find in the temple that we would build consolation and peace and hope. For in that temple there would arise an altar, and from that altar would come the pleasing words of the waiting Savior: “Come to Me, all you that labor and are heavily burdened, and I will refresh you.”

Why build a church? While it is true that the essence of religion is spiritual, not material, and while it is true that the temple of God, insofar as its building goes, is material—yet in our condition (members of a visible church, professing a definite creed, united in an organized society) the material structure is just as necessary for the proper observance of that religion as our material bodies are to the life of the soul. Since our faith teaches us not only the necessity of divine worship, but also that divine worship must accept a visible form, then there should be a place set apart for such worship. Our faith teaches the sacramental system; then there should be a place where sacraments would be administered. The duty of the minister of God is to preach the word of God. Will it not best be done if an edifice is prepared wherein God’s word may be heard? But again, if the mysterious Eucharistic presence of the Christ is to continue—if that wonderful condescension and love exhibited by Him is to meet response in any way worthy—it becomes a necessity to have the altar, tabernacle, and church as the visible home of the Emmanuel.

Indeed, it is in the last we find the true inspiration with all great church building. “We have an altar,” says Saint Paul, and around that altar and above it has been wrought in stone and marble the great architectural monuments of Christendom. From the humble niche in the catacomb out in the open, and upward in clear blue of the sky, has been the evolution of the Christian church.

Photo by Mark Scott Abeln

And why all this? That men might be honored? No. Their gold was not for the crown of kings, nor was their building for kingly delectation. It was the offering of faithful hearts, of devoted nations to the honor of this King of kings. It was the undoing of Bethlehem’s ingratitude, the breaking of Calvary’s gloom, the apotheosis of the crucifixion. Christ would be their King and this would be His earthly home and here He would rule them in spirit and mercy and truth.

It is to the ages of faith we must turn for the fullest expression of this truth. Then arose all over Europe those majestic temples that today remain the pride and the despair of the modern world. What lessons their chiming bells could tell, if only we could interpret their message from the past. They have watched the invading army. Their towers echoed back the boom of siege gun. Their walls were battered by attacking forces. Around them has surged the blood-red tide of revolution. Oft-times even the consecration of their walls did not save them from the hands of the destroyer. Yet they remained—remained to bless the city and the nation; remained as shrines of peace for crusader returning, for the sinner turned penitent; remained to welcome the army returning home with victory, to be treasurers of their trophies and the recorders of their achievements. And, although ominous war clouds now hang around many of these sacred edifices, they stand today as sentinels of old, guarding the gates of a Christian civilization, proclaiming the ways of peace.

You have churches—many of them—in the city and diocese, but they are orphaned till the mother church, the cathedral church, is built. It stands to them and the diocese what the parish church is for the parish. Until the cathedral church is built, the circle is not complete; the crown is not reached. The work of God is unfinished as long as we remain without the crowning edifice, which will be a parish church for you, a cathedral for the diocese. The battle cry of the crusaders, of Saint Louis the King—the cry that led them on to victory or consoled them in defeat was “God wills it, God wills it.” So, in the name of the crucified One we take up this new crusade. Shall we build for Christ this temple? Yes, for surely “God wills it.”

John J. Glennon, born in County Westmeath, Ireland, was ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Kansas City, Missouri, in 1884.  After serving as coadjutor bishop of Kansas City he was appointed archbishop of Saint Louis in 1903. Archbishop Glennon laid the cornerstone of the new cathedral in 1908 and dedicated it in 1914. After being elevated to cardinal, he passed into eternal life in 1946.