"Almost Worthy of God"
On a bitterly cold December day in 1850 the Diocese of Mobile, less than 35 years old, celebrated its patronal feast, the Immaculate Conception, by consecrating a cathedral whose cornerstone had been laid in 1835. It represented a monumental expression of faith on the part of the Catholic community, led by Bishop Michael Portier (d. 1859), assisted by benefactors in France and Rome, and, closer to home, those whom one contemporary paper called "their fellow-citizens of every creed!" Bishop Martin John Spalding of Louisville who preached for the occasion said of the edifice: "It is almost worthy of God."
An heroic challenge was set by Bishop Portier in laying foundations for a church 162 feet in length and 90 feet in width. It met his vision for "the future of Mobile," and for the family of faith in Alabama and Florida which the Cathedral has served for more than 150 years. Subsequent generations met the promise of completing the church, sometimes following the original plan, but also in response to circumstances such as the fire of 1954 that could have destroyed the whole structure.
The classic portico and landmark cast-iron fence were added, after the Civil War, in the time of Bishop John Quinlan (d. 1883). Towers and steeples were completed under the fourth bishop, Jeremiah O'Sullivan (d. 1896). Bishop Edward P. Allen (d. 1926) led the Cathedral Parish in providing the magnificent and historic stained glass windows from the internationally acclaimed studios of Franz Myer, Munich. On the occasion of the centenary of the diocese in 1929, Bishop Thomas J. Toolen (retired 1969, d. 1976), replaced the original sanctuary and marble aisles as much-needed repairs and improvement. The fire of 1954 resulted in the existing sanctuary and air-conditioning was added to the Cathedral. A crypt for the burial of bishops became a feature in 1962. Bishop John L. May (transf. 1980 d. 1994) oversaw liturgical changes in the sanctuary in keeping with the provisions of Vatican Council II, cooperated with the City of Mobile in making Cathedral Square a reality, and repaired damage to the steeples after Hurricane Frederick in 1979.
As the Church entered into the new millennium the Cathedral Parish embarked upon a new phase of restoration, when in the summer of 2001 exterior renewal of the Cathedral took place. The exterior restoration included minor roof repairs, repair of walls damaged by cracking and an overall cleaning of the facade, which included some re-plastering of the immense and dominant portico. The beautiful stained glass windows of the Cathedral were further protected by new Lexicon exterior protective windows. These Lexicon windows should protect the Franz Myer stained glass windows from strong winds and the occasional hurricanes, which are unfortunately common along the Gulf Coast.
In January of 2003 work on the interior of the Cathedral began. The interior work included artistic enhancements by the Conrad Schmitt Company of New Berlin, Wisconsin. The company was primarily responsible for gold-leafing of the columns, repainting of the vaulted ceiling of the Cathedral, which includes emblems of the fleur de lis, representing the French heritage of the Catholic population of Mobile, as well as the local history of the city, and the shamrock, which reflects the Irish antecedents of the Catholic population in Mobile and to honor the many Catholic priests and sisters who have served the archdiocese throughout our 175 year history. The interior restoration also included a new Carrara marble floor on the main aisle and the two side aisles, with the Bishops of Mobile coat of arms being water engraved and brass inlaid upon the floor of the main aisle. The interior restoration also included a new sound system, rewiring of the entire electrical system of the Cathedral and a new heating and cooling climate control system. The historic Franz Myer windows were cleaned and one of the windows, the Nativity window, was completely restored. The restoration of the remaining eleven windows will be an ongoing project of the Cathedral.
The fabric of the Cathedral has continued to stand the test of time so well that the restoration improvements offered by modern technology did not provide any problems for the structure of the Cathedral. The skills of the builders of past and present along with the magnificent brick, stone, granite and virgin timber have ensured that our Cathedral will continue to be a place not only of architectural beauty, but a fitting place for worship of the One True God. Therefore, as an Alabama historian said of the Cathedral in 1850, "the most imposing church edifice of the state."
Cathedrals have histories that offer succeeding generations an opportunity to collaborate with those who made dreams realities. This is truly the history of the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. It is through the prayerful and financial support of generations beginning in 1832 that have ensured the structural and spiritual integrity of the Cathedral. This most recently was evident in the restoration project of 2001 through 2004. Therefore, yet another generation ensuring that the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception remains an edifice of structural integrity and a place of worship "almost worthy of God."