What is a cathedral? How is it different than other churches? A cathedral contains the cathedra of a bishop, sometimes referred to as “the bishop’s chair.” The cathedral serves as the mother church of a diocese — in essence, it represents Catholics in that diocese. For the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, has been that symbol. Inside, the grandeur of the church leaves visitors and even parishioners in awe.
“Celebrating Mass is the absolute highlight of any day for a priest,” said Father Brian Alford, rector of the Cathedral. “I have celebrated Mass in many different locations and the beauty of the Mass itself always surpasses the location in which the Mass is celebrated. Nevertheless, the beauty of a church helps me in lifting my heart and seeing more clearly that at Mass, Heaven comes down to meet us. St. Paul tells us about the unimaginable beauty that awaits us in Heaven, and Mass celebrated in a beautiful church helps me to have a better glimpse of what that will look like. I am sometimes struck by that thought when I am celebrating Mass in our Cathedral, a place a great beauty. Despite the overwhelming beauty of the church, I find it does not distract me when I celebrate Mass. Rather, it enables me to celebrate with great focus and reverence.”
It all started here with Pope Pius XI in 1923 when he issued a papal bull designating the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield to be the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and so the Episcopal See of the diocese was transferred from Alton to Springfield. Msgr. James A. Griffin, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, was appointed the first bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois (fourth of the diocesan see) on Nov. 10, 1923. When it was announced the diocese wanted to build a new Cathedral on the corner of Sixth and Lawrence in 1927, it took just two weeks to raise almost $1 million from Catholics in the diocese to fund the estimated $750,000 construction. Over the course of 14 months, the entire Cathedral complex was completed and dedicated in October of 1928.
Radiating with beauty, grand stained-glass windows, reverent works of art, and bold architecture, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is unlike any church in the world. Traditionally, the Cathedral architectural style is referred to as Greek Revival which was a common style at the time. It is a basilica style with a façade that is temple-like, with pillars, and then a three-tiered tower steeple. The Cathedral’s steeple is similar to that of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London.
The most impressive feature most people are in awe of when visiting is the striking stained-glass windows. They are unique in many ways. They were made by Thomas O’Shaughnessy, an artist in Chicago who only did four churches, including Old St. Patrick’s in Chicago. Done in a mosaic style with the glass made in Kokomo, Ind., with sand from Ottawa, the windows show the church in the world on the north side and the church in the new world on the south side.
Two of the windows on the south side get the most attention from visitors. Ones depicts President George Washington talking with Bishop John Carroll, the first bishop in the United States. The other depicts President Abraham Lincoln with Archbishop John Hughes of New York. A fascinating tradition — while not proven — is the middle character in this window, Lincoln’s secretary, was made to look like Bishop Griffin.
Another striking element of the Cathedral is the ceiling, with its detailed artwork and unique look. It is replicated from the ceiling at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, the church that houses a large piece of the manger Jesus was born in.
What may be less known about the Cathedral is there are three bishops buried right behind the altar. This includes Bishop Griffin, Bishop William O’Conner, and Bishop Joseph McNicholas.
“There are so many things about the Cathedral church that are inspiring,” Father Alford said. “One of my favorites is the new altar that was installed and consecrated in 2009. It is amazing how well it matches the rest of the Cathedral, even though it is more than 80 years younger than most of the rest of the church. In addition to its beauty, the connection to the priesthood in our diocese is important, and the funds to pay for the altar came from the priests of our diocese. I also love the beauty of the coffered ceiling. When I elevate the host or chalice at Consecration, my eyes catch the golden glimmer, and with that as the background as I adore our Eucharistic Lord for a brief moment, I am filled with awe.”
Dedicated to our Blessed Mother, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield has that unique position of being the bishop’s church, the mother church of the diocese.
“It is not uncommon to come across various artifacts from the history of the Cathedral,” Father Alford said. “Each of those items has a story. I sometimes look at the sanctuary and think of how many of our priests have laid prostrate on the floor on the day of their ordination. In the early morning, when nobody is in the church, I sometimes look out at the empty pews and think of the many liturgies celebrated here, the many people from our diocese and beyond who have come to worship God and celebrate some special occasion. To think that I am a very small part of that history is humbling.”