St. Mary's Cathedral surprises visitors to Fall River, or so claims Father Paul Bernier. He says he can watch people waiting at the traffic light at Second and Rodman and see their reaction as they turn to look out the passenger window. They see the beautiful and beautifully maintained Gothic structure and have trouble reconciling it with its location in a down at the heel mill town. Their surprise registers on their face and Father Paul has them pegged for visitors.
Their surprise is natural. They need to find out what most residents of Fall River already know. Even the good people of Fall River need to be reminded of it sometimes. Fall River was not always what it has become in the last 5 decades with the twin ills of the automobile-enabled flight to the suburbs and the loss of the mills and the wealth that they generated. There's perhaps no better place to appreciate what Fall River was like 150 years ago then sitting in the pews at St. Mary's Cathedral at Second and Rodman.
The short version of the history of St. Mary's follows: The first church built on the site was St. John the Baptist. It was dedicated in 1840 when roughly a third of Fall River's 6000+ residents were Catholics. By 1849 it became obvious that a larger church was needed. The architectural firm CP Keeley of Brooklyn was hired to design the new church in the 11th century Gothic Style. St. Mary's was dedicated 6 years later on December 16th of 1855. The steeple eventually rose to its full height of 190' in 1858 but the interior was described as drab or plain for years afterwards. It took many years and 5 restorations for the interior to take its present shape.
And frankly .... what a shape it is. Wow just doesn't do it justice. The combination of carefully lit interior detail and stained glass are jaw droppingly beautiful. I guess its the combination of visual order and soaring grandeur that makes my spine tingle and my eyes slightly moist. Maybe God really is in residence. God is everywhere? I suppose so ... in the tiniest blade of grass and so on. I don't have a lot of patience for theological arguments. They spin and chase their tails like manic dogs. A fallen away catholic myself with plenty of harsh words for the choices that church hierarchy made for decades concerning clergy members with certain shall we say "predilections" ... still, for a few minutes anyway ... while the beauty of St. Mary's washes over me, I am again a Catholic.
For those looking for a miracle there's a hint of one here. It's not a statue of the Virgin Mary that weeps real tears but it does involve the Virgin Mary. Father Paul pointed to one panel of one particular stained glass window behind the altar. It has become mysteriously lighter while the portion below it has become darkened. The panel looks as if it has been highlighted for viewing by some celestial force. The subject of the panel: St. Mary's assumption into heaven. Father Paul points it out with a smile and shrug and says it makes good material during tours. He hasn't yet sent a window washer up for a closer look. Why debunk?
Another interesting fact that might be considered slightly miraculous by some familiar with the male dominated nature of the Catholic Church: the number of women and men depicted in the stained glass windows is exactly equal by design. Father Paul says that always makes a hit with the women in his audience.
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