Recalling ‘a startling conversation’

By Paul Leingang

Special to The Message

In a quiet office on the second floor of the Catholic Center, on an ordinary Wednesday morning more than 20 years ago, there was a startling conversation.

It began, as I recall, when Deanna Ruston asked then-Bishop Gerald A. Gettelfinger a practical question: “Can we talk about how you want to celebrate your 10th anniversary?”

Said the bishop to his secretary: “I want to celebrate it in the cathedral.”

Why was that startling? Because we did not have a cathedral.

First Bishop Henry J. Grimmelsman of the new Diocese of Evansville in 1944 named Assumption Church as his cathedral – but he agreed to its demolition in 1965 as part of downtown redevelopment. A downtown chapel became the Pro-Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, a kind of temporary solution that lasted decade after decade.

Bishop Paul Leibold, who succeeded the founder, didn’t need a cathedral. The next Bishop, Most Rev. Francis R. Shea, didn’t need one. Some clergy and laity alike agreed; they enjoyed the moveable celebrations of diocesan liturgies – ordination in the home parish of the new priest; Holy Week services in Jasper, Vincennes or Washington – or somewhere else inside or outside of Evansville.

But a diocese is supposed to have a cathedral. It’s as practical and taken for granted as a county seat or the seat of government in a national capital. The cathedral is literally the place of the cathedra – the seat of the bishop who is obliged to teach, govern and sanctify.

In Evansville, St. Joseph Church and St. Benedict Church had hosted diocesan events; but Bishop Gettelfinger was ordained and installed at St. Ben’s, and Bishop Shea’s funeral was celebrated there. Ultimately, St. Ben’s pastor and parish council agreed with Bishop Gettelfinger’s proposal to accept the designation as St. Benedict Cathedral.

In 1999, on the 10th anniversary of his episcopal ordination, Bishop Gettelfinger celebrated the dedication of St. Benedict Cathedral – committing this magnificent structure to its dual roles as parish church and diocesan seat.

Over 20 years, the parish has become accustomed to its unique role in the diocese. Parishioners and many other members of the local church have seen deacons and priests prostrate on the center aisle during ordination ceremonies at St. Ben’s. They have seen clergy gathered and committing their loyalty to the bishop at the Chrism Mass. They have seen bishops washing feet on Holy Thursday, kissing a cross on Good Friday, lighting fires of new light on Holy Saturday and celebrating the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

The faithful have participated in Vespers with then-Bishop Charles C. Thompson on the evening before his ordination, and celebrated the installation of Bishop Joseph M. Siegel. Over the years since his retirement, some also may have noticed the joy of an aging Bishop-Emeritus Gettelfinger, filling in for a parish confirmation and concelebrating many Masses with his brother bishops and priests.

The cathedral years include the life and death of Benedictine Father Gregory Chamberlin and the energy of the current pastor, Benedictine Father Godfrey Mullen. During these years, the parish celebrated its 100th anniversary – a unique century of diocesan and Benedictine collaboration with men from St. Meinrad and women from Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand.

The cathedral years include the growth of a parish and a diocesan choir for ordinary Sunday Masses and high liturgical celebrations. And as music and singing are part of the St. Benedict experience, so too are the quiet moments of Eucharistic Adoration and the early morning Masses with Benedictine Father Harold Hammerstein and Father Ted Tempel.

What St. Benedict Cathedral has witnessed over the years is more than the worship and sacramental life of a parish – the weddings and the funerals, the daily Masses and the once-in-a-lifetime First Communions. It is more than the extraordinary public life of the diocese. Here it was, and is and will be a temporal sign and symbol of the eternal presence of Jesus Christ, the son of the living God.

Paul is former Director of Communications for the Diocese of Evansville, former Editor of The Message and the author of history of St. Benedict Cathedral Parish. He and his wife, Jane, are members of the parish, and Jane is a member of the parish and diocesan choirs.