Recaptured Glory

The Renovation of the Cathedral of St. Augustine in Bridgeport

by Sean Tobin, appearing in Volume 9

The Cathedral of St. Augustine in Bridgeport, Connecticut was built from 1865 to 1868, and recently underwent a two-and-a-half year renovation. Under the guidance of Bishop Lori, head of the Diocese of Bridgeport, and through the design of architect Henry Menzies, the cathedral has been returned to its place of splendor and prominence amongst Connecticut’s churches.

Although the church of St. Augustine was a large church when it was built, it was not originally designed to serve as a cathedral. According to Mr. Menzies, this had led to many functional problems over the years, and was a challenge to overcome during the design process. In addition, a series of renovations over the years had left the church bereft of any extraordinary presence deserving of a cathedral. The apse was plain and relatively empty. The finishes inside the church had aged and were subdued. According to Mr. Menzies' article, "Comments on the Renovation of the Cathedral of Saint Augustine," the mandate from Bishop Lori was to restore the church and bring back its original glory – using a "contemporary vernacular." Something modern or new was desired. Bishop Lori also requested that the restoration follow the latest guidelines of the Vatican for church layout, which return to traditional arrangements of the altar and tabernacle.

Under this mandate, Mr. Menzies has provided the Diocese of Bridgeport with an unqualified success. He has met or exceeded all of the published desires of the Bishop with his design. Upon entering the church, a feeling of peace envelops the visitor as the outside world drops away. The new finishes and light inside the cathedral bring a sense of peace and grace to the space, even as one contemplates the interior and the glory of God and his house. The interiors have been re-designed to celebrate the church and to instruct the parishioners through the use of iconography.

The centerpiece of Mr. Menzies’ design is the altar, which is, without a doubt, the crowning aspect of the project. The altar is the focus of the church, and the eye is invariably drawn to it from almost any point in the cathedral. The color scheme and floor patterns chosen by Mr. Menzies accentuate the altar’s importance and help to focus the eye. The color scheme inside consists of very pale walls and columns, highlighted by gold capitals. The eye is drawn from the capitals along the ribs of the nave ceiling. The ceiling is painted blue, reminiscent of color schemes of the Renaissance. The ceiling represents heaven, often painted blue to portray the heavens within the structure of the church. The attention is then gathered at more highly colorful areas of the church, such as the altar and side chapels.

To set the altar apart, it is raised on three steps above the main floor. The baldacchino dominates the altar, both in size and presence. Mr. Menzies has designed a structure that captures the spirit of Gothic architecture and yet is unquestionably modern. It is made of solid bronze, meticulously crafted in New York. Its structure manages to feel light and reaches toward the ceiling. Above the altar, a wood crucifix is suspended from the structure, and above that, a spire reaches towards the ceiling with the Angel Gabriel blowing a horn at its peak. The bronze structure echoes the ribs of the nave supporting the ceiling. It is a very subtle, but effective, echo or miniaturization of the cathedral above the altar, as is fitting. The baldacchino clearly defines its space and yet manages to be light enough to disappear.

In addition to the baldacchino, the tabernacle, cathedra, altar, and pulpit are all new designs that contribute to the space. Although the cathedra is an antique, the other pieces are of dark Honduran mahogany. The pieces all stand out against the lighter walls and emphasize their importance. The pulpit and screen are unquestionably Gothic, but they are not strictly traditional. It follows in the footsteps of the baldacchino, creating a more modern language of the architecture that speaks to the same spirit that created the cathedral in the 1800s, yet distinctly of the 21st century. The layering of arches on the screen is traditional in nature and serves as a great backdrop to the tabernacle itself. The tabernacle is highlighted by a mosaic of angels flanking a central panel filled with the image of a dove. The iconographic narrative is continued throughout the screen, with carvings and statues representing the apostles adding layers of meaning to the design. The recurring theme of a triptych can be noted throughout the design and is another subtle, yet pleasing, aspect. The interplay of light and dark and layering of foreground and background throughout the altar creates a vibrant energy in the space and further emphasizes the altar as the appropriate focus of the church.

Beyond these aspects, Mr. Menzies has transformed the rest of the space through the restoration of many finishes — seats, railings, and the organ among others. He has also designed new chandeliers for the nave and new doors throughout the complex. In all aspects of the project, the design is sensitive to the traditional and historic aspects of the church and its architectural language yet successfully creates a modern idiom of Gothic architecture. This complements the original spirit and intent of the building and celebrates the new history in the church. The restored Cathedral of St. Augustine is a resplendent success. Bishop Lori and Mr. Menzies have created a design that recaptures the glory of a cathedral, and created a fitting space to serve as the symbolic center of the diocese. This cathedral is something that should lift the spirits of all celebrants and parishioners — for generations to come.