What Good Can Come Out of Nazareth?

by Joel Pidel, appearing in Volume 32

Holy Name Cathedral in Raleigh, North Carolina, was dedicated on July 26th, 2017, and cost $45.7 million. Photo credit: O'Brien and Keane

Holy Name Cathedral in Raleigh, North Carolina, was dedicated on July 26th, 2017, and cost $45.7 million. Photo credit: O’Brien and Keane

“Every chapel, every church in every parish of the diocese is a monument of the Christian faith and the Christian love of those who built it. Necessarily, however, the resources at the disposal of any one parish are limited: at best the monument it builds is only a partial token of the good will of its Catholic people. Therefore, they said, we will, in a united outflow of generosity, build . . . one great temple that, in expressive manner, will symbolize, as no isolated effort can do, our Christian faith and Christian love, and will preach to the world of men around us the grandeur of that faith, the sublime holiness of that love. This is the history of . . . the common monument of the whole people of God to Christ, to the Catholic faith.”

- From the text of Archbishop John Ireland’s first homily at the new Cathedral of Saint Paul in Saint Paul, Minnesota, on Palm Sunday, March 28, 1915.






A History of Stewardship

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

While the historical and spiritual answer to this question is so well known as to make the asking tongue-in-cheek, the question has remained one of continual renewal and response for a certain property on the outskirts of the city of Raleigh, North Carolina. In the late 1890s, Father Tom Price purchased this large parcel of land to serve as the epicenter for his pastoral ministry, work that could only be described as missionary in character. Together with his sister, Sister Mary Agnes of the Sisters of Mercy, Father Price responded with great trust and foresight to the acute poverty he witnessed in the area by founding the Nazareth Orphanage on the site in 1899.

Over the years, the Nazareth property would undergo changes to its size, occupancy, and function, but never to its role as a vital hub within the diocese. What began as an orphanage for boys from deceased or destitute families soon became coeducational, responsible for feeding, clothing, sheltering, teaching and otherwise forming as many as 250 primary and secondary school children at a time. More than sixty years after its opening, the orphanage would finally close due to social, cultural, and demographic changes, and its buildings were demolished. Thereafter, the site served as the campus of a newly constructed Cardinal Edward Gibbons High School from the late 1960s through the late 1990s. It was subsequently used to house the Diocese of Raleigh Catholic Center, acting as the administrative home of the diocese for a time. After a portion of the property was sold to North Carolina State University for its Centennial Campus, just 39 of the original 400+ acres remained, upon which its story might be continued.

At the same time, elsewhere in Raleigh, a lack of space was proving to be a cause for concern for the diocese, but as with most such constraints it was also to prove the source of opportunity.

To Build a Cathedral

Sacred Heart Cathedral in downtown Raleigh, a parish church that was elevated to cathedral status when the Diocese of Raleigh was established in 1924 (the same year the church was completed), had a seating capacity of only three hundred and was offering up to twelve Sunday Masses, with each filled to capacity. It was an unsustainable situation for a diocese that had become home to over 215,000 Catholics. In 2009, the idea of a new cathedral for Raleigh began to emerge in discussions. The Nazareth property presented a possible solution in the form of a new cathedral campus. Schematic designs were solicited and budgets explored, while ambitions were weighed against resources. In the end, the same spirit of prudential stewardship evidenced by Father Price long ago could be said to animate the discernment of the then Bishop of Raleigh, the Most Reverend Michael Burbidge. Trusting in the ministrations of Providence, Bishop Burbidge vowed to build a fitting edifice but avoid incurring any debts by defining the budget according to the sacrificial generosity of donors. The results of a capital campaign demonstrated that willingness to total nearly $46 million in pledged contributions by 26,000 families, with several million more raised and redistributed in the form of rebates to parishes according to their own needs. A new chapter was about to commence for the Nazareth property.

In 2011, McCrery Architects of Washington, D.C., provided initial designs, and in 2013, the architectural firm of O’Brien and Keane from Arlington, Virginia, was hired to complete the project. Over the next two years, incorporating the feedback from parishes around the diocese and from other consultants, designs for the cathedral took shape. On January 3, 2015, a groundbreaking ceremony was held on the site to commence what would amount to two and a half years of construction led by the contractor, Clancy and Theys. On July 21, 2017, the cornerstone of the cathedral, inscribed with a golden Christogram and blessed by Pope Francis, was finally installed, signaling the impending cessation of work and a dedication that was fast approaching.

Just five days later, on July 26, 2017, the din and clamor of construction finally acquiesced to the intonation of prayers and the sounds of heavenly harmonies in liturgical devotion. A veritable cloud of witnesses gathered on the grounds of the former home for orphans to celebrate the adoption of their new spiritual home: Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral. Fittingly, the cathedral shares its namesake with the chapel of the former Nazareth orphanage, a symbolic gesture intending both historical and spiritual continuity that was not lost on those gathered for the rite of dedication—particularly those who had themselves once been residents of the orphanage. A further point which did not go unnoticed was how the immense size of the new cathedral, in comparison to the former, tangibly reflected just how real and significant the growth experienced by the diocese had been over the past few decades, let alone the ninety-three years since the Vicariate of North Carolina had been elevated to the Diocese of Raleigh. Beginning the day with the smallest Catholic cathedral in the continental United States, it had ended the day with one of the largest, covering a gross floor area of 43,000 square feet with seating room for two thousand distributed between its nave (one thousand seats) and transepts (five hundred seats each). Beyond its sheer scale, its traditional character also spoke palpably to the values of the community, for there is something significant in the fact that Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral is the first Catholic cathedral in the United States since the 1950s to be built in what may be called a traditional style.

An Architectural Assessment


Outlined against the Carolina-blue sky, Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral cuts both an immense and distinguished figure. Despite its linearity, its dome, tower, and façades provide a vertical anchorage that draws the eyes heavenward, and there is sufficient visual tactility and detail to allow one’s gaze to dwell and even revel over its rising volumes and articulated surfaces. The judicious appointment of cast stone and traditional details at prominent locations provides a sense of hierarchy, nobility, durability, refinement—and no small amount of delight. The wood-molded brickwork invokes a material hermeneutic of continuity with the brick buildings of the former orphanage, and its subtle variations, modulations, and textures enliven otherwise inert wall surfaces.

In short, the cathedral is recognizably traditional in appearance, drawing freely from the forms and details found in historical precedents, but without emulating any particular precedent. If pressed, it could be said to exhibit a mixture of Romanesque and Renaissance influences in the elevations affixed to its cruciform armature. Nowhere is this more evident than its front façade, whose southern visage commands the view from within the circular piazza that will serve as the urban center of the completed cathedral complex. Here, two classically articulated registers of cast-stone pilasters, pedestals, and entablatures frame arched windows and openings, and the stacked ensemble is set within a Romanesque frame and punctuated by a large round window in a field of wood-molded brick. It is handsome in itself, and yet it also feels somewhat applied to the body of the cathedral rather than integral, due to the way it is overlaid against the backgrounded form—something that is less noticeable in direct elevation rather than in the oblique.

Corinthian columns ring a projecting side chapel. Photo: O'Brien and Keane

Corinthian columns ring a projecting side chapel. Photo credit: O’Brien and Keane

Cast-stone detailing at the front façade of the new cathedral. Photo credit: O'Brien and Keane

Cast-stone detailing at the front façade of the new cathedral. Photo credit: O’Brien and Keane

To the right of the main façade, an attractive side chapel projects from the body of the narthex, appointed in cast stone with a ring of Corinthian columns framing arched and circular windows salvaged from the shuttered Church of the Ascension in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—originally designed by J.M. Kase & Company Art Stained Glass. Just beyond rises a large brick bell tower with brick quoining reaching 154 feet above the ground, topped by cast-stone balconies and a copper-domed baldachin of Corinthian columns housing a carillon of fifty bells, one of which was salvaged from the previous orphanage chapel. Overall, the tower is well scaled and makes a pleasing shape, though it does feel slightly dislocated from the façade. A closer proximity may have been better compositionally related, if not for its overriding function as a stair to the choir loft and serving as a middle ground in the elongated nave between the façade and the dome.

The exterior of the nave, side aisles, transepts, and apse of the cathedral are treated predominantly in wood-molded brick, modulated in low relief to frame and accentuate the window bays, with cast-stone accents applied to the transept elevations. At the intersection or crossing of these forms rises a large dome mounted on a brick base, with its apex measuring 173 feet above the ground and weighing 162 tons. As the most significant architectural component in the cathedral composition, it features a drum of paired Corinthian columns flanking sixteen arched windows, crowned by an entablature and parapet and surmounted by an enormous ribbed copper dome and cross visible for miles. The shape of the copper dome itself successfully prevails against a contemporary problem with “squatness” when such architectural features are only studied in elevation and their perspective from the ground is not accounted for. It could be further augmented by introducing a tall stone plinth or pedestal between the brick platform and the colonnade, and by increasing the size of the cross atop the dome.

Plan of the cathedral. Photo credit: O'Brien and Keane

Plan of the cathedral. Photo credit: O’Brien and Keane


The cathedral’s interior stands equal with and complementary to its exterior. Its impressive volume is given scale and proportion by its classical lineaments in both plan and elevation, and it is rendered in a pleasing palette of pale hues both warm and cool in tone. In its plan the cathedral delineates a cruciform shape with a relatively traditional distribution and sequence of its main spaces, from the narthex and choir loft to the nave and side aisles, transepts, sanctuary, apse, and sacristies.

All Saints Chapel is located off of the narthex. Photo credit: O'Brien and Keane

All Saints Chapel is located off of the narthex. Photo credit: O’Brien and Keane

The narthex with Tuscan columns and Ionic pilasters above. Photo credit: O'Brien and Keane

The narthex with Tuscan columns and Ionic pilasters above. Photo credit: O’Brien and Keane

The tripartite narthex centers on a large multistory atrium where a perimeter colonnade of Tuscan columns is surmounted by a register of corresponding Ionic pilasters, attic clerestory, and finally a barrel-vaulted ceiling with rose window, all serving to carry the architectural narrative of the façade into the interior. To the side, All Saints Chapel (previously noted) is accessed through the main narthex, as are the public service spaces and choir loft stairs. The endonarthex, located below the organ and choir loft, transitions between the narthex and the nave and houses the confessionals. Set on a radial stone pattern, the beginning of the nave is effectively signaled by the baptismal font, whose functional role is commensurate with its sacramental role, effecting and signifying entrance into the body of the church.

Taken all together, the outsized narthex introduces an unresolved tension between the plan and elevation by overextending the length of the nave, highlighted by the aforementioned placement of the campanile between the façade and the dome. A more compact narthex could have facilitated a better resolution to this tension in the overall composition.

Nave with baptismal font. Photo: O'Brien and Keane

Nave with baptismal font. Photo credit: O’Brien and Keane

The nave and its transepts reveal an impressive barrel-vaulted space nearly eighty feet high and outlined by two main horizontal registers that are divided into a sequence of twenty-two vertical bays, each featuring a bipartite subdivision of major and minor elements. The arcades of the lower register define the nave from the side aisles where the interstitial wall spaces between the perimeter windows are lined with devotional elements such as statuary and Stations of the Cross. The arcade is composed of paired Tuscan columns and pilasters that are interrupted and framed by larger Tuscan pilasters, whose projection carries stacked Ionic pilasters above and defines the bays of the nave and its vaulting. The tall bays of the upper register are each composed of a thin, arcuated triforium of Ionic columns (contrasting significantly with the depth of the arcade below), above which hovers a single, arched stained-glass window.

Where installed, these windows, designed by Paula Balano, pair with a matching set of stained-glass windows in the bay of the side aisle below, thus retaining a relationship with their original triptych arrangement in the Church of the Ascension, Philadelphia. The most saturated color values of the cathedral’s interior are reserved to these striking, figural stained-glass windows, which glow in a mixture of bold primary and secondary colors within a field of predominantly blues and reds. In themselves, the stained-glass windows are exquisite works of sacred art, though they stand in contrast to the subdued chromaticism of most of the interior. As a result, they highlight the perception that the interiors would be well served by a stenciling program in a second phase, if and when funds permit.

The proportional relationship between the shorter lower register and the taller upper register in the nave and transepts contributes a somewhat Romanesque quality despite its classical details. This relationship is accentuated by the lack of a continuous horizontal datum spanning between the Ionic pilasters in the clerestory area. To its credit this emphasizes the height and verticality of the nave to great effect. As a result, however, the Ionic pilasters also seem to float a little, particularly with their bases occluded by the lower entablature. A vertical emphasis would have been helpful at the crossing, where the entablature of the lower register bisects the crossing piers. Eliminating this would cause the piers to read at a giant scale in relation to the nave and transepts, from which the dome erupts above the sanctuary space. This would also echo the way the major pilasters of the lower register read monumentally against the columns and pilasters spanning between them. Nevertheless, the patterned sequence of horizontal and vertical elements draws the eye ineluctably forward and upward, visually culminating in the sanctuary, as it should.

Sanctuary with marble altar, ambo, and cathedra. Photo credit: O'Brien and Keane

Sanctuary with marble altar, ambo, and cathedra. Photo credit: O’Brien and Keane

The raised sanctuary and altar of sacrifice occupy the axis mundi of the cathedral, centering on the nave and crossing beneath the luminous dome. Its liturgical furnishings are predominantly rendered in Bianco Carrara marble with Giallo Siena accents. The ambo is positioned to the side and slightly back of the altar to account for lines of sight from the transept, while the bishop’s cathedra is located against the crossing pier. Terminating the primary vista and framing the tabernacle stands the ciborium on its stepped dais. While slightly undersized in relation to its architectural surround, it punches above its weight because of its beauty and the accentuation of its verticality against the horizontal bands and smaller arches of the apsidal background. Its form also recapitulates the general shape of the main façade and thus stands in dialogue with it. While the façade signifies the transition between the profane and sacred realms, the ciborium visually mediates the space of the sanctuary and the apse with its iconographic elements drawing from the Book of Revelation—which is to say that it symbolizes the Eucharistic mediation between the kingdom of God on earth and the kingdom still to come. The apse, perhaps the weakest component in the sanctuary composition, features equally sized and stacked arches framed by paired Corinthian columns floating detachedly from the wall, half of whose bases are concealed by a platform fronted by bronze relief panels. Its weakness, however, is compensated for in virtue of being largely backgrounded by the visual gravitas of the ciborium, which arrests and focuses one’s attention on both the crucifix and the tabernacle, performing an act of silent architectural benediction upon the reposed Blessed Sacrament.


A traditional cathedral of this scale, quality, and character represents an ambitious undertaking and a commendable achievement that testifies to the successful collaboration of many parties—from the cathedral staff and diocesan parishioners to the architect, contractor, tradesmen, and craftsmen. Perhaps the greatest indication of its overall success comes in the near unanimous praise from the cathedral parishioners. One can easily see why. In the end, the cathedral stands as a visible sign and efficacious witness to the grandeur of the Christian faith: a monument to the people of God and to the Holy Name of Jesus that memorializes the past and the continued service rendered towards building the kingdom of God within the Diocese of Raleigh and the world. And in this, it succeeds in so many ways. Let the good that can come from Nazareth be proclaimed anew.