Story by S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN SNR) - The Cathedral of the Risen Christ Parish in Lincoln will mark its 50th anniversary Aug. 16 with Mass celebrated by Bishop James Conley at 3 p.m.
A light reception of fruit, cheese, wine and beverages will follow in Rectors Hall, and all are invited to participate in celebrating the central home of the Diocese of Lincoln.
On Aug. 18, 1965, the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi arrived from Washington D. C. to preside, along with 40 other prelates. Two local television stations broadcast the event for viewers at home.
It was the culmination of years of planning, design and construction that gave the Diocese of Lincoln one of the most unique neo-classical cathedrals in the nation – and the world.
Cathedral Parish started out as Holy Family Parish, which was formed in 1932 to serve 39 families living in southeast Lincoln. When the first Mass was celebrated Aug. 28 in a small house near Pawnee and 48th streets, the kitchen chairs and other improvised seating were all full – an encouraging start.
By the following spring, four acres of land along Sheridan Boulevard had been purchased to create a more suitable worship setting. The property included a barn to use as a parish hall and a three-car brick garage, which was deemed most suitable for renovating into a church.
“Holy Family Parish was my first assignment,” recalled Msgr. James Dawson with a smile. “My oldest brother and his wife were married in that three-car garage.”
As the parish grew, ground was broken at the corner of 37th and Sheridan for a school, which included an auditorium to serve as the temporary church.
During his homily at the dedication of that Holy Family church-school building in 1954, Bishop Louis B. Kucera hinted that a new cathedral would soon be built. His successor, James V. Casey, made it a priority after he came to the diocese in 1957.
Bishop Casey had three potential sites in mind. The first option was to replace the existing cathedral in downtown Lincoln (now St. Mary Parish). Another site was near Pius X High School on South Street. And finally, there was Holy Family Parish.
According to “The History of the Diocese of Lincoln: Vol. II,” Bishop Casey opted for Holy Family Parish because the property was large enough, the parish had no permanent church building – six or seven Masses were held each weekend to accommodate everyone – and the members of the parish had campaigned for it.
In May 1963, Msgr. Adrian Herbek, then only four years into his priesthood, received a letter from Bishop Casey appointing him superintendent of Pius X High School and assistant to Holy Family Parish.
The Sunday after Msgr. Herbek arrived, the groundbreaking ceremony was held for the new Cathedral and attached rectory.
Armed with a German Agfa 35mm camera, Msgr. Herbek would visit the Cathedral construction site every day after he returned from Pius X. And he wasn’t the only person interested in the progress.
“There was a lot of rubbernecking going on,” he remembered.
Msgr. Herbek documented the excavation, the pouring of the foundation, and the rising of I-beams to form the steel skeleton. He snapped photos of the application of the Italian marble façade, the laying of the tile floor, and the installation of the organ with its 2,864 pipes, 41 stops and 51 ranks.
He was there when the immense cast-concrete slabs that make up the Cathedral walls arrived from the Nebraska Precast Concrete with police escort because they were so wide and heavy.
“There’s two for each one, an inner and an outer, with an air space in between,” he said.
The panels were sculpted with abstract bas-relief designs created by Omaha artist William Hammon. Each pair featured perfectly matched holes that would receive the avant-garde stained glass windows by Max Ingrand of Paris.
At the front entrance are Msgr. Herbek’s two favorite features: a massive stained glass window that showcases the victory of Christ, designed by Rambuch Studios in New York, and the soaring cut-glass panels separating the narthex from the nave, created by Robert Harmon of Emil Frei Studio.
Truly, the Cathedral was such an artistic endeavor that shortly after it opened, Msgr. Herbek hastily put together a brochure explaining all the artwork and architectural features for visitors. Fifty years later, people still come to tour the Cathedral with the assistance of parish docents.
Msgr. Herbek believes that Bishop Casey was inspired to choose a modern design for the Cathedral by the Second Vatican Council.
“The pope said we ought to have some fresh air, so this was a way of doing it,” Msgr. Herbek suggested.
Msgr. Dawson commended Bishop Casey for making such a big impact on the diocese of Lincoln in the 10 short years he was here, including building the Cathedral and enabling several other parishes to construct larger facilities.
“In 1954 when I came to Lincoln as a priest,” Msgr. Dawson said, “Lincoln was 57,000 people and 6% Catholic. Now Lincoln is about 250,000 people and 20% Catholic.”
Even though he needs help getting around at the age of 86, Msgr. Dawson can still go to the Cathedral for Mass regularly, thanks to his siblings and other family members who live in the area. Many are daily communicants and some have participated in perpetual adoration, which the Cathedral parish has maintained since 1959.
Msgr. Herbek lives at Bonacum House, across the street from the sprawling campus that includes the chancery, rectory, Cathedral, parish school and John XXIII Center. When he is at the Cathedral, he can’t help remembering the two years of construction, as well as serving as one of Archbishop Vagnozzi two chaplains during the dedication Pontifical Mass, along with his classmate, Father John McCabe.
Most of all, Msgr. Herbek likes to be at the altar, gazing at the effect of the sun streaming through first the colored glass of the Resurrection window and then the cut glass of the narthex.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “Most cathedrals don’t have that much artwork.”