The Cathedral of the Madeleine: Pillar of Utah Christianity

By: Anne Wallace

Salt Lake City’s Cathedral of the Madeleine stands as the heart of Utah Catholicism.

Large and beautiful, its gothic architecture stands out in an area otherwise filled with sprawling apartment complexes, houses, businesses, shopping malls and other urban delights. It seems almost as if it beckons each by passer to stop and look, to take a break from temporal concerns and to remember and ponder his or her spiritual heritage.

With its open door policy, everyone is always welcome to walk right in and experience the peaceful quiet it contains.

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How did this pillar of the community come to be? When first dedicated, the cathedral wasn’t as grandiose and richly adorned as it is now; many changes and improvements have been made over the years. Construction originally began in 1899 after the first Utah Bishop, Lawrence Scanline, worked tirelessly to strengthen and grow Roman Catholic membership in Utah. Within 10 years, the original membership of 90 had swelled to over 4,000.

The growth of the Catholic Church in Utah during this time period was so fast, the Catholics had nowhere large enough to hold their first Christmas Mass. But through Bishop Scanline’s unique and friendly relationship with a local member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they held the first Christmas Mass in the St. George LDS Tabernacle. The cathedral was completed and dedicated in August 1909.

Over 100 years later, the Roman Catholic population in Utah has increased to around 350,000, but the cathedral still remains at the heart.

Deacon Lynn Johnson, one of the many faithful and hardworking members of the cathedral’s present day congregation and staff, explained more about the history and significance of the cathedral itself.

“When you go into a cathedral, it’s not so much something you’re looking at as something you are reading,” Johnson explained.

Each element of the architecture and design is crafted thoughtfully and purposefully, and has spiritual significance and symbolism.

“A gothic cathedral is a constant reminder,” Johnson continued. “God is not somebody that’s out there. He is very much a part of our lives. He is present. He is at work in our lives constantly. The cathedral is a symbol of that presence, that God is real, and that we are His children.”

Each architectural element and décor of the cathedral is meant to signify and remind onlookers of eternal doctrines. The spires are meant to represent the need to lift one’s gaze upward and keep in mind this earth is not the end of the journey, that there is something greater to strive towards and something greater awaiting. The candles represent Christ, how he is the light of the world. They are also a reminder of the ancient persecutions Christians faced and the candles and oil lamps they used in the catacombs to avoid that persecution.

The deacon explained the rose window is meant to teach “God is at the center of our life, everything else will flow in your life nicely; but if you push God off to the side somewhere, you’ve got a problem.”

The seating area is referred to as the nave, a metaphor for the church and the congregation being on a ship, heading for their eternal destination. Sometimes it has also been likened unto a womb, where the congregants can receive protection, comfort, and nourishment from their mother, the church.

The side windows have a special purpose in both ancient and modern times. Thousands of years earlier many congregants did not have the opportunity to receive a formal education and didn’t know how to read. They did not have personal access to holy scripture.

“Catholics learned about their faith aside from being at mass and hearing sermons,” Johnson said. “It was in the art that you learned about what you believed as a Christian… The life of Jesus is in the art in the cathedral.”

In this way, the windows are meant to be scripture; they are meant to not only be seen, but also to be read.

Everything in a cathedral has symbolism, and oftentimes, practical applications dating back to the very beginning of Roman Catholicism. According to Johnson, all these complex symbolisms and applications serve to demonstrate one key message: “The cathedral is just saying God’s here.”

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