The Cathedral of Saint Joseph
The beginnings of the Cathedral of St. Joseph coincide with the division of the Diocese of Hartford in 1872, when Providence, Rhode Island, became a separate diocese. Pope Pius VIII established the Diocese of Hartford in 1843 and named Rev. William Tyler, the Vicar General of Boston, as its first bishop. After seeing how few Catholics (600) lived in Hartford, Bishop Tyler petitioned Rome to reside in Providence, Rhode Island, where about a thousand Catholics were in residence. His unusual request was granted. His successor, Bishop Bernard O’Reilly (1850-1856), continued to maintain residence there as did Bishop Francis P. McFarland, who succeeded him.
As the number of Catholics grew in both Connecticut and Rhode Island, Bishop McFarland sought the division of the Diocese. Rome acceded by appointing Rev. Thomas Hendricken, who had served in Connecticut for many years, the first Bishop of Providence. Bishop McFarland then moved to Hartford (1872).
On his arrival in Hartford Bishop McFarland purchased the old Morgan estate on Farmington Avenue for $75,000 to provide ground for building a cathedral, an Episcopal residence, and a motherhouse for the Sisters of Mercy, whose services he had procured while in Providence. To provide them with a home in Hartford, he decided to build them a convent first; their chapel would serve as the pro-Cathedral while the cathedral was being constructed.
Though Bishop McFarland dedicated the pro-Cathedral and planned the building of the Cathedral, it was his successor, Bishop Thomas Galberry, O.S.A. (1876), who broke ground on August 30, 1876, and laid the first stone on September 13 of that year. A vast assembly of bishops, priests and laity gathered for the laying of the cornerstone on Sunday, April 29, 1877. Almost a year later, on February 10, 1878, the bishop dedicated the basement of the Cathedral. The sacristy provided a crypt where deceased bishops of the diocese were to be buried. Bishop McFarland’s body was exhumed from his burial spot in front of the convent and transferred to the crypt. Following his death on October 10, 1878, Bishop Galberry was buried next to his predecessor.
Completion and Consecration
Upon his consecration as Bishop of Hartford on August 10, 1879, Bishop Lawrence S. McMahon found not only an incomplete cathedral but also a $60,000 debt, which he soon liquidated. He then continued to execute the building plans of his predecessors. Thirteen years later, on May 8, 1892, Bishop McMahon consecrated the Cathedral. In attendance was an impressive array of dignitaries: Archbishop Edward C. Fabre of Montreal, Bishop Patrick Ludden of Syracuse, New York, Bishop L.F. Lafleche of Three Rivers, Canada, Bishop Matthew Harkins of Providence, Rhode Island, Bishop Charles E. McDonnell of Brooklyn, and Bishop John J. Williams of Boston.
The renowned Patrick C. Keely was the architect who planned the Cathedral, cruciform in shape and early Gothic in design. Approached by well-laid walks, the cathedral had three double doorways leading to the tiled vestibule. Its exterior was of Portland rough brown stone with stone ornamentation. Square towers, surrounded by low battlements, recalled those of the Church of Notre Dame in Montreal, Canada. The entire length of the Cathedral was 268 feet; its width in the transcept, 178 feet and in the nave, 93 feet. Its frontage occupied 123 feet; and its height from the center of the ceiling to the floor, 90 feet. Its seating capacity was 2,000. It was generally believed that this cathedral was one of the best achievements of architect P.C. Keely.
The cathedral remained substantially unchanged until 1938, when it became apparent that soil conditions had endangered the foundation. Renovation and a vast shoring up project ensued under Bishop Maurice F. McAuliffe to make the cathedral not only safe but more beautiful as well. While hundreds of piles were driven from the floor to ensure a proper foundation for the structure, the lower church was closed. After it was refurbished and ready for use, the upper church was closed for corrective work and renovation. This herculean work was completed in time for Christmas, 1939.
Seventeen years later during morning Mass on December 31, 1956, worshipers complained of smelling a fire. Firefighters were summoned but they could not discover its source until late morning when flames shot up into the wooden ceiling. Windows shattered as by an explosion; the roof fell, and everything within the cathedral suffered from the uncontrolled flames. Before late afternoon all that remained was a charred, smoldering, ice-encrusted ruin. The mother church of the Archdiocese of Hartford, which had witnessed the consecration of bishops, the ordination of hundreds of priests, and the taking of vows by hundreds of religious was no more. Expert structural engineers having demonstrated that nothing could be salvaged, the walls were demolished and the site cleared. The cornerstone was moved to rest near the site where the new cathedral would stand.
A fund-raising campaign involving parishes and other donors was soon inaugurated. Archbishop Henry F. O’Brien engaged Eggers and Higgins, of New York, as architects of a new cathedral. In August 1957, they submitted several designs; in December the choice of contemporary design with a flavoring of the traditional was announced.
Archbishop O’Brien presided over the formal ground breaking on September 8, 1958. During the 1957-1959 period of construction cathedral parishioners attended Sunday Mass in the auditorium of the Aetna Life Insurance Company building, directly opposite the cathedral site. Daily Masses were celebrated in the school auditorium. The lower church was blessed by Auxiliary Bishop John F. Hackett on December 24, 1960, and at midnight Archbishop O’Brien offered the first Pontifical Mass there.
Meanwhile the work on the main cathedral, which was to seat 1,750 proceeded steadily. On February 10, 1961, Archbishop O’Brien consecrated 12 carillon bells, cast in Holland; on October 3, 1962, Auxiliary Bishop Hackett laid the cornerstone, while on April 3, 1962, the Archbishop blessed the cross for the tower. Finally on May 15, 1962, the Auxiliary Bishop consecrated the completed edifice.