Discovering the Cathedral of the Madeleine's history

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Though I don't attend Mass often at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Salt Lake City's South Temple, walking into the sandstone structure brings back memories and a sense of reverence.

Walking into the cathedral, my eyes naturally drift upward to the paintings and Biblical sayings on the walls, the stained glass windows and, in essence, to a higher power.

My family has celebrated weddings and baptisms in the ornate building. I've been to confirmations and funerals there. In the 1980s and 1990s, I watched as it was renovated, with sooty walls and fading paintings restored to their current glorious state.

Yet, I knew little about the cathedral's history or the hidden symbols in its many nooks and crannies. So I turned to an old friend, retired Tribune photographer Lynn Johnson, who now serves as a deacon. Lynn loves studying Catholic history with a special affinity for this wonderful building.

He explained to me that the Latin word of cathedra means "chair or seat." Thus, the cathedral is the seat of the diocese's Catholic Bishop. That "seat" also includes an actual "throne" where the bishop presides over the congregation. In the case of the Cathedral of the Madeleine, the throne is "guarded" by ornate wood carvings including likenesses of Fathers Escalante and Dominguez, who more than likely celebrated Utah's first Catholic Mass when they explored the area in 1776.

As is the case of many of the great European cathedrals, Salt Lake City's serves not only as a church but a cultural center. Whether hosting the Madeleine Choir, art and organ festivals or lectures, the building serves that function well.

It's impossible to tell the story of the cathedral without looking at the history of Utah's Catholic Church. The archbishop of San Francisco sent an Irish priest named Lawrence Scanlan to Salt Lake City in 1873 at a time when there were fewer than 100 Catholics between the capitol city and Ogden. Johnson called Scanlon, who would become the diocese's first bishop, a sort of "Catholic John Wayne," who endured much hardship to serve a small but growing community.

The first small church in the valley was located on the east side of what is now Social Hall Avenue. It held just 70 people and was no longer adequate.

The property on South Temple was purchased in 1890 for $35,000 from a Mormon family, a small fortune for a poor church in those days. Builders began construction in 1890 and the original building was finished in 1909. On Aug. 15, Cardinal James Gibbons, the highest-ranking Catholic in the United States at the time, joined 100 choir boys, 200 young women in white, 40 priests, eight bishops and five archbishops to dedicate the Cathedral.

Designed by architect Carl M. Neuhausen, Johnson said the building combines classic European cathedral styles of Romanesque and Gothic.

"A Cathedral is meant to be read," explained Johnson. "Many people learned about the faith looking at a church."

Thus, the beautiful stained-glass windows constructed by Franz Mayer Studios of Munich, Germany, tell the story of the joyful and glorious mysteries of the rosary. The "rose window" over the choir loft features St. Cecelia, patron saint of music.

Two thousand years of Catholic saints are featured in the large painting on the west side of the altar, while the right side offers Old Testament characters. Artist Felix Lietfrutcher is said to have used Mormons as models for the paintings and some members of that church occasionally look for ancestors on the walls.

A Chignoli painting of Mary Magdalene, patron saint of the cathedral and donated by the family of Bishop James Glass who replaced Bishop Scanlon in 1915, is hung over the altar. Johnson said the Florentine painting dates back to 1620.

There are a few Utah touches inside the Cathedral as well. One painting on the northeast side features Rainbow Bridge in the background.

A renovation of the exterior in the 1980s saw the restoration of four gargoyles that were removed for safety reasons. Their spiritual meaning is to ward off evil spirits. In reality, they are giant rain spouts designed to move rainwater away from the sandstone.

When the interior was restored and renovated at a cost of $9.7 million in the early 1990s, Bishop Scanlon's coffin was moved to a place of prominence at the back of the altar in the far north end of the cathedral.

Judging from the sacrifices he made to build both a cathedral and a diocese in Utah, it is a fitting honor.

Twitter @tribtomwharton