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Cathedral of Saint Paul
The Cathedral of St. Paul is probably the best-known and most visible expression of High Victorian Gothic architecture in Alabama. Constructed during Birmingham’s late nineteenth-century industrial boom, the church expresses the optimism and drive of the burgeoning city and its Catholic population.
Birmingham, founded shortly after the Civil War in the hitherto isolated mineral region of north-central Alabama, attracted many Irish Catholic workers and their families. For the most part, these laborers came to build the railroads around which the city was rapidly developing, to work in the adjacent iron mines and coal fields, or to establish businesses serving their fellow emigrants. In 1871 this still small community of Irish Catholics petitioned the Diocese of Mobile for a church and a priest. In response, Bishop John Quinlan sent them the Reverend William F. McDonough, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, fifty miles to the southwest. The first Mass was celebrated in the small log cabin of Michael Cahalan, two months before the city of Birmingham was incorporated.
Birmingham’s Catholics completed their first church building in June 1872 on a lot at the corner of Third Avenue and Twenty-Second Street North. The Elyton Land Company, named for the tiny courthouse village that preceded Birmingham in this location, donated the land. The 30 x 60-foot, wood frame church featured a front gable crowned by a small bell tower. Dedicated to St. Paul the Apostle, it was among the earliest houses of worship in the city, and the first Roman Catholic church in Jefferson County. Priests from Tuscaloosa and Selma continued to serve this mission parish for the next eight years.
In early 1880, the Reverend John J. Browne was assigned to St. Paul’s as its first resident pastor. The next year, he purchased a large lot on the same block as the church, relocating the building to the site and enlarging it; he also built a rectory on this same lot two years later, which housed a school and convent in the brick structure. The remainder of this large lot was reserved for the construction of a new church. The cornerstone for St. Paul’s Church was laid on June 11, 1890, during the tenure of Reverend Patrick A. O’Reilly, who had succeeded Father Browne in 1886. The new St. Paul’s Church was not completed until 1893, due to labor disputes.
St. Paul’s Church was designed by German-born architect Adolphus Druiding, founder and principal of the Druiding Company in Chicago. Most major Midwestern cities had at least one Druiding church prior to the urban renewal efforts of the mid-twentieth century, and St. Paul’s Cathedral may be the only example of Druiding’s work in the Deep South and, perhaps, the only one he designed for an Irish Catholic congregation (his other commission were typically for German-American and Polish-American parishes). This may be why he convinced the Irish-American contractor Lawrence Scully to relocate to Birmingham to supervise this $90,000 construction project.
In developing his plans, Druiding clearly drew inspiration from a variety of sources, not least of which may have been the soaring brick Gothic churches of his native northern Germany. Historian Michael Fazio has also suggested Vienna’s then recently completed Votivkirche as another possible influence. Certainly the central European character and basilica plan of St. Paul’s differentiate it from the more sober late Victorian Gothic of two nearby Protestant contemporaries: the First Presbyterian Church (1886–1888) and the Episcopal Cathedral of the Advent (1887–1895).
Outwardly measuring 140 x 96 feet, St. Paul’s features a bold but judicious use of stone trim that contrasts with smooth exterior walls of pressed brick. Druiding frequently chose contrasting colors (such as white stone against red brick) for his church exteriors over monochromatic color schemes, along with an abundance of patterned brickwork, as seen on St. Paul’s. There is a multitude of Gothic-arched stained glass windows, with those of the clerestory puncturing the main roof of the nave. He emphasized the great west window of the facade with a pair of flanking 185-foot spires that are slender, octagonal, and sheathed with the same polychromatic slate that covers the main roof. Stone statuary at the entrance dates from 1905 and originally adorned the high altar.
The interior follows a typical, three-part basilica plan, with narthex, nave (here, with choir loft at the rear), and apse. Slender piers, five to a side and topped by foliated capitals, separate the 67-foot-high nave from lofty side aisles. Overhead, ribbed vaulting frames a procession of clerestory windows that lead toward the tall, arching polygonal apse above the main altar.
While early stained-glass windows in the cathedral typically depict Jesus, his mother Mary, and the saints, some also suggest the character of the congregation for whom the church was built. A window honoring St. Patrick attests to the large number of Irish Catholics worshipping at St. Paul’s in its early years. Another, portraying the Holy Family in Nazareth, shows St. Joseph with the tools of his trade, protectively standing over Mary and the boy Jesus—an appropriate symbol for a congregation originally composed of poor and working class families. Yet another window, donated by parents whose young daughter had passed away, shows Jesus beckoning the little children to come to Him.
The Cathedral of St. Paul has undergone numerous renovations and repairs over the last sixty years. Extensive refurbishing in 1955 included the installation of air conditioning. In the early 1970s, the cathedral’s altars were simplified in response to the dictum of Vatican II. The tall superstructure, or reredos, of the 17-foot-wide main altar, dating from 1905, was removed. Some of its statuary is now located elsewhere in the cathedral or is affixed to the facade. And in a further expression of post-Vatican II thinking, the great window above the entrance to the nave was, in 1972, reworked as an abstract design of faceted glass set into a heavy tracery of concrete.
A $6.5 million exterior renovation begun in November 2013 was completed in 2015. The work included a new slate roof and the replacement of its copper crosses and decorative finials, repointing of the brick, the addition of protective covering on the upper windows, an updated electrical system, and improved security lighting. Future maintenance of the Cathedral of St. Paul will be funded in part by contributions from all the Catholic parishes in the diocese. This is a fitting tribute to the parish church that became a cathedral when the Diocese of Birmingham was created in 1969.
Fazio, Michael W. Landscape of Transformations: Architecture and Birmingham, Alabama.Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2010.
Hampton, Roy A. Hampton, III. “German Gothic in the Midwest: The Parish Churches of Franz Georg Himpler and Adolphus Druiding.” U.S. Catholic Historian15, no. 1 (Winter 1997): 51-74.
Lody, Fr. Joseph, ed. History of the Diocese of Birmingham. Strasbourg, France: Editions du Signe, 2009.
Lovett, Rose Gibbons. The Catholic Church in the Deep South, the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama, 1540–1976.Birmingham, AL: Birmingham Publishing Co., 1981.
Schnorrenberg, John M. Aspiration: Birmingham’s Historic Houses of Worship. Birmingham, AL: Birmingham Historical Society, 2000.
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