A Newly Refurbished Interior for St. Mary Cathedral in St. Cloud, MN

Conrad Schmitt Studios' design rendering of the Cathedral interior.

This past Sunday, the parishioners of St. Mary Cathedral in St. Cloud, Minnesota celebrated the completion of an interior renewal project that began nearly five months ago. The work consisted primarily of an entirely new paint scheme, the replacement of a worn floor, and restoration of pews.

The interior of the Cathedral as it appeared prior to refurbishing.

Construction on the Romanesque Revival building was completed in 1931 and later designated as the Cathedral of the Diocese of St. Cloud in 1937. Prior to the refurbishing, the interior of St. Mary’s represented a mix of artistic approaches resulting from previous renovations in 1959 and 1980.

The interior of the Cathedral as it presently appears.

Conrad Schmitt Studios created a new color and design scheme that would better harmonize the architectural details of the original structure with the newer liturgical furnishings that were designed by Frank Kacmarcik, OblSB in 1980. The new granite floor of the nave is especially effective in unifying the space by drawing together the original granite pillars and the newer granite sanctuary furnishings. (St. Cloud is in the middle of the largest granite producing area in Minnesota, in case you were wondering!) A more detailed account of the Cathedral’s refurbishing project is available from the St. Cloud Times.

The interior of the Cathedral as it appeared prior to refurbishing.

While the blogosphere abounds with drastic “before” and “after” photos of church renovations, the St. Mary’s project is worth noting because of its sheer reasonableness. There were no major structural changes, nor any rearrangement of liturgical furnishings. The project tackled by the Cathedral Parish represents a situation that most parishes face: how to address a worship space that is simply looking a bit tired and dated.

The interior of the Cathedral as it presently appears.

What do you think? Did the St. Mary’s project effectively unify visual elements from different eras? What is the best way to address older, previously renovated church buildings that aren’t looking for a wholesale historical restoration? Have you been involved in any similar church renovation projects?

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26 comments

  1. I’m very impressed!

    I grew up in the Diocese of St. Cloud, and as a child/teen, I remember the Cathedral as an amazing place, especially the granite cathedra and the organ. And the funky ceiling. Then literally 12-15 years passed until I revisited the place this past October, and I couldn’t help but think “this place needs a paint job and a makeover–and maybe get rid of some of the clutter hanging out in the back of the church!” Little did I know it was going to happen!

    I’ll miss the funky ceiling, but all in all, especially by using the granite floor, the project appears to have been quite successful! (As long as they cleared out all of the junk in the back of the church!)

  2. I like the old ceiling better than the new one! Was it inspired by Native American designs? The new ceiling seems drab by comparison.

    The introduction of decorative panels on the walls seems like filling up space to me. The colors are tasteful, the effect pleasant, but a little like Martha Stewart.

    Finally, I am glad to hear they paid attention to the floor. Floors are a very important ingredient in the whole.

  3. 1. I think colored patterns can be quite effective on a beamed ceiling such as this, but I don’t think it really worked in the old arrangement. Neither the patterns themselves, nor the color scheme, really seemed to complement anything in the rest of the interior, or at least what can be seen of it. So even if the new ceiling is at risk for looking more drab, I think it’s also more harmonious.

    2. At the risk of agreeing with Rita, the wall panels – while they add detail and balance to what was an austere surface in a tasteful way – seem like a bit of a missed opportunity. I think here of Conception Abbey (Mo.) and its use of Beuronese murals in the same areas in a quite similar nave – genuine sacred art could have enriched the interior theologically. Of course, that would almost certainly have been more expensive and more difficult.

    3. Unfortunately, the most important aspect is the arrangement and decoration of the sanctuary, and none of these photos show this in sufficient detail to judge very much. The website, from what I have seen, is not much help either. I was about to say that the crucifix is a welcome addition, but I see that it is visible in at least one “before” photo, so I am no longer sure whether it was there to begin with. What I can say is that neither version seems to have sufficient sacred art, either behind the altar or on the apse wall…but as I say, it is hard to say much without a much closer look at the sanctuary.

  4. I think that the redecoration is a definite improvement over the original. It seems to me, though, that while a more historically styled polychrome ceiling would have been preferable to the plain one, I disagree with Rita about the original: I would never have thought it was supposed to be representative of aboriginal American art… it looked more like something one might have seen on some 1930’s vintage linoleum. Too, a weakness of the decorative scheme (both old and new) is the lack of colour; so, I agree with the above comments stating that more colourfully defined murals or mosaics would have been better than the rather vapid panels we see over the nave arcade. One of the most unpleasant aspects of quite a lot of contemporary decoration (ecclesiastical and secular) is the fear of, and determined eschewance of colour: its absence in favour of harmless, unimaginative ‘earthtones’ and pastel hues is uninspiring and depressing.

    Does anyone know the builder of what appears to be a fine organ in the apse? (Being an organist, I am glad to see it there… however: one hardly notices the relatively inconspicuous altar: yet another problem that colour might have solved.)

    1. @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #4:
      Greetings,

      I just ran across your comments on the renovation of St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud, MN. If you didn’t already get this information, the builder of the organ is KC Marrin of Cold Spring MN. His newest organ will be dedicated on 13 September 2014 at St. Boniface Church in Cold Spring. He has also built organs at St. Augustine in St. Cloud, St. John’s University, Good Shepherd in Golden Valley MN and others.

  5. A wonderful benefit of Roman Basilica architecture–a beautifully simple design that one can decorate in myriad ways. Paint, frescoes, mosaics, etc.

    Contrast that with my parish’s 1966 modern church with interior walls of orangish-brown brick. A striking mid-century modern design, but with the bold color of the brick and busyness of the mortar lines it’s hard to add anything to the space.

  6. The organ was built by K. C. Marrin of Cold Spring, MN. This was one of his early instruments built in about 1983 or so. The tonal scheme is eclectic but with a definite nod to the French classical. K. C. builds all of his own casework and wooden flue pipes. I’m not certain how much of the roller boards and chests he built in this instrument or if he sourced those. His console scaffolds, pedalboards & metal flue pipes are generally sourced from Laukhuff, and his reeds from Gieseke.

    Great – 10 stops, 21 ranks
    Principal 16′ – in prospect until F6, rest stopped
    Octave 8′
    Bourdon 8′
    Prestant 4′
    Spitzflöte 4′
    Octave 2 |
    Fourniture IV-V 2′ | – Double Draw (5-1/3′ @ f#”)
    Cymbale IV 1 1/3′
    Cornet V – tenor G (mounted)
    Trumpet 8′
    Clarion 4′

    Swell – 9 stops, 14 ranks
    Bourdon 8′
    Gamba 8′ |
    Gamba Celeste 8′ | – Double draw, Gamba first, then both. Both TC
    Octave 4′
    Rohrflöte 4′
    Nasat 2 2/3′
    Schwiegal 2′
    Larigot 1 1/3′ |
    Tertian II | – Double Draw
    Scharf IV 2/3′
    Cromorne 8′

    Pedal – 5 stops, 5 ranks
    Subbass 16′
    Principal 8′
    Octave 4′
    Posaune 16′ (Half-length)
    Trumpet 8′

    24 stops
    40 ranks

    1. @Mark Kieffer – comment #7:
      K.C. has built/is building lots of pipe organs in Minnesota. Right now he’s building one for his home parish at St. Boniface in Cold Spring.

    2. @Mark Kieffer – comment #7:
      Thanks for the stop list. I’m sure that this organ is a delight to play. Has Marrin built any organs outside of Minnesota? Does he know Pietr Visser of Visser-Rowland in Houston? Pietr doesn’t build organs any more, but lectures at Rice and has quite a list of impressive instruments to his credit, including the very fine and large one at UT, Austin, where Gerre Hancock was overseeing a doctoral program in sacred music.

  7. I know that he is working on that project for his parish in Cold Spring. I worked for K. C. as an apprentice during the summer of 1993 when he was refurbishing the organ in Albany, MN and in the winter of 1994 when he was doing the preliminary work on the organ for Good Shepard in Golden Valley, MN. I built the chests and the rollerboards for that organ.
    It had been my later pleasure to play a number of services and 2 30 minute recitals on the Golden Valley organ.

  8. I’m not quite sure of the function of the very tall rectangular wall behind the altar. Is this the world’s largest cathedra backrest? A reredos? A means to block the organist from view?

    I once sang choir in an Episcopal church with a similar sanctuary plan. The priest faces versus populum. The organ faces liturgical east. In this way, the priest and organist are back to back for almost the entire liturgy. However, there is no partition between the altar and organ. Usually, the organist is not visible from the pews because the celebrant completely blocks the organist’s position at the organ. However, at the communion, the priest departs the altar and reveals the organist.

    The church to which I refer is quite old by American standards. Perhaps at one time this sanctuary plan was the norm in Anglicanism. Even so, I see no need for a partition between organist and celebrant in any tradition. In particular, the partition in this cathedral is very distracting.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #11:
      Having the choir in an architecturally defined space east of the altar and sanctuary is historically not an Anglican arrangement. On the other hand, I have seen many large old Catholic churches and cathedrals which have just such an arrangement. It is quite common, and in addition to St Mary’s Cathedral featured here, it is more famously found at Westminster Cathedral in London. I think that such arrangements are a XIX. or early XX. century innovation. I firmly believe that churches should have architectual ‘choirs’ and that choirs (mixed or not!) should sit ‘in choir’ and wear choir habit.

      The Episcopal Church is showing signs of adapting this sad arrangement. There are in Houston two very wealthy Episcopal Churches whose impressive altars are just atop the chancel steps, while BEHIND the altar is a very impressive rood screen, behind which is NOT the sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, which, historically should be there, but the choir and the organ! It’s all misplaced and seems to be a fad in church architecture which was ‘inspired’ by amateurs totally ignorant of historic church architectural form and function.

    2. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #11:

      I’m not quite sure of the function of the very tall rectangular wall behind the altar. Is this the world’s largest cathedra backrest? A reredos? A means to block the organist from view?

      If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it looks like a brutalist take on a reredos.

      But I can’t see it in any detail, so it’s hard to say.

  9. It is one of the world’s largest cathedra backrests. The consultant/designer of the 1980 renovation Frank Kacmarcik was somewhat infamous for these massive walls behind presider’s chairs in general.

  10. I wonder how the “backrest” effects the way the organ speaks.

    Seems like it could be troublesome.

  11. The “backrest” or cathedra has absolutely no ill effect on the organ or choir. The apse itself was designed to focus the sound into the nave of the cathedral, without artificial aid. The church has a fabulous 5 second reverberation, and both pipe organs are marvelous sounding instruments in that space. In the 1958 renovation Frank K. thankfully removed the acoustical tile from the nave ceiling when he installed the painted tin ceiling with what was then affectionately called the “Indian Blanket”.
    (Pre PC) period.

  12. The only effect that the cathedra has on the organ is that it does reflect some of the sound of the swell back towards the console leading the organist to believe that the swell is louder than it actually is out in the room. The only issue I experienced the few times that I played this organ was when you wanted to play a Cromorne solo on the swell accompanied by the Great flutes. The balance is just fine in the room but it’s hard to hear the flutes at the console.

  13. I wonder if the ‘new’ wall panels are in fact pre-existing elements that have been newly picked out in coloured paint. It’s hard to tell from the photos but that appears to be what has happened with the sanctuary arch.

  14. The design detail in the sanctuary arch is original, the painting detailing is new.
    The clerestory panels in the nave, as well as the design work over the nave arches were until now undecorated. The gold-leaf in the apse dome was painted over with gold colored paint–an unfortunate mistake. The dome has lost all its reflective value! The suspended crucifix in the sanctuary was designed by Fr. Jim Notebaart and installed about seven years ago. The nave floor is the most important feature of the project, as it ties the sanctuary and nave together. The floor is splendid.

  15. I heard that an idea that was put out, but didn’t get enough support was to move the cathedra to its original position on the left side of the sanctuary, and opposite would be where the chairs for priests would be like it was originally. Then the tabernacle would be put in the center using the “backrest” of the cathedra, making it actually a reredos. Unfortunately, (in my opinion), it did not happen. I personally like the new look of the Cathedral as I felt it was too sterile feeling inside. Now the colors really make it feel more prayerful. The organ is a beautiful instrument that, even for the size it is, it gives a powerful and majestic sound. The floor is beautiful too. The old floor was actually dangerous if you did not pay attention. I like the ceiling way better now too.

  16. From the pictures it looks like Cathedral of Mary turned out well, however it is a start. The granite does not work in that church very well, from my experience there. Cathedral was very dark with the old ceiling and not very inviting. However a restoration of the sanctuary and bringing the tabernacle back to the center and the cathedra on the left side of the sanctuary would be totally appropriate. A prime example would be the restored Cathedral of Mary in Fargo. The work was done under the pastorates of Frs. Peter Hughes and Chad Wilhelm and that church turned out to be beautiful. The before and after pictures of that church are very drastic.

  17. Although the ceiling looks a little plain like Rita and Kelly mentioned above, I think it looks fresh and much cleaner compared to the old one. It’s hard to say if I’d like an alternate design with more color until I saw it, but I’m happy with the way it looks.

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