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Online Edition - Vol. VIII, No. 1: March 2002

Milwaukee: Cathedral of Saint John reopens after controversial renovation

Rededication ceremonies for the newly renovated Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist in Milwaukee took place February 9.

Controversy had surrounded the renovation plans almost from the beginning.

Last year, the proposed plans were brought to the attention of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, who opposed several aspects of the proposed design, including placing the organ pipes and choir in the sanctuary where the altar had been. (Parts of the old altar's baldacchino were recycled in the renovation.)

Undeterred by the Holy See, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, OSB, invoking his authority as diocesan bishop, proceeded with the project, with Father Richard Vosko as "liturgical consultant".

The archbishop sent a letter to every priest in his archdiocese accusing a "small group - in Rome, in Milwaukee and in the United States" of trying to humiliate him before his retirement. (He will be 75 in April, the age at which bishops must submit their resignation to the pope, which may or may not be accepted.)

During a preview tour a few days before the reopening of the cathedral, Archbishop Weakland said, "I must confess that I'm overwhelmed because I didn't expect it to be as glorious as it is". He told a group of journalists touring the cathedral, "I'm sure that people, when they come, will realize how good it (is), and with time, people will also come to appreciate the church as a place of worship where they feel very much at home, as a cathedral should be", Archbishop Weakland said. He added that he thought the renovation would be a model for similar projects in the future.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that a parishioner called the renovation "gorgeous" and said it was "like a rebirth of the church".

However, others worried that it would diminish understanding of Catholic doctrine and piety. One person praised the new paint scheme, but remarked, "It seemed to me that I was in a fancy Baptist church with a very large communion table".

Many wonder why Archbishop Weakland was so determined to make irreversible changes in this historic cathedral so late in his tenure. He has been archbishop of Milwaukee since 1977, an outspoken "liberal" who has very recently published articles highly critical of what he sees as "Roman intervention" in liturgical matters. (Commonweal, January 11, 2002 and England's The Tablet, January 2002.) The former archabbot of the Benedictine Order, Archbishop Weakland was also chairman of the US bishops' Committee on Liturgy in the late 1970s.

The "gut-rehab" renovation included elements that have now become standard in many similar projects: pews removed, replaced by chairs "for more flexible seating" arranged in circular rows surrounding the small altar, now in the center of the nave or main body of the church. The choir is now in the apse, facing the altar. The tabernacle now is in a side chapel, the former baptistry. The baptismal font, now at the entrance of the nave, has been converted into a shallow pool with running water.

The small altar rests on columns recycled from side altars removed last year. The new bishop's throne (cathedra) was made from marble taken from the communion rail removed in 1976.

A unique feature is Archbishop Weakland's painted portrait, overlooking the interior from a roundel in a side aisle.

During the rededication ceremony, Archbishop Weakland invited the entire congregation to venerate the altar, as priests and bishops do at the beginning of Mass.

"I thought it was nice for the people ... it just seemed the right thing to do," he said.

The renovation of the church reportedly cost 4.5 million dollars, and the adjoining courtyard and "outreach ministry buildings", still under construction, will cost an additional 6 million. An additional $500,000 paid for a new sculpture of a crown of thorns surrounding a cross that is suspended over the new altar.

"Not without great difficulty"

The archbishop placed the following Latin inscription in the narthex, or entrance, of the cathedral:

Cathedralem hanc aedem liturgicas omnino [iuxta? secundum?] normas Vaticano II venientes ex Concilio magna non sine difficultate renovatam sollemniter atque feliciter IX die mensis Februarii anno MMII

Archepiscopus ipse Ordinarius inauguravit iterum dedicavit Rembertus George Weakland OSB.

Translation:

"This cathedral was renovated, not without great difficulty, exactly according to the liturgical norms of Vatican II. Solemnly and joyously inaugurated and rededicated February 9, 2002, by Archbishop and Ordinary Rembert George Weakland, OSB".

***

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