History of the Cathedral - Personal Perspective

An early postcard of Saint Cecilia Cathedral


Saint Cecilia Cathedral 'was built to last forever'  

(Omaha World-Herald March 31, 2013) 

I am hurrying, unbuttoned coat flapping in the breeze as I jaywalk across 40th Street and jog toward an Omaha treasure that I don't have time to notice.

I am late. My new iPhone5 is buzzing and my boss is emailing and my to-do list is growing like bacteria under heat lamps and my brain is backflipping and, honestly, I don't even know what I'm doing here anyway.

I swing open the cathedral's giant bronze door — Geez, heavy enough? — and I bust through a second set of doors, and I skid to a stop, and for the first time in a while, my breath catches in my throat.

Everything goes silent.

Sunlight sneaks through brilliant blue stained glass. Ribbons of light gather in the middle of this Spanish-style cathedral and brighten the faces of saints carved by a Czech from Chicago. The topaz ribbons tie themselves like a birthday present bow at the Italian marble altar long ago dreamed by a famed architect schooled in Paris.

Larry Dwyer is sitting in the back pew. He sees me, stands up, smiles, extends a warm handshake.

“Welcome to Saint Cecilia,” he whispers. “Would you like the five-minute tour or the half-hour one?”

Half-hour, I whisper back.

Larry starts with the foundation: Eight feet of solid brick covered with limestone, carted here from Indiana. Three million bricks to build this place, he says. Thomas Kimball, the architect, demanded that every brick be dipped in water before it could be laid. Sometimes he would stand for an hour and watch, to make sure the bricks were wet. To make sure they would never move.

“This was built to last forever,” Larry whispers.

They mortared the first brick here in 1905 and kept right on going through a world war, a Dust Bowl that crushed the farm economy, the Great Depression, another world war and assorted other local dilemmas and disasters.

In the beginning, when Saddle Creek was a creek, Omahans shook their heads at the decision to build one of the country's largest cathedrals near 40th and Cuming. Not because the location was too far east, mind you. Because it was too far west.

In 1917, a windstorm knocked down the temporary church next door.

In the '30s, they ran out of money to buy the eight kinds of marble that Kimball desired. Larry's father, a doctor, and the other professionals in the parish started the Dollar a Month Club. Every Saturday, the elder Dwyer would walk the neighborhood and knock on doors. Sometimes the people inside could spare a quarter. Sometimes they couldn't.

The last brick was laid in 1959, after two generations of Omahans pitched in quarters. Fifty-four years — fifty-four Easters — from beginning to end.

Dwyer leads the tour from spot to spot, laying out bread crumbs for me, an Omaha transplant, to follow.

Stand close to the stained-glass windows in the Our Lady of Nebraska Chapel, on the cathedral's north side. These windows are 500 years old.

Stare at the sculpture of the Virgin Mary. Yes, she is holding an ear of corn, and no, she doesn't look thrilled about it.

Peer at the floor of the Nash Chapel on the cathedral's south side. See how those pieces of marble can be rolled aside?

That is how they lowered members of the Nash family into the family crypt after their funerals, says Larry, who served at two of those funerals as an altar boy. The Nashes paid for this chapel, and an eternal resting place below Saint Cecilia is a perk.

Now go back to the white marble altar, crane your neck and consider Christ on the cross. He's not looking down, as depicted in pretty much every Catholic and Protestant church. The sculptor, Albin Polasek, had grown tired of that pose.

He sculpted Christ gazing up, toward the brilliant blue stained-glass windows and beyond.

It's meant to reflect the optimism and ambition of the post-Civil War migrants who settled in a river town called Omaha.

“It's meant to be hopeful,” Larry Dwyer says.

The Dwyer family migrated to Omaha in 1875 and planted roots as thick and sturdy as the cathedral's mahogany pews.

Larry's great-grandmother served as an early cathedral leader. His father played in the basement as a child while the cathedral was still under construction.

Larry Dwyer was baptized here, served as an altar boy here. As an adult, he has served on almost every board and committee here and learned so much about the church that he began to lead unofficial tours such as mine. When he dies, he hopes to be buried here.

We are way over this tour's half-hour time limit, but time can wait. Larry and I fall into a conversation about the city deep in his bones, and the city that is seeping into mine.

There is so much about Omaha that is new and vibrant and young: hot-shot midtown chefs and Benson rock shows and north downtown startups and shiny corporate headquarters in the western suburbs.

But all that is built upon a foundation, I whisper to Larry. It starts with the 8 feet of solid brick laid by generations of men and women who came to this place, kept their gazes fixed on the horizon, and never left.

I look up, and Larry Dwyer is nodding his head. I didn't need to tell him this. He already knows.

I push open the heavy front doors — they are made of bronze, from Boston — and I walk slowly back to my car. My phone keeps buzzing and my to-do list keeps growing, but I turn around for a moment and take another look at Saint Cecilia Cathedral.

I think about the 3 million bricks. I think about how Omahans dipped them in water and mortared them into place.


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