Cathedral School

Cathedral School photographed in 1985, the year it was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. [Image: Minnesota Historical Society]

206 West 4th Street | I. Vernon Hill & William Bray, Architects | Built: 1904 | Extant

By 1903, the additions architects Wirth & Traphagen had planned for the 1886 St. Thomas Aquinas School weren’t enough to fit all the Catholic school children whose families attended Sacred Heart Cathedral. Bishop James McGolrick turned to popular Duluth architects I. Vernon Hill and William Bray to create a new school that would stand on the same lot as the 1886 facility.

While early reports called the new Sacred Heart School’s style “Spanish,” architectural historian Carmen Tschofen describes it as “a Craftsman variant on the Gothic mode.” The building stands three stories tall but just two and a half stories show along its central façade on Fourth Street. Its corners, Tschofen reports, are “anchored by coped-gable pavilions” and the centralized entrance “consists of an ornately embellished portal…with a double Gothic arch surmounted by a statuary niche.” That brownstone portal also features the work of stone carver George Thrana, and the niche contains a painted statue of Christ with his arms stretched out in a blessing. Brackets supporting rafter tails below the low hip roof contribute to the building’s Craftsman elements. The facility originally contained ten classrooms, a spacious meeting hall, and a 1,200-seat auditorium outfitted with a stage. By the time the facility opened in 1904, nine other Catholic parishes were operating Benedictine schools in Duluth. Sacred Heart, known like its predecessor as Cathedral School, added high school classes for girls in 1910. Beginning in 1942 it doubled as an elementary and junior high school.

The school underwent an extensive renovation in 1955, where just about every mechanical element was replaced—except for the electric wiring above the auditorium. A year later fire broke out in the ceiling over the auditorium’s stage at 2:30 in the afternoon—while about 450 children were inside watching a movie. Every available firefighter in Duluth was called to the scene, and twenty illegally parked cars had to be towed away to get to the fire. Fortunately, no one was injured, but the building suffered extensive damage.

Duluth’s diocese closed Cathedral School in 1970. Over the next twelve years it served as as a school for the handicapped, a community center, a career development center, and as the Lake Superior Life Care Center. In 1982 a group called the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima opened a soup kitchen in the building. Two years later the diocese sold the building to the group for one dollar on the condition, stipulated by Bishop Paul Anderson, that they rename the building after San Damiano Church, home parish of St. Francis of Assisi. The Damiano Center continues to serve financially struggling Duluthians today.

Cathedral School / Sacred Heart Junior High. (Image: Zenith City Press)