A cathedra crafted by John Hans M. Martini will occupy the space atop the two-tiered platform behind the ambo of St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral. The seat is reserved only for the Bishop in liturgical celebrations. Craig Pittelli photo
A cathedra crafted by John Hans M. Martini will occupy the space atop the two-tiered platform behind the ambo of St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral. The seat is reserved only for the Bishop in liturgical celebrations. Craig Pittelli photo

Story by Mary Morrell, Correspondent

In the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, stands the Cathedra Petri, the Chair of St. Peter, an ancient oaken relic that tradition says was used by St. Peter as he instructed the early Christians and fulfilled his role as the first Bishop of Rome. The chair, wrote Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “is a symbol of the special mission of Peter and his successors to tend Christ’s flock, keeping it united in faith and in charity.”

This symbol and tradition were to find their way to St. Robert Bellarmine Church in Freehold, Feb. 19, when Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., would celebrate a special diocesan Mass, becoming the first occupant of the newly-installed cathedra or chair. The Mass marked the formal recognition of the elevation of the church to the dignity of Co-Cathedral of the Diocese of Trenton.

Making plans for the cathedra was one of the first tasks that Msgr. Sam Sirianni, St. Robert Bellarmine pastor, turned his attention to when the parish first received news about the Co-Cathedral in a letter from Bishop O’Connell sent Christmas weekend.

A cathedral gets its name from the cathedra, as the place where the bishop’s chair resides, explained Msgr. Sirianni. “The cathedra is a symbol of the bishop’s role in imparting the Gospel, giving direction to the Church and teaching the faith,” he said.

Labor of Love

Msgr. Thomas N. Gervasio, diocesan vicar general and pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony Parish, Hamilton, was able to recommend someone who could build this important piece of liturgical furniture – John Hans M. Martini. 

“My connection to Msgr. Tom dates back to numerous pieces of liturgical furniture I made for Our Lady of Sorrows about eight years ago. My connection to Our Lady of Sorrows itself dates back to the late ‘60s and the ‘70s in that I attended grammar school there and served as an altar boy, as well,” said Martini, who came up under the tutelage of his Austrian-trained father, Adam, at the renowned furniture-making company of George Nakashima, New Hope, Pa.

“This is indeed my first cathedra,” Martini said. “I was delighted and honored to be asked. I have found few other types of woodwork as satisfying as that which is done to enhance places of worship,” expressed the seasoned woodworker who has also built furniture for several other parishes including his own, St. Gregory the Great, Hamilton Square, as well as St. Anthony of Padua, Hightstown; Queenship of Mary, Plainsboro, and the chapel at Princeton University, where he is employed.

The design, Msgr. Sirianni said, recreates that of an 1880s bishop’s chair he saw “modified to meet our needs.”

Martini said the chair is made of American Black Walnut because of its inherent beauty and outstanding woodworking characteristics. 

“Walnut has long been considered America’s premier wood and is widely sought after around the world,” he said. “This particular walnut was harvested from the local area and is from trees salvaged after a storm many years ago.”  

Msgr. Sirianni had favored that choice of materials. He explained, “Wood is alive and warm, and the colors cooperate with other elements in the church, integrating it as part of the environment.”

Tying It All Together

A principal consideration for the cathedra, Msgr. Sirianni said, was finding the appropriate place in the sanctuary to place the chair. Fortunately, the only change that had to be made was to move the credence table and seating for the altar servers.

It was decided that the Bishop’s chair would be permanently affixed behind the ambo, at the back of the sanctuary, to a two-tiered platform built by parishioner Mike Alberts, which will elevate the Bishop so he can see, and be seen by, the congregation. Behind the chair, a deep green Carrera marble backdrop, matching the altar, ambo and tabernacle pedestal, will provide a place to affix the Bishop’s coat of arms.

Coincidentally, as preparations were being made for the cathedra, the closing mechanism on the 15-year-old tabernacle door broke. It was sent out for repair to Ryan’s Distribution, Inc., Spring Lake, experts in repair, restoration and refinishing religious items. Upon evaluation, it was decided that the yellow-and-white gold-plated tabernacle would benefit from restoration. In the interim, a replacement tabernacle was loaned to the parish by Father John C. Garrett, pastor of Resurrection Parish, Delran.

“We greatly appreciated having this tabernacle to use while ours was out for repairs,” said Msgr. Sirianni, who added that they are, however, delighted to have their newly restored tabernacle back.

Excitement was high at the parish, relayed Msgr. Sirianni, as preparations continued for the installation of the new cathedra, but especially as parishioners grasped the honor of their parish becoming a co-cathedral. 

“When parishioners ask what it really means for us, I explain it as cooperating with the Mother Church in Trenton, St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, to serve the liturgical needs of the Diocese,” Msgr. Sirianni said.