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The Cathedral of the Madeleine may be a century old, but in the past 20 years it has become what Utah's pioneering Roman Catholics dreamed it could be: a grand building that communicates their church's 2,000-year history and gathers together the wider community.

Not only is it the mother church for Utah Catholics, the seat of Bishop John C. Wester and the site of the church's most beautiful liturgies, it also hosts concerts, dramatic performances and public lectures. Its Madeleine Choir School, founded in 1996 and modeled after European institutions, is one of the few such schools in the nation, and its adult choirs --English- and Spanish-singing -- are highly regarded.

Increasingly, it is a center of worship for a surging Latino community.

It is -- as Monsignor Joseph Mayo, the pastor, says -- on the model of the earliest cathedrals of Europe in the ninth century, which had plazas for public events as well as stained glass, murals, soaring architecture and music to satisfy the soul's longing for beauty.

"The whole combination of art and architecture and music found their home in the cathedral," Mayo says. "They were basically gathering places."

Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald, vicar general of the Salt Lake City Diocese, says the Cathedral of the Madeleine is a potent symbol for Utah Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

"What the cathedral symbolizes is that we have a 2,000-year history," Fitzgerald says. "We are connected to that history and everything it means -- institutions, art, music. You can't underestimate that."

That evidently is what the prosperous mining magnates who help fund the cathedral 100 years ago had in mind.

In the beginning » Utah's first Catholic bishop, Irish immigrant Lawrence Scanlan, acquired the land for the cathedral in 1891, nearly a decade before beginning construction. He could see that the church would grow, fueled by immigrants lured by the coal, silver and copper mines, and by merchants and railroad workers drawn to the opening West.

Scanlan was careful not to spend any cash before he had it in hand. "They started and stopped as they had money," Mayo says.

Much of the backing came from centuries-old funds started in Europe to help the church expand in new lands. Several well-off Utah Catholic families also chipped in and persuaded Scanlan to think bigger.

When it was finished 10 years after construction began, the church was larger and double the cost Scanlan envisioned, coming in at $344,000.

By the time the cathedral was dedicated in 1909, Utah had 10,000 Catholics, according to The Story of the Cathedral of the Madeleine , published this year by diocese archivist Gary Topping.

The cathedral's architects were Carl M. Newhausen, a German immigrant who died before it was finished, and Bernard O. Mecklenburg.

Built in the traditional cruciform shape, the cathedral combined a Romanesque exterior with a Gothic interior. Enormous stained-glass windows were created by one of Germany's premier glass houses, Zettler. Sandstone came from Carbon County and was chiseled on site. Scanlan had the interior painted in muted green and white.

"A number of early Catholics had traveled the world, and they wanted something here to be proud of," Fitzgerald says. "They wanted the people of Utah to see that even though we were small in number, we were rooted in the world."

Reflecting Glass » Although Scanlan, who died in 1915, had the cathedral built, it was Utah's second bishop, Joseph Glass, whose stamp is all over the inside.

"Bishop Glass was an old-fashioned prince of the church, accustomed to the comforts and trappings of authority," Topping writes. He had an eye for art and design -- if not fiscal discipline.

Within months of becoming bishop, Glass began renovating the interior, changing the stairways at the entry and adding an intricate tympanum in carved concrete over the entrance.

That sculpture, which shows Christ holding a Bible and framed by the 12 apostles and doctors (great teachers) of the faith, reflects a cathedral's traditional role as a "Bible for the illiterate."

"It taught the people of that time [Middle Ages] their faith," says Marty Seiner, an art historian and parishioner who leads tours of the cathedral.

The intricate wood carvings and the colors that most strike visitors today -- the gold, purple and teal pillars, the vibrant murals of saints, the bold blue sky with gold stars over the altar -- were all Glass' contributions.

He teamed with renowned architect John Comes and muralist Felix Lieftuchter to create an interior in the Spanish Gothic style, although Seiner suspects that Spanish tradition came by way of Latin America. The colors, she says, are unlike anything she has seen in Spanish cathedrals and look to be from the Americas.

While Glass never got around to replacing the stained-glass windows along the sides and back of the church -- something he evidently intended to do -- he did take out those above the altar, replacing them with murals of the crucifixion and saints.

He sold the marble altar from Carrara, Italy, to a church in Louisiana because he didn't think it fit with the new décor. But those stained-glass windows never have been found, say Topping and Seiner, who have made nationwide inquiries.

"That's one of the mysteries of the cathedral," Seiner says.

Madeleine makeover » Before dying of cancer in 1926, Glass spent a year in Europe. There he secured what he believed to be relics of Jesus' cross and of Mary Magdalene as well as a 17th-century painting of Mary Magdalene by Cigoli. It hangs below the crucifix mural behind the altar.

Enamored of things French, Glass renamed the edifice the Cathedral of the Madeleine, the French spelling for Mary Magdalene.

Paying off the $50,000 cathedral debt Glass left behind, Topping says, became the legacy of the city's next two Catholic bishops: John Mitty and James Kearney. "Those two bishops ought to be canonized," he says. "They not only paid off the debt, they did it during the Depression."

The cathedral was left unaltered for several decades, but by the 1970s, some of the sandstone had become weathered, particularly where gargoyles sent volumes of rainwater down the porous stone.

Under Bishop Joseph Lennox Federal, Salt Lake City's sixth bishop, crews replaced the slate roof (with copper) along with some sandstone blocks and gargoyles (traditionally a part of cathedrals to ward off evil spirits).

His successor, Bishop William Weigand, planned and executed a major restoration. The cathedral was closed from 1991 to '93 as decades of coal soot and dirt were removed from the walls, murals and ceilings. The stained-glass windows were painstakingly removed, cleaned and pieced back together.

At the same time, the cathedral was brought into conformity with the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, which meant nudging the new altar closer to the congregation, moving some pews to the altar's sides and adding a baptismal font at the entrance. A plaza was built to the side, and the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation donated $1 million for a new pipe organ, acquired in Ireland.

The renovations ended up costing more than $10 million, and the cathedral lost 300 seats. It now holds 900.

But it gained a new life.

A place for the masses » Steered by Monsignor M. Francis Mannion, then the pastor and a liturgical expert, and Gregory Glenn, director of music and liturgy, the cathedral's religious celebrations became more rich -- even as outreach to the community grew. The Madeleine Festival of the Arts and Humanities, a speaker series and the Good Samaritan program thrived.

Since the early 1990s, major Utah performance groups -- from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Utah Symphony | Utah Opera to Ballet West -- have performed in the cathedral, according to Topping's book.

Three years ago, a second choir -- El Coro Hispano de la Catedral -- began enriching the Sunday afternoon Mass in Spanish.

At the choir school, hundreds of youngsters have been instructed in liturgical music and Latin. The choir toured Europe and, in 2006, moved into its own building near the cathedral.

Mayo says the parish has about 500 families enrolled, but the four weekend Masses often attract 2,500 to 3,000 worshippers, many of them visitors. Many parishioners travel far each week to attend the cathedral.

Jim Reed, who is a lector and a eucharistic minister, drives 100 miles round trip from his home in Provo twice a week for Mass.

He remembers Mannion once saying that worshippers need a grand building to "expand our idea of what God is and how immense and all-embracing he is."

Like the Grand Canyon, the cathedral inspires, Reed says. "We can't go to the Grand Canyon every week. We can go to the cathedral every week."

'Living stones' » Salt Lake City resident Tim Pratt began attending Mass at the cathedral when he was in college, was married there and his family now considers it home. One child just graduated from the Choir School; another is enrolled.

Not only are the building and atmosphere "perfect for the contemplation and the sacramental life of the church," Pratt says, "it's [also] a gathering place. ... There is a mix of every kind of person -- from the destitute to the very wealthy. Beauty and prayer and charity come together and become one home."

Martin Alcocer says since the cathedral began offering a Spanish Mass five years ago, the number of Latino parishioners has exploded.

"From about 12 families attending, nowadays sometimes we have hundreds of people standing," Alcocer says, "and all the pews full during the 3 p.m. Mass."

One big reason: a popular priest, the Rev. Omar Ontiveros, who also has a radio program reaching out to Latinos.

"The building reminds us of something of our towns in Latin America ... the colors, the music," Alcocer says. "People who visit just once feel very good, and usually they come back to the cathedral often."

The choir school offers scholarships to children who might not otherwise afford to attend, he says, and the entire parish often gathers for special celebrations.

Park City resident Patricia Norman says she, like many of Utah's estimated 250,000 Catholics, often is drawn to the mother church. She always takes visitors to the cathedral.

"It's a work of art," Norman says. "It's the center of the Catholic Church -- and that's important."

Wester says that, although the cathedral is one of the nation's "most glorious," its beauty runs deeper than the building itself.

"The church is the people of God," he says. "The church is built with 'living stones,' with Christ as the cornerstone. So the cathedral is the symbol of those living stones."

Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack contributed to this story.