Sacred Heart Cathedral (1896)

Sacred Heart Cathedral photographed in 1920 by Hugh McKenzie. [Image: UMD Martin Library]

201 West 4th Street | Architect: Gerhard Tenbusch | Built 1896 | Extant

Prior to 1870, Duluth’s few Catholics attended masses at various locations led by Slovenian missionary priest John Chebul, who spoke more than eight languages, including Ojibwe. When Duluth became a city, Chebul began fundraising for a church to be built on donated land at the northwest corner of Second Avenue West and Fourth Street. The church opened in February 1871, the same year Father George Keller of Lacrosse, Wisconsin, became the city’s first permanent Catholic pastor. Chebul went on to open other Catholic churches in the region.

Painted white, the first Sacred Heart Church was a modest wooden building with Gothic windows and a small squat steeple, which held no bell until 1877. It’s parishioners were primarily German and Irish, then the dominant cultures of the American Catholic Church. When the Diocese of Duluth was created and James McGolrick installed as its bishop in 1889, Sacred Heart became the city’s pro-cathedral. Three years later a fire caused by a kerosene lamp destroyed the building. Masses were held at nearby Catholic Association Hall until a cathedral was constructed to replace it.

Formed four days after the fire, Sacred Heart’s building committee selected local architect Gerhard Tenbusch to design a Gothic Revival monument to stand on the same site as the 1871 church. Faced in red-orange brick and trimmed with brownstone, the building features a large central tower flanked by two smaller towers along the,Fourth Street central façade, each capped with an octagonal spire which in turn is topped with a cross. Other Gothic elements include tower buttresses and lancet windows divided by stone tracery, most holding stained-glass images of the apostles or depictions of key moments of Christ’s life, from the Immaculate Conception to the Transfiguration.

Inside, rib vaulting supported by ten columns holds the roof over the sanctuary. The ceiling was originally decorated with colorful frescoes that were covered over in the 1940s during a restoration featuring a brilliant blue-paint-and-gold-leaf motif that was itself whitewashed some years later. In 1898, workers installed a new pipe organ in the choir loft. Designed by August B. Feldermaker of Erie, Pennsylvania, the organ includes 1,493 pipes and was one of the last the master craftsman worked on prior to his 1905 death. Originally powered by a hand pump, it now runs on electricity.

Sacred Heart served as the seat of the archdiocese until 1957, replaced by the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary at Wallace Avenue and East Fourth Street. Masses continued to be celebrated at Sacred Heart until 1985, when its congregation merged with that of St. Mary Star of the Sea. The building then reopened as the John Chebul Memorial Center. In 1994, the former cathedral became home to the Sacred Heart Music Center, which presents a wide variety of concerts—some featuring the building’s historic organ—and houses a recording studio that takes advantage of the sanctuary’s remarkable acoustics.

Sacred Heart Cathedral. (Image: Zenith City Press)