A view from the St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral choir loft shows the crowd gathered in March 2009 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the “new” Cathedral’s dedication. Monitor file photo
A view from the St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral choir loft shows the crowd gathered in March 2009 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the “new” Cathedral’s dedication. Monitor file photo

Story by Mary Stadnyk, Associate Editor

St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton, a spiritual home for generations of Catholics in the Diocese, has stood as a witness to God’s love and the dedication of his people since its inception in 1871.

As the seat of the Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, the Cathedral is where great and significant moments in the life of the Diocese’s faithful have been marked, namely the life-giving ordination of priests and deacons for service among the people and the solemnities and liturgies that are celebrated in all their beauty and splendor.

For the thousands of people who journey to the Diocese’s Mother Church each year, the Romanesque-style Cathedral reflects a magnificent vision of grace and beauty with its principle exterior featuring the 98-foot tower and façade that is highlighted by a large rose window and a Celtic Cross sculptured with liturgical symbols. The façade also has statues of the Twelve Apostles, and at the peak of the gable above the rose window is a life-size statue of the Blessed Mother. Inside, the Cathedral is 217 feet long and 78 feet wide through the transept and has a seating capacity for nearly 1,000.

Remarkable History

Even before the Diocese of Trenton was established in 1881, a priest by the name of Father Anthony Smith, in 1865, had purchased the property, and ground was broken for the foundation of St. Mary Church on April 23, 1866. The parishioners had contributed much of the labor to building their parish church, which took almost five years to complete. St. Mary’s Church was dedicated by Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley of Newark Jan. 1, 1871.

The land on which the church was built holds historic significance, given that it dates to the American Revolution. Part of the Battle of Trenton was fought at this site, and it is where Hessian Commander Col. Johann Gottlieb Rall was mortally wounded and died Dec. 27, 1776. A historic marker on the façade of the Cathedral rectory identifies the site.

After the Diocese of Trenton was established and St. Mary Church was designated to be the Mother Church, the Cathedral set out on its mission to nourish people in their Catholic faith and give them strength during life’s challenging times.

The Diocese and Cathedral parish community faced a devastating challenge of its own, however, when tragedy struck March 14, 1956, and the first Cathedral church was destroyed by fire, claiming the lives of Msgr. Richard T. Crean, Cathedral rector, and two housekeepers, Mary Brennan and Mary Donnellan.

Through God’s grace and the generosity of many people, a new Cathedral church was built. The new cornerstone was laid March 13, 1959, and the following day, the Cathedral was solemnly blessed by Bishop George W. Ahr. The first Mass in the new Cathedral, a Pontifical Mass of Thanksgiving, was celebrated by Archbishop Thomas A. Boland of Newark. 

In his remarks at the dedication, Bishop Ahr, who was the seventh bishop of Trenton, encouraged parishioners, the people of Trenton and visitors to find in the Cathedral “an inexhaustible well-spring of divine grace and a fruitful source of spiritual blessing, strength and consolation. In very truth, it will be a House of God and a Gate to Heaven.”

Prominent Place of Faith

For six decades, the “new” St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, which is located less than a mile from the State House, has served as the site of scores of significant, annual liturgical celebrations. In addition to ordinations of priests and deacons and the Rite of Election, other diocesan observances held in the Cathedral include the Bishop’s Anniversary Blessing Mass for married couples marking one, 25, 50 or more years of marriage, and the Chrism Mass. Since arriving to the Diocese in 2010, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., has inaugurated the Catholic Schools Mass in which he invites students from Catholic grammar and high schools to join him for Mass at the Cathedral. 

Among the major milestones held in the Cathedral that have dotted diocesan history include the Diocese’s 100th anniversary in 1981 and its 125th in 2006; the funeral Masses for Bishop Ahr in 1993 and Bishop John C. Reiss, eighth bishop of Trenton, in 2012, and the Mass of Welcome for Coadjutor Bishop John M. Smith on Feb. 22, 1996. Many will recall June 18, 1995, when thousands of people flocked to the Cathedral to see Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was invited to attend a Mass celebrated by Bishop Reiss and have an opportunity to speak on vocations. More than 1,000 worshipers were packed into the Cathedral proper; hundreds watched the Mass on a closed-circuit TV in the Cathedral undercroft, and hundreds more stood outside and listened on the public address system. 

The Cathedral proper was once again filled to capacity with an overflow in the undercroft some 15 years later by the thousands who gathered to witness the episcopal ordination of Bishop O’Connell in July 2010. With the advancement of technology, those who were not able to journey to Trenton for the Mass had the opportunity to view live-stream coverage on diocesan media sites.

History was made once again in the Cathedral on Aug. 14, 2013, when during a ceremony, the Blessed Sacrament was transferred from a place of temporary repose that was positioned in a side altar to the newly installed tabernacle in the center of the sanctuary, placing emphasis on the centrality that the Eucharist has in the life of the faithful. Other changes made in the sanctuary included the installation of a new altar table where the tabernacle would sit, extending the altar of sacrifice and moving the cathedra – which had been in the middle of the sanctuary, directly behind the altar of sacrifice since the 1960s – to the front left side of the sanctuary.

The relocation of the tabernacle was part of a modest, long-term restoration project that is still underway in the Cathedral. Other much-needed improvements included work on the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems and the roof; future upgrades planned are renovations to the dining hall and restrooms and installing an elevator.

Like most cathedrals in the United States, St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral is also a parish church, with its own local community of Catholic faithful including a new wave of immigrants, the majority of whom are Spanish-speaking and hail from various South American and Central American countries including Costa Rica, Honduras, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Guatemala, Dominican Republic and Chile. There are also a handful of folks from other countries including Haiti, Jamaica and Africa.