St. Joseph RC Cathedral - Table of Contents

History of St. Joseph RC Cathedral
50 Franklin St., Buffalo, NY

St. Joseph RC Cathedral - Official Website
Visitor Information: (716) 854-5855

By James Napora




Patrick C. Keeley


23 April, 1847

The place of worship designed and built as a Cathedral in the city, St. Joseph's Cathedral was constructed as the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese. The need for a Cathedral, or seat of the Bishop, resulted from the establishment of the Diocese of Western New York on 23 April, 1847. Prior to that time, the diocese had consisted of the entire state with New York City serving as the seat.

Upon his arrival as the first Bishop in 1847, John Timon set out to find a suitable house of worship to serve as the seat of the diocese. At that time, three permanent Catholic churches stood in the city: St. Louis on Main Street, St. Mary's on Batavia Road and Pine (destroyed) and St. Patrick's on Broadway and Ellicott (destroyed).

Initially, he desired to use St. Louis as the cathedral, it being the largest and best equipped Catholic house of worship in the city. Shortly after his arrival there, German hostility toward him forced his withdrawal and retreat to St. Patrick's.

Timon persisted in his plans for a grand cathedral and purchased the Squire Estate on Washington Street for it. But with the average day's wage of the immigrant worker at only sixty-two and a half cents, he could barely afford to construct such a building.

Fund-raising tour in Europe

On 14 November, 1849, he departed for Rome to deliver his report on the state of the new diocese to Pope Pius IX. On this journey, he included visits to the major cities of Europe to study their Cathedrals and to make contact with wealthy Catholics and nobility, seeking contributions from them. The Pope initiated the building fund with an endowment of $,.000,supplemented by contributions from many of the Bishops and Cardinals.

While in Europe, Rev. O'Reilly, Timon's assistant, purchased the Webster Gardens Estate on Swan Street, located in the heart of what once was a residential district. With its park-like setting and rolling lawn down to the shore of Lake Erie, he felt that this site would be more suitable than the one on Washington Street. Although he had acted without the knowledge of the Bishop, upon his return Timon agreed with this Swan Street location. He later released the Washington Street site to the Jesuits who then built St. Michael's Church on it.

In selecting an architect, Timon chose Patrick C. Keeley, an Irish immigrant residing in New York. While in training, Keeley had worked with A. W. N. Pugin, the father of the Gothic Revival in religious architecture and a restorer of Gothic churches in England. With plans prepared and cost estimates mounting to$150,000, the Bishop once again turned his thoughts to finances.

Fund-raising tour in Mexico

Timon formed a Cathedral Building Committee with many prominent members of the Catholic community and then embarked on a second fund raising journey, this time to Mexico. While there he received thousands of dollars in donations, enabling the project to advance.

On 2 February, 1851 he broke ground for the building. While placing the cornerstone four days later, the attendees were pelted with snowballs thrown from a nearby rooftop by area residents who objected to the placement of the Cathedral there.

With construction under way, financing the project remained in the forefront. Although work on the cathedral never once stopped, there were several times when funding had run short. On one such occasion, Bishop Timon made a desperate plea to then president Millard Fillmore who responded with a generous contribution. Many Catholics, unable to contribute financially, personally labored on the construction of the building. After working long days, they would haul stones to the site and work on constructing its walls.

Disaster relief

As these walls rose, in 1853 a furious storm rolled off the lake. The fierce winds destroyed many of the homes in the area of the church and along the canal. The Bishop arranged for these destitute, homeless families to pitch tents within the walls of the cathedral while they repaired their homes. For several weeks, the cathedral served as a tent city.

The dream of building a cathedral became a reality for Bishop Timon in 1855 when, on July 1, he held the dedication ceremonies. Although the building was structurally complete, many of the appointments had yet to be finished. The windows had not arrived, the organ was not installed and many of the interior details were not complete.

Throughout the ensuing years, work progressed on the cathedral. In the summer of 1862, the south tower was completed, thus giving the exterior its final form. In July the marble statue of St. Joseph was raised to its niche above the main entrance. on 21August, 1863, Bishop Timon consecrated the completed, debt-free cathedral.

New Bishop's residence on Delaware Avenue

Ten years after its consecration, the financial affairs of the parish were once again in turmoil. The city was impoverished by a series of strikes and general unrest amongst its working class people and necessary repairs to the building placed a strain upon the parish. By 1885, business and industry had begun to encroach upon the cathedral. Laymen of the church suggested to Bishop Stephen Ryan that he move his residence from Swan Street and build a house and chapel in the Cold Springs area. They also suggested selling the cathedral site for development and constructing a new cathedral elsewhere.

The Bishop moved to the corner of Delaware and West Utica and proceeded to construct the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. In 1911 he would begin work on building a new St. Joseph's Cathedral (destroyed) on that site.

The Old Cathedral

The exterior of the cathedral as it appears today was completed in 1862. Its Gothic styling owes more to the principles of the French than it does to the English Gothic. Typical of the style is the strict symmetry of the main facade with its three part arrangement of a central gabled entrance surmounted by a tympanum and rose window.

The completed south tower originally housed a 43 bell carillon. Executed by the Bollee Brothers of LeMans, France, it was once considered the third best carillon in the world. The bells were later removed, leaving only two remaining.

The current interior dates to a renovation completed in 1977, the fourth such project. In 1882, Patrick Keeley redecorated the building followed by a large scale renovation from 1903 to 1905. In preparation for the one hundredth anniversary of the diocese,it was once again renovated between 1937 and 1947.

The nave, measuring 120 by 73 feet, is defined by the clustered piers supporting the clerestory. The windows of the nave and clerestory were crafted in Innsbruck, Austria. They lack a thematic unity, as they were donated by members of the parish who personally selected subjects dealing with the Bible and church history.

The focus of the interior is the sanctuary, the highlight of which are the King Ludwig Windows. During his reign, "Mad" King Ludwig, seeking to revive the lost practice of German stained-glass, subsidized studios with public funds. A studio run by the Mayer Family produced the windows for him. Upon their exhibition at the Paris Exposition of 1850, they were declared to be the best in the world. on one of his European journeys, Bishop Timon happened to view the windows and instantly desired them for his cathedral. He asked Ludwig to donate them, a request to which he received a flat refusal. Not one to give up, he repeatedly asked for them. After weeks of pleading, the king consented to his request and allowed the windows to be placed in the cathedral.

The loft in the rear of the church contains a 3,627 pipe Hook & Hastings organ. Considered one of the best 19th Century organs in North America, it was originally displayed at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.

The basement of the cathedral contains a burial crypt. In it are interned the remains of Bishop Timon, builder of the cathedral, who died on 17 April, 1867. Beside him are the remains of Monsignor William Gleason and Bishop Stephen Ryan, both of whom died in 1896.

Bishop Ryan constructed the Lady Chapel in 1873. Located behind the cathedral, it served as home to St. Anthony's Church, now on Court Street during the organization of the congregation. The Munich glass windows, depicting instruments of the Passion, originally were in the lower sanctuary wall of the cathedral.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2005
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