The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart
In 1867, Richmond’s Bishop John McGill recognized that there would be a future need for a parish as Richmond’s population spread further west. As a result, he began looking for a location in the far West End, which is now considered to be the Fan, to purchase land. At that time, there were sufficient funds to purchase a partial lot bordered by Park and Floyd Avenues and Laurel and Cherry Streets that was located near Monroe Park, but not enough to construct a new church. The lot would sit undeveloped until 1887.
Just as Bishop McGill had predicted, Richmond’s population continued to grow and its borders quickly spread westward. On November 17, 1882, the preliminary plans to build a new cathedral began to take shape. To begin this planning, Richmond’s fifth Bishop, John J. Keane met with a number of the area’s prominent Catholics at St. Peter’s Cathedral. Those who met recognized that St. Peter’s Cathedral, the Diocese of Richmond’s mother church which had served Richmond Catholics since 1834, was just too small for its rapidly growing population. Because the land on which St. Peter’s was located was too small to build a larger cathedral, the group recognized that the land the Diocese already owned in the West End was perfectly suited for a new and larger construction. In 1884, Bishop Kean purchased land adjacent to the lot already owned by the Diocese. Three years later, a new parish known as the Sacred Heart of Jesus was created in anticipation of a new cathedral. In conjunction with the new parish, the Sacred Heart Church was also built at Short Street and Floyd Avenue. The new parish church was built as a temporary, yet necessary structure while funds were being raised to start the construction of the new cathedral.
In 1901, the Diocese of Richmond received a significant $500,000 donation from Thomas Fortune Ryan and his wife Ida Barry Ryan of New York City upon the request of Richmond’s sixth bishop, Augustine van de Vyver. Ryan, born in Nelson County, Virginia was a highly successful businessman. He earned his wealth in a variety of ways, which included founding the American Tobacco Company and investing in New York City’s new subway system. Throughout their lives, the couple donated nearly $20 million to various Catholic causes and charities. In recognition of Thomas F. Ryan’s birthplace, each spouse donated $250,000 (Mr. Ryan’s donation was to go to the construction of exterior while Mrs. Ryan’s was to be used on the interior). Their donation was sufficient to begin work on the cathedral. At the time, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart was the only cathedral in the world that was funded from one source. New York architect Joseph H. McGuire was chosen by Bishop van de Vyver to design the new cathedral. Nearly a year after the cornerstone was laid to signify the start of construction, Mr. and Mrs. Ryan were named to papal nobility by Pope Pius X upon the request of New York Archbishop John Farley. Mrs. Ryan was further honored for her philanthropy within the Diocese of Richmond with the papal cross “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifica.”
The cornerstone of the cathedral was laid on June 4, 1903 by Archbishop Diomede Falconio, who held the title of Apostolic Delegate to the United States. Simply the laying of the cornerstone and start of construction of the cathedral were recognized by the greater Richmond community as a highly important event both politically and socially. In addition to the much of the diocese’s clergy, present at the festivities to commemorate the start of construction were Virginia Governor Andrew J. Montague, Richmond’s Mayor Richard M. Taylor, reporters from the Richmond Times Dispatch, and various clergy from local Protestant churches. Unfortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Ryan, originally expected to attend, were unable to at the last minute. An article in the Richmond Times Dispatch the following day described how approximately five thousand people of mixed denominations (the majority being Catholic) “Witness[ed] the laying of the corner-stone of what will be the most magnificent cathedral in the South.” The reporter also noted significantly that “Throughout the entire service there was present that thought of the patriotic Catholic, the existence of which some men choose to deny.” This aspect of the ceremony, which was reported in newspapers across the country, was important in that it cast a positive, patriotic light on the Catholic Church which was viewed by many Americans at the time with suspicion.
After almost 40 years of planning for the new cathedral, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart was consecrated on Thanksgiving Day in 1906. This was a momentous day for Catholics throughout Richmond, and the event was reported nationally. Much like the laying of the cornerstone, this event was embraced by the entire Richmond community. The day began with the consecration of the cathedral by Apostolic Delegate Archbishop Falconio in the early morning hours, during which only Catholic clergy were allowed to witness. Guards of honor were present to insure that no one entered the church during the consecration ceremony as the crowd grew. At eleven a.m., there was a pontifical mass attended by three thousand people, the maximum number of people that the church could hold. Thousands more waited outside. The Richmond Times Dispatch recounted the next day that present at the mass, which lasted two hours, were “The Governor of Virginia, the Mayor of Richmond, State and city officials, supreme judges, and others, men and women from all varied walks of life…. Catholic and Protestant were there: the rich and the poor; the benefactor of the church and the humble servitor.” Later that evening, Vespers were held, and yet again the cathedral was filled to absolute capacity as three thousand waited outside.
In 1956, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with great celebration. This event was referred to as a “joint jubilee” as it was shared with Richmond’s eighth bishop Peter Leo Ireton’s fiftieth anniversary of his ordination as a priest. A number of important Catholic officials were present in the newly-renovated cathedral for the Pontifical Mass, which was broadcast on television. These officials included an apostolic delegate, Amleto Cicognani, who led the Mass. Another important event in the history of the cathedral which would also reflect this occurred five years later with the reinterment of Bishop John McGill.
In 1872, Bishop John McGill, Richmond’s bishop during the Civil War, died and was interred at St. Peter’s. On November 9, 1960, the body of Bishop McGill, the same man who originally purchased land for the future Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, was reinterred in the crypt of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. According to Gerald Fogarty in Commonwealth Catholicsm, “The reinterment of Richmond’s Confederate bishop marked the interment of Virginia Catholicism as part of the Old South” (517). Notably present at this ceremony were the Sons of Confederate Veterans as well as the Daughters of the Confederacy. McGill’s reinternment, which happened almost a century after his death, also provided an important comparison of the Diocese of Richmond in the past and present. As Fogarty explains, “[Bishop] McGill had defended slavery; [the current bishop, John J.] Russell would call not only for integration within the Diocese of Richmond, but also the civil rights of African Americans.
In 2006, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart celebrated its centennial anniversary. During the year, a number of commemorative events were held throughout Richmond. At the Virginia Historical Society, an exhibition entitled Cathedral of the Sacred Heart: A Centennial Celebration was placed on display, highlighting the long and important history of the church. A commemorative book, Celebrating 100 Years: A Journey of Faith was published to exhibit a visual history of the Cathedral of the Sacred. Finally, the cathedral itself hosted special concerts and celebrations throughout the year to honor the event, including celebratory masses held in honor of the parish and diocese.
The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart was built to resemble the Italian Renaissance Revival style. It is considered to be Virginia’s most elegant ecclesiastical building of this design. In 1992, the cathedral received the Award of Achievement from the Historic Richmond Foundation and most recently underwent restoration and preservation in 2007 and 2008. The building itself, which takes the form of a Latin cross, is made of Indiana limestone and is topped with a copper dome, while the substructure is constructed of Virginia granite. Present under the apse is the crypt, where there are approximately fifty catacombs. The front of the Cathedral bears the inscription, “If Ye Love Me Keep My Commandments” (John 14:15).
The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart is located on Park Avenue, at the edge of the Virginia Commonwealth University campus. Sacred Heart is considered to be the mother church of the Diocese of Richmond. Most Reverend Bishop Francis X. Di Lorenzo is the Cathedral Bishop. Mass is held every Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. A Sunday afternoon mass is held for the students of Virginia Commonwealth University, but all are welcome. Approximately 1500 families are registered at Sacred Heart.
The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart provides many services to those who are in need. Weekly prayer services are offered for anyone who wishes to attend. The Cathedral also provides donations and service to a number of organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, St. Thomas Church in Mississippi (which was damaged by Hurricane Katrina), Carissade Church in Haiti (a sister church), the Catholic Campus Ministry, Stuart Circle Ministry, the Advent Giving Tree. Support is also offered Richmond’s Hispanic population, and many services are provided to the poor throughout Richmond.
The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart
823 Park Avenue
Richmond, VA 23220
Saturday: 5:15 p.m.
Sunday: 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 5:15 p.m.
Tuesday – Friday: 12:05 p.m.
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart Website
Fogarty, Gerald P. Commonwealth Catholicism: A History of the Catholic Church in Virginia. Notre Dame, IN.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.[n.a.], “Corner-Stone of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart Impressively Laid.” Richmond Times Dispatch June 5 1903: 1. [n.a.], “Finest Church in the South.” Richmond Times Dispatch 25 Nov 1906: 3. [n.a.], “Historic Event in Diocese: Scenes Most Notable in Annals of Church in State.” Richmond Times Dispatch 31 Nov 1906: Cathedral Section 1. [n.a.], “Lay the Corner-Stone of the Great Cathedral.” Richmond Times Dispatch May 31 1903: 1. [n.a.], “Service in the Early Morning: Consecration of Cathedral of the Sacred Heart by Papal Delegate.” Richmond Times Dispatch 31 Nov 1906: Cathedral Section 1.
“Sacred Heart Cathedral Exhibition at the Virginia Historical Society .” Virginia Historical Society – The
Center for Virginia History . 02 Mar 2006. Virginia Historical Society. 12 Feb 2008 <http://www.vahistorical.org/news/pr_cathedral.htm>.
Shepherd, Samuel C., Jr., Avenues of Faith: Shaping the Urban Religious Culture of Richmond, Virginia, 1900–1929 . Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.
Slipek, Edwin, Jr., “The Tycoon: The story of Thomas Fortune Ryan, and his legacy in Richmond.” Style Weekly 19 Jan 2005. 02 Feb 2008 <http://www.styleweekly.com/article.asp?idarticle=9709>.
Profile prepared by Sarah Aune
Profile updated and expanded Erica Johnson