A facelift for the ‘mother church’

First slide
First slide
Previous Next

The Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington is a busy place. Father Robert J. Rippy, rector, calls it "the mother church of the diocese." In addition to daily Mass and the other sacramental rites of a thriving parish, the cathedral is the site of many diocesan-wide celebrations, including priest and deacon ordinations, the Holy Thursday Chrism Mass, Marriage Jubilee Mass and the Rite of Election.

The bishop's church gets a lot of wear and tear, and it's being updated and renovated.

Before it was a cathedral, St. Thomas More was a parish, founded in 1938 by Richmond Bishop Andrew James Brennan. At first, parishioners attended Mass in what would eventually become the school gym. From 1950 to 1961, worship was held in the crypt church, later named Burke Hall in honor of Msgr. Richard J. Burke who served as pastor from 1969 to 1981. The present cathedral was built on top of the crypt church and was dedicated Dec. 9, 1961 by Richmond Bishop John J. Russell.

In 1974, Pope Paul VI created the Arlington Diocese with Thomas J. Welsh as the founding bishop. Thirteen years later, in preparation for the cathedral's 50th anniversary, Msgr. John A. O'Connell, rector, began a large renovation. That was the last major work done, and at 53, the building is showing its age.

Father Rippy said that when he came to the cathedral in 2005 as rector, there was maintenance work that needed to be done. Water damage had taken its toll. Those repairs included a new roof, windows and a drainage system that cost $600,000.

In June, a major renovation project at a cost of more than $800,000 began to refresh the interior of the cathedral. Pews were removed to be repaired and refinished. The terrazzo floor will be polished, and paneling will be removed from the walls and replaced with granite. The upper walls will be refinished and painted.

Renovation also includes new confessionals and the installation of new Stations of the Cross. A console for the cathedral pipe organ is being built that will replace the heavily used 44-year-old console.

Renovation is scheduled to be completed by Oct. 1. In the interim, Mass is celebrated in Burke Hall below the church.

This renovation project is part of the larger cathedral capital campaign called "Empowering God's Servants for Today and Tomorrow."

St. Thomas More celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2013. The capital campaign, which began soon after the diamond jubilee celebration, is intended to plan for the cathedral's next 75 years.

It's an ambitious proposal that includes the current renovations, plus a cathedral center for meetings, school renovation, and establishing a reserve fund to help finance future maintenance. The goal for the capital campaign is $6.5 million and will be raised by the parish. Father Rippy said the capital campaign is in its early stages. He optimistically is hoping to start construction in 2017, but that depends on funds raised.

The campaign effort has been helped by a contribution from the Bishop's Lenten Appeal. In 2013, Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde decided to contribute funds received in excess of the BLA goal of up to $500,000 a year for three years to a maximum total of $1.5 million. This decision was made in consultation with the diocesan finance council and the priests who serve as deans and who review the preliminary plans for each year's BLA.

"I'm grateful for the bishop helping us," said Father Rippy. "We couldn't do it without him."

The current renovation began June 15, and if you were to look into the cathedral early on in the process you would have seen an empty sanctuary with pews removed and walls and floors covered with tarps. Clear plastic sheeting enveloped the altar. But over the next few months, refinished pews will be installed on polished floors, and slowly the inside will take on a familiar liturgical look.

Father Rippy said that parishioners and others in the diocese will see the effects of the renovation in October.

"The people will walk in and go 'wow'," he said.

Borowski can be reached at dborowski@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @DBorowskiACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015