Sunday, March 25, 2001

God's house

A visit to St. Peter

        I went up to see St. Peter the other day. I climbed wide, white steps, under towering columns from a Greek temple, past massive wooden doors that opened on a jaw-dropping vision of breathtaking majesty.

        The floors of swirling green marble made me feel like I was walking on water. There was gold everywhere, making the walls glow with the warm radiance of a reflected sunrise. More huge pillars reached to the distant ceiling and marched to an altar, where I could see Jesus on his throne in a ruby-red robe, surrounded by dazzling golden glass. He pointed toward heaven as he handed the keys to St. Peter.

        It was not a dream.

        I had not been sampling the communion wine. I was not in some kind of trance. It was real — a quiet oasis of beauty and peace right across the street from the brooding castle of chaos that is City Hall.

        St. Peter in Chains Cathedral on Plum Street is not heaven. But you can almost see it from there.

        When it was dedicated in 1845, it was called “The White Angel,” the mother of all Catholic churches in Ohio, Michigan and parts of the Northwest Territory. It was built of the finest white Dayton limestone, with walls four feet thick and columns that are three and a half feet in diameter and 33 feet tall. The steeple reaches 20 stories into the sky. Remodeling in 1957 added the Venetian glass mosaic of Jesus, made of thousands of pieces of glass infused with gold.

        Below Jesus, Latin words proclaim, “And Peter was imprisoned, bound with chains.” At the left is a scene of St. Peter being freed by an angel; on the right, he is visited in prison by St. Paul.

        And yet, mere descriptions fail to do justice to what the hand of man has done here in tribute to God.

        “How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts!” said Bishop McClosky, quoting the 83rd Psalm at the consecration ceremony on Nov. 2, 1845.

        “It is the finest building in the west, and the most imposing in appearance of any of the cathedrals in the United States,” was another comment that day, quoted in the Cathedral's history.

        One of Cincinnati's perpetually pinch-minded grumps said, “Why can't those Catholics put up a cheap building?”

        I believe there's a reason St. Peter in Chains survives while stadiums crumble and worldly empires are scattered by the wind.

        It's still there, in all of its glory. The doors are open. Father Jim Bramlage welcomes visitors to stop and kneel in prayer, take part in Bible study, join “Lunch with the Lord” services or just look around and be awed speechless by the mighty power of the place.

        On most Sundays, only about a third of the cathedral's 900-seat capacity is full. Like another nearby jewel in a bracelet of historic downtown churches, Covenant First Presbyterian, St. Peter in Chains has plenty of seats available.

        Worshiping in such churches is like being hardwired to history. It's like being in a museum of faith that longs to be used again — a cavernous house of the Lord that was meant to overflow with the crashing waves of a joyful chorus.

        Instead they are nearly empty most of the time.

        David Klingshirn, a member of the congregation at St. Peter in Chains, thinks Cincinnati is hiding its light under a basket. “Downtown cannot afford to lose one more of its anchors for spiritual nourishment.”

        He says downtown's historic houses of worship — St. Louis, St. Xavier, Union Baptist, Christ Episcopal, Plum Street Temple — could draw tourists and residents of our region to spend a Sunday morning downtown and rediscover the rocks of faith our city was built upon.

        I think St. Peter would agree: What a vision.

        Contact Enquirer Associate Editor Peter Bronson at 768-8301; fax: 768-8610; e-mail:


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