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Age Is All in Your Beatitude

The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart enters its second century but still manages to hang with the college kids.

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By cathedral standards, Sacred Heart is still a youngster, its footprint relatively new when you realize that the country's oldest cathedral, Baltimore's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, turned 200 last month. Or that the Cathedral of San Fernando in San Antonio broke ground in 1738 (the walls of the original church were incorporated into what became a larger cathedral). Cross the pond and you've got Florence's Duomo (started 1296) or Paris' Notre Dame (1163) or Cologne, Germany's Aachen Cathedral (circa 800). Considering that cathedrals can be measured against the age of the nation that grew up around it, Richmond's own hub of Catholicism has barely had a chance for the lead in its stained glass windows to cool.

But on the day of its consecration, Nov. 29, 1906, James Cardinal Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore, declared on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "It is, in my judgment, without exception, the most ornate and beautiful Christian temple in all the Southern States" — states that were at that time still fresh from their own painful bid for nationhood. Nevertheless, the consecration went off without a hitch, the country stayed together, and the copper dome oxidized to a lovely blue-green over the next hundred years, as the dense trees surrounding Sacred Heart were slowly replaced by row houses and, eventually, the large buildings of the VCU complex. Today, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart is surrounded by the trappings of college life and a menagerie of students, but it's managed to maintain its Italian Renaissance dignity, lending a surreal and ornate beauty to the campus even as kids skateboard at its steps.

And now it's reached the century mark, signified by an anniversary mass Nov. 29 that carried a lot of the grandeur of the consecration, minus the presence of Thomas Fortune Ryan, the titan of industry who cut the checks for the cathedral's birth. But like gregarious humans who celebrate their birthdays for an entire month, the next year will be spent honoring the centurion on Park Avenue with a variety of events.

Cathedral Hall is host to a series of art exhibits rotating monthly, starting with "Awaiting," art reflecting the anticipation of the Advent season. Featured artists include Sidney Caldwell, Brooks Cross, Kay Darling, Martha Harper and others, exhibiting through December.

There are a number of lectures and seminars, like January's "A Cathedral for All Christians," exploring the role of urban churches.

In April the cathedral will be included in the Garden Week tours.

There will also be a steady stream of music events, like the free holiday concert Dec. 11 at 11 a.m. with vocal soloists from the cathedral choir and VCU.

It certainly has been a busy century, and lest you feel like you've missed out, check out "Celebrating 100 Years: A Journey of Faith," the history of the cathedral in word and image by George A. Bruner Jr., Wayne Dementi and Jayne Hushen, which is available at area bookstores and the cathedral office. Might give you a leg up on the next 100 years. S

For more information about centennial events, go to www.richmondcathedral.org.

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