Gem Among Smokestacks

Gothic Pride: The Story of Building a Great Cathedral in Newark

by Brian Regan
2012 Rivergate Books, 312 pages, $39.95

Though the Garden State offers considerable natural and man-made beauty, gazing out the window of a descending flight into Newark Liberty International Airport can be less than appealing as the view shifts from the impressive Manhattan skyline to the railroad tracks, piled cargo bins, and factory smokestacks that surround the landing strips and provide an initial greeting to the traveler. Yet there is also a gem to be spotted during the descent—the cruciform outline of the imposing church structure of Sacred Heart Cathedral. Such a structure in the city of Newark, humbled in some sense by its flanking cities of New York and Philadelphia, is unexpected and a cause for curiosity. In Gothic Pride, Brian Regan, deputy director of the Morgan Library and Museum, offers a comprehensive presentation of the motivation, characters, and development of this remarkable edifice.

During the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Church in the United States experienced a cathedral building campaign, similar to the Gothic building adventure of twelfth and thirteenth century Europe, as the Catholic faithful sought to express their faith and secure social standing through mortar and stone. The Newark cathedral that stands in noble isolation on one of the city’s highest elevations is part of that campaign.

The French High Gothic cathedral is considerably more than Bishop James Bayley envisioned when in 1859 he initiated a cathedral building project which would produce a solid and simple structure. No sooner had Bayley’s “cathedral chapel” been dedicated than sights were set on building a cathedral without equal in the nation. In 1870, George Hobart Doane, a Newark pastor and chancery official with keen appreciation of art and architecture, joined with local architect Jeremiah O’Rourke in visiting the great cathedrals of Europe, England, and Ireland in order to cull inspiration for the cathedral design. The Newark cathedral reflects the influence which Amiens, Rheims, Chartres, Rouen’s Abbey Church of St. Ouen, as well as the work of Gothic revivalist A.W.N. Pugin had upon Doane and O’Rourke.

An unstable economy, a series of leadership transitions within the diocese, and pressing pastoral concern relating to new immigration considerably slowed progress on the cathedral project; however, by the turn of the century the cornerstone had been set in place and by 1910 the substance of O’Rourke’s design was realized. The architect’s delight in the realization of his design from paper to stone was curtailed as drawn-out and feisty quarreling between O’Rourke and the contractor persisted over substitute material, payment, and notably, the integrity of the pier foundations. This caused an argument-wearied Chancery to call for O’Rourke’s resignation. Isaac Ditmars was brought on to see the project to completion. The change in architects resulted in a shift in style (to the extent possible at this late stage of construction) from English to French. Ditmars drew upon Amiens in his redesign of the flèche and the detailing of the towers, as well as the façade balustrade; and was influenced by the cathedral at Rheims in his alteration of the rose window’s tracery.

The Great Depression, the death of Ditmars, the Second World War, and a prelate who believed his archdiocese had greater need for school construction brought the project to a standstill. The end of World War II saw a renewed determination to bring the on again off again project to its final end. Architect Paul C. Reilly who had earlier partnered with Ditmars was retained to complete the remaining work—the design of the narthex and transept screens—and to oversee the execution of the appointments and stained glass. Newark’s cathedral, an undertaking which from vision to planning to execution spanned nearly a century and grew in cost from one to ten million dollars, was completed and dedicated in 1954.

The cathedral, constructed on a Pennsylvania brownstone foundation with New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut granite, and finished with Indiana limestone, stands 365 ft. in length and 165 ft. wide, with towers reaching to 232 ft. With an apse Lady Chapel and five additional radiating chapels honoring saints representative of Newark’s ethnic make-up, the cathedral’s appointments and ornamentation were fashioned from Botticino and Carrara marble, Venetian mosaic, and Appalachian white oak. The stained glass produced by Zettler of Munich derives its color scheme from Chartres. The impressive bronze doors were molded in Florence and the fourteen bells were cast by Colbachini and Figli of Padua. Quickly setting aside as inappropriate the suggestion of an electronic organ, the Schantz Company was commissioned to fit the cathedral with a worthy and true instrument. The cathedral today—with the exception of alterations to the Lady Chapel and the disturbing turn of the transept pews towards the nave—maintains its integrity and presents substantially as the work of Jeremiah O’Rourke.

Through careful research and literary ability Brian Regan’s text has brought to life the cathedral’s stone and artistry—and revived the spirit of the churchmen, architects, and craftsmen who contributed to Newark’s Gothic Pride.