Catholic worship, Quality Hill, gold dome, renovated historic cathedral
Kansas City’s placement at the center of the country—where East meets West and North meets South—inscribes on it a character of confluence. The old brick warehouses in the Crossroads Art District mingle with the sleek, rounded sides of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The Old West trading posts of Westport lie in the heart of a sprawling, modern metropolis. Rarer in this part of the country are the spaces where the culture of the old world interacts with that of the new, but such a communication happens in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
There’s been a church on the hill around 11th and Washington Streets for almost 180 years. In 1835, a French priest, the Rev. Benedict Roux, built a log structure for the residents of the small French settlement that had sprung up at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers. There’s evidence, however, of religious artifacts stolen from missionaries in the area by the Comanche raiders as early as the 1690s. After the City of Kansas was incorporated in 1853, the Rev. Bernard Donnelly spearheaded an effort to build the first permanent church on this site, dedicating it to the Immaculate Conception in 1857. The parish was chosen as a seat of the diocese in 1880, and the present building held its first Mass in 1883.
Though not as imposing as its European predecessors, the great medieval Gothic cathedrals, Immaculate Conception’s red-brick exterior coordinates with Kansas City’s whole urban-nostalgic “look” and in particular with the surrounding neighborhood of Quality Hill. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, Quality Hill neighborhood was the neighborhood to live in for the second half of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries — fitting, then, that a wooden frontier church should give way to a copper-domed landmark. At the time it was built, the cathedral sat upon the highest point in the city, 250 feet above street level. The cupola’s original copper was leafed with gold in 1960, giving the dome its trademark flash in the city skyline.
If the exterior represents the gleam of the past, inside, modernity takes the lead. Renovated in 2003, the cathedral incorporates symbols of Catholic liturgy as celebrated in the 21st century into its traditional design. For example, instead of an altar facing away from the congregation and couched in ornate sculpture, the current altar is situated in the center of the church’s cross-shaped floor plan, and seats face it from all four sides. The choir loft looms large and open above the back of the church, but elements of the past still remain. The parish found a set of dilapidated, hundred-year-old Stations of the Cross that once hung in a now-demolished eastern Pennsylvania church and restored them to their original quality. Stained glass windows line the walls depicting scenes from the life of Jesus and were installed in the church in 1912.
Perhaps the anchor point of all this new-meets-old harmony is the rose window that looms over the south end of the church, catching your eye as you sit in a pew. Medieval Gothic churches contain large round windows laced with stone or lead to look like petals on a flower. These were often dedicated to the Virgin Mary in her title the “Mystical Rose,” though the term rose window wasn’t used until much later. Immaculate Conception’s rose window runs with this symbolism, but it does so in a decidedly modern and naturalistic way. The center of the round window is a simple red rose, with a crown of twelve stars in the center, surrounded by a ring of orbs representing the movement of the sun across the sky and the phases of the moon, itself surrounded by a ring of angels.