History of the Parish
The official beginning of Saint Cecilia Parish occurred with a gathering of two priests and two laymen at Bishop James O’Connor’s residence on North 38th Street on March 5, 1889. This gathering completed the documents for the civil incorporation of the parish.
The gathering and the location were three months and two days after the dedication Mass, which was December 2, 1888, and almost two miles removed from the site of the church.
The Omaha Bee newspaper reported a description of the church at the time of the dedication Mass with these words:
“Saint Cecilia’s is a modest little frame structure of 40x60, quadrangular in form, situated just west of Lowe Avenue (now 40th Street). The interior is bare of ornamentation, if one may exempt the dozen or so stained glass windows, chiefly memorial. The most notable of these are the windows either side of the altar, donated by the convent of the Sacred Heart and Creighton College.
… He (Bishop O’Connor) congratulated the people upon their efforts which had raised them this church. A special collection was then taken up by Messrs. Gibbon and Taggart, to liquidate the debt of some $1,600 remaining on the building.”
Around the turn of the century the little church was physically transported from its 41st and Hamilton Street location to 40th Street facing Page Street to the west. This change of location, owing to a change of land owners and the loss of the church’s lease, ushered in a new life for the parish church and the parish community. Fr. Patrick Harrington, three years ordained at the time of his appointment as pastor in 1899, engaged the services of Thomas Rogers Kimble to enlarge the structure and beautify its interior.
About the same time the bishop Richard Scannell, announced his plans for a new cathedral on the west end of Park Place, on 40th Street. This announcement of a new cathedral and, more importantly, its location was very important for Saint Cecilia Parish – the construction site was the next door neighbor to the recently relocated parish church.
This proposed new cathedral did not receive wide positive reaction. In fact, a group of priests wrote to the Pope requesting his intervention and pleading that he suspended the plan. The Pope was silent. Construction commenced with the digging of the foundation in the spring of 1905.
In June 1905, Pope Pius X raised the status of the Saint Cecilia Parish church to “Pro-Cathedral.” With an abundance of enthusiasm, work began to construct a new cathedral, in the Spanish Renaissance style, with the digging of the foundation. Footings and foundation work followed and on October 6, 1907 Bishop Richard Scannell laid the cornerstone at the base of the north bell tower.
Catholic and community pride in construction of a new Cathedral was demonstrated in a parade from “downtown Omaha” comprised of 10,000 participants. A throng of 20,000 Catholics and Omaha citizens, plus many bishops and clergy from the region, awaited the arrival of this parade and the subsequent ceremonies.
The parish church served the diocese until the evening of November 21, 1917. A violent windstorm caused scaffolding, around the more than one hundred foot tall south bell tower of the new cathedral, to collapse upon and destroy the little parish church. The bishop, preaching at the Sunday high Mass only days after the disastrous event, suggested that the calamity may have been Saint Cecilia’s own impatience over the passage of ten years since the laying of the cornerstone and no end in sight to the completion of the grand structure of a new cathedral.
The passage of time, however, saw the growth of the area and the development of “the Gold Coast” around the new cathedral.
Overshadowed by the immense pageant of the cornerstone laying but nonetheless significant, a parish grade school opened on October 7, 1907. By the end of its first year of operation, under the care of the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, the “New School” was certified by the City of Omaha Education Department as exceptional.
As Catholic population in the area increased, the school’s enrollment grew and additional Sisters came to Omaha to meet the demand. In 1919 a high school was opened and graduated it first Senior class in 1923. In 1923 the Bishop designated the Cathedral High School as a diocesan school and students from across the city began to enroll and the school grew in numbers and prominence.
In 1946 ground was broken for a separate high school building. The high school operation transferred from “the attic” of the original 1907 building into a “million dollar high school building” in the fall of 1950. In 1953 ground was broken for “an annex” to the grade school. Grade school operations transferred into the new building in the fall of 1955.
With the completion of the new grade school there were upwards of 1,700 students in both schools, fully 14% of all Catholic school children in the entire diocese. The Cathedral was “the place” to be.
The 1950’s and 1960’s ushered in the era of the mobile society in Omaha. The neighborhoods in the eastern side of the city began to change and development in the western side of the city and county increased. By the late 1970’s through the late 1980’s demographic shifts and societal changes had become dramatic. In its seventy-fifth year, the Cathedral High School closed at the end of the 1993-1994 school year.
The Cathedral Grade School continues to weather changing demographic conditions. It has become an exceptional school over the years through its integration of music, art and technology in a foundational curriculum.
Dedicated to Saint Cecilia, virgin and martyr of the Church of Rome in the third century who is also the patron of music, especially Church music, the Cathedral take pride in its preparation for and celebration of liturgy and other rituals. The first church in Omaha, Saint Mary, on 8th Street near Harney, prided itself for its small choir of the Vincent Burkley family and borrowed melodeon. The first cathedral, Saint Philomena, developed a proud tradition of choir music and became famous for its presentation of complex yet beautiful Masses. Saint Cecilia Cathedral, has continued to praise God with song in hearts and on lips, from the early years with its cassocked boys choir, the adult choirs under Mildred Flanagan during her fifty year tenure, or under Jerry Kaminski or Kevin Vogt in the latter twentieth century, and now, Dr. Marie Rubis Bauer, the latter forming the modern choir and parish in chant and music for the new Roman Missal.
Completion of the interior of the “new cathedral” with marble facing on the pillars and walls, with the installation of many stained glass windows and with the placement of much of the sculptured pieces began with the conclusion of World War II. By 1952 the “new cathedral” was more the church it was meant to be. Credit for this work belongs to Monsignor Ernest Graham, who had served as an assistance pastor during the 1930’s and returned as the appointed pastor in 1945, serving until 1968.
The final stage of completion came with the “topping off” of the twin bell towers and installation of the last of the stained glass windows in the sacristy and apse ambulatory. Three bells, named Saint Edward, Saint Helen and Our Lady of Lourdes, were raised to the height of the south bell tower and set in place.
The decades long project was declared finished in October, 1958. Consecration of the Cathedral was celebrated on April 9, 1959 – the same year that the diocese celebrated 100 years of ecclesiastical status.
A Cathedral parish is more than a building and yet so much of the living dynamic of a community of faith is caught up in the symbolism that this the Cathedral church, the church of the bishop’s chair. From this church the archbishop ordains deacons and priests for service to the city and rural parishes across the archdiocese. From this church the archbishop mandates Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion and Readers of the Word. From this church the archbishop consecrates the Holy Oil of Chrism and blesses the oils of the Sick and of Catechumens. From this church the Archbishop welcomes and receives those to be baptized and those who are to make a profession of Faith in union with the Catholic Church on the first Sunday of Lent as they anticipate the completion of RCIA at the Easter Vigil. From this church the Archbishop gathers anniversary wedding couples to celebrate sacramental marriage and committed fidelity in the domestic church. At this church the Archbishop, and the archdiocesan church, gathers in times of local and national importance to pray and to witness.
Archbishop George Lucas was installed as the 10th bishop and the fifth archbishop in the history of the diocese on July 22, 2009. As with his predecessors, he finds Saint Cecilia Cathedral a special place of worship and prayer, and a parish embracing its blessings for service and for the formation of future disciples of the Lord and responsible citizens in their communities.