Saturday, March 04, 2006

Blue Sky, Golden Stars in Peoria

Some good friends of mine and I took a trip last week down to Peoria under the sad circumstance of attending a funeral at a local parish. On the way back, after praying for the deceased and spending a few quiet moments with the family, we took the opportunity to visit the cathedral. We'd seen it on the way in, its tall American Gothic spires rising against the forested slopes of the river valley. It was one of those warm-chill days that crop up occasionally in the borderlands of an Illinois spring, the honey-gold stone of the church vivid against the bright, flat blue of the sky. One of our number had been there before and found it locked that time, and after we'd parked the car, we'd found it still was.

So we decided to go ask the bishop to let us in.

This isn't too far-fetched. I won't go and say that we're tight with the Most Rev. Daniel Jenky, but the man does have deep connections to Notre Dame. During his stint as rector of ND's Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the gilt went back on the floriated gothic column capitals, the ambo got cranked up a couple of few, and the Stations of the Cross ended back up on the walls after a long and dusty search through a dozen campus attics and store-rooms.

Buzzing at the cathedral rectory next door, we found out that his Excellency was out but they'd certainly let us have a look round the place.

Even a cursory glance at the outside is pretty memorable. It's one of the more monumental examples of 19th century American Gothic, in particular the vernacular, charmingly quirky take on it that one finds sprinkled through the rolling hills of the Midwest. Twin high-steepled octagonal spires loom over the low-lying town all around it, twin gilt crosses high in the sky overhead. The stonework is rough, not quite irregular, but rustic and rugged enough to suit the town's bucolic surroundings, and reminiscent of Pugin's dictum that small stone blocks made for more interesting walls than plain ashlar work. The doors are an episcopal purple--slightly jarring at first, but not without interest--with burly verdigrissed hinges that look as old as the hills. In terms of massing and decoration, it tends towards simplicity of line and shape, as befits its place and period, but keeps the monumentality necessary even in a fairly small cathedral.

Inside, his Excellency has done a fine job bringing the place back to life. The Cathedral has gone through numerous face-lifts in the past century. At one point, the paint job had tended towards the darkness and mystery recommended by Cram and his compatriots, while more recently, much of the gilding and woodwork was lost under a bland coat of whitewash. Over the course of a couple of interventions, the chancel stalls were taken out, the altar-rail dismantled and turned into fodder for a smallish ambo, and an incongruous '80s-style tabernacle installed in one of the side-altars. Jenky put a stop to all that. One of his first moves upon being elevated to the see of Peoria was to move Christ back to where He'd always been before, at the center of the reredos.

A lot had been lost, and re-shuffled in the meantime, and the Bishop had to make the best with what he'd been given. He has. The elegant Gothic reredos, all gilt and creamy-white apparently had been partially patched together from an astonishingly ornate canopy that had once stood over the episcopal cathedra on one side of the chancel, for instance. At the center of the reredos is a copy of Velazquez's famous Crucifixion, which at present does not quite fit within the framework of the altarpiece but nonetheless serves as one of the few remaining links with the original cathedral.

A few other additions came in the form of re-using old side-altars as shrines that flank the chancel and are marked off by the partial reinstallment of the old altar rail. One now serves as a baptistery, the other as a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The church is lofty and luminous, white walls setting off a remarkable acreage of indigo stained glass peopled with saints and martyrs, missionaries and sacred heraldry. The place has a pleasant airiness that still retains some of its mystery. In terms of plan, it is almost a hallenkirche, a familiar Teutonic design with aisles almost as high as the central nave. Granite pillars of astonishing height and slimness soar up to a elaborately-ribbed vault, now painted blue and white, and perhaps, we were told, in the near future that blue sky may be emblazoned with medieval stars as is the bishop's wish.

Most impressive, though, is the renovation of a small space off the chancel, a former winter chapel, as the church's relic chapel. It is dark and holy, with vivid stained glass of the martyrs John Fisher in full pontificals, Thomas More and Oliver Plunket in purple and scarlet, looking almost dashing in a Charles II goatee and mustache. Jenky was perhaps inspired by the old relic chapel at Notre Dame--the current form of which was probably his idea to begin with--and has brought it to his new home here. A relic of the true cross holds pride of place behind the altar, with glass-fronted cabinets on either hand. We pressed our fingers to the glass and counted off each one, excited and delighted as we recognized the names of old dear saintly friends--Aquinas, Albertus, Matthew, Maria Goretti and more. Overhead, the stars already shine in the blue-vaulted sky, the work of Murals by Jericho, a company which has also tricked out Peoria's parish of St. Mark in a remarkable set of reproductions of the work of Fra Angelico.

The relic chapel also features a surprisingly baroque chair belonging to canonization candidate Fulton Sheen, whose cause the Bishop is spearheading. Some day, come his beatification, his body may rest here, or perhaps at the first parish he served at, just a few blocks away. It was sold to a Protestant demonination some years back, but the interior, altar and all, remain untouched. While perhaps it is wishful thinking at present, one can't help wonder what a fine national shrine that church might make should it ever be re-patriated.

There is much else to recommend this little-known vernacular gem. A small shrine to St. Therese of Liseux features gold-dipped roses given by a priest as ex-votos for every vocation he has prayed for that has come to fruition (and in recent years, he's donated quite a few), while the cathedral has two organs, a small chamber piece down on the floor and one high up in the uppermost of the church's two lofts. Occasionally, they play the two of them at once, ad alternim in the fashion of the great churches of the Renaissance.

While we miss Bishop Jenky down at ND, seeing what he's done with his time here, we can't help thinking he's done a whole lot with only a little time. Given rumors we heard mention of future frescoing--not just gold stars--we hope that his embellishment of the cathedral church of his diocese will continue well into the future, and set a standard of artistic and spiritual excellence for all those who will sit in the cathedra after his tenure.

1 comment:

JB Powers said...


Wake Vicar General, Msgr Schowalter up next time and ask him for a guided tour. He is one of the best.