by Marvin Forssander-Baird
Familiar landmarks can sometimes be perhaps a bit too familiar. In our daily travels, we tend to become so absorbed in where we are going and what we are doing that we tend to overlook the multitude of rich pieces of history that surround us. It really is a shame how we often miss out on so many of the fine details that are not only beautiful, but if scrutinized, tell the story of our city in layers of vivid details. Every building has a past and a story to tell. This is a fact that I preach again and again to my friends and family. Some of the stories told by our city’s architecture go much, much deeper than we may realize. The foundations of those buildings consist of much more than the bricks and stones that faithfully support them from below. One such example is the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception. In fact, St. Mary’s may be one of the very best examples of a long story that predates the actual building that exists today.
The Cathedral of St. Mary has its roots in teachings brought to the New World by Jesuit missionaries. Those missionaries explored the American wilderness and spread teachings of their beliefs amongst the native peoples. In the process, they laid the beginnings of the foundation of today’s society. Peoria was one of the many stops along the way in the famous voyage of Joliet and Marquette; two of those very important missionaries. In August 1673, Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest, performed the first baptism to be held near present day Peoria. Apparently, that baptism must have taken a solid root. Just a little over two centuries later, in 1875, the Catholic Diocese of Peoria was established. The new diocese flourished and the number of parishes quickly grew from 40 to 200. Due to that explosive growth, it was decided to build a cathedral that would serve the diocese as well as be a source of civic and religious pride. Casper Mehler was com-missioned to design the building and it was decided that it should reflect the style of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Saint Mary’s was built in the grand Gothic style that prevailed in late Victorian times and stands imposingly at 230 feet tall, 170 feet long and 80 feet wide. It is our great fortune today that St. Mary’s was built in a style and a place that would still command all eyes to turn towards it over a century later.
The particular parcel of land was chosen by Bishop Spalding because it was believed that the first high mass in Peoria was read in that particular area by Pere Marquette on November 21,1698. There couldn’t be a better place. Ground was broken for the cathedral on April 22, 1855 and the first stone was laid on May 15 of that same year. On June 28, 1885 the cornerstone was laid. Inside the cornerstone were placed several area newspapers (including one in German) as well as a list of the parishioners and several coins from 1885. The laying of St. Mary’s cornerstone was an incredible event often forgotten by Peorians. It was an event celebrated by people of all faiths who came from all over the state of Illinois to be part of something that they knew would be big; something that would have a lasting impact. Parades marched, bands played, masses were celebrated and speeches were made. It was a time of celebration. The pride was felt and expressed by Peorians of all faiths. It was a great day and the future was bright.
Whenever you pass by St. Mary’s Cathedral, pause, take a few seconds and celebrate the fact that this incredible landmark has survived through time. Think about the history this parcel of land has seen. Regardless of your faith, think of the three centuries of heritage that has taken root in Peoria.
In fact, where ever you go in Peoria, take note of the wonderful old churches that still stand all over the older parts of town. Churches such as St. Ann’s, St. Joseph’s, St. Andrew’s, Trinity Lutheran, Hale Memorial Chapel and too many other to mention are still stand in varying conditions as testament to those beliefs that have guided Peorians through the centuries.