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Hartford Pew Review: Cathedral of Saint Joseph

By Kerri Provost

June 28, 2011

I can see its steeple from my bedroom; because the cross (25?) is something like 280? off the ground, and on a hill, I’m sure many readers of this blog also have a similar view; those who don’t have no doubt noticed it anyway while traveling on Farmington Avenue. The building is imposing.

On this Sunday, I crossed the mighty Aetna viaduct to visit the Cathedral of Saint Joseph. I mention this because both structures were built in the same era and show themselves to be exquisite examples of “Cold War construction”: bleak, with an abundance of concrete.

It was not always this way. The current church opened in 1962, replacing another that had burned down in 1956. What we have today is an uninviting structure, and that’s a shame, because the artwork inside is rather opposite. The enormous stained glass windows create rainbows, which to someone unfamiliar with Church politics, might seem like a celebration of New York’s entry into modern times. The stained glass windows are Parisian in origin, but the organ came from Hartford’s Austin Organs.

The music filled the space. The organ music before mass was absolutely jarring; it did not feel spiritual nor relaxing; thankfully, the actual mass music was calmer.

I was greeted in a polite, but not particularly friendly manner, by the man handing out bulletins. He was the first and the only person to smile at me during the entire 105 minutes I was inside the building. The “passing of peace” was hands-off, with people flashing peace signs. No smiles. The day’s mass was titled “The Solemnity of Corpus Christi,” and parishioners had mastered solemnity. There were no announcements for coffee, nothing in the bulletin, and nothing on the website. As soon as the service was over, people went directly to their cars (or the bus stop). I milled about the entrance-way for a few moments and nobody came over to mention coffee, nor to ask if I was new.

I was expecting that, but for other reasons. Before arriving, I learned from the website that the Cathedral of Saint Joseph seats 1750 people. That’s impressive. I expected the anonymity that comes with large crowds. Instead, nobody paid attention, even though there were, at most, 60 parishioners that morning.

As I selected a pew, I was struck by how massive the structure felt. There is a ceramic tile mural behind the altar which — at 80 ft.tall and 40 ft. wide — dwarfs anyone and anything in front of it. Enormous stars hang from the ceiling. Images are even on the limestone columns. The pews themselves were the only objects not decorated, but a few missals were left on each.

As it turns out, I would have about ten empty pews in front of me, and I was not seated in the very last row.

Waiting for the mass to begin, I noticed that nobody was really chatting. Even the children were sitting still. Because of this, it was not apparent exactly when everything began because no telling hush fell over the church.

As a whole, the mass felt disorganized. None of the speakers introduced themselves; the pastoral staff were all named in the bulletin, but this was a general list, not specific to Sunday’s mass. When a church has multiple leaders, the norm seems to be to either introduce the one for that day or specify (usually) him in the song sheet. I did some internet sleuthing and sought help from somebody who has spent substantial time in Catholic churches– with all that, I could only narrow it down to two possibilities for who led Sunday’s mass. Additionally, there were awkward pauses which were not moments of prayer, or, rather, I do not believe they were intended as such.


Longest. Sermon. Ever.

The leader-whose-name-I-do-not-know had a style that was neither linear nor circular. The content was interesting, but the organization was random, at best.

Let me back up. The scripture readings were clear: people given manna, Jesus saying people will live forever if they eat his flesh and drink his blood, and those who do this are one with God. Got all that? I thought I did. But the sermon? Connections between that and the scripture were nebulous.

The leader-whose-name-I-do-not-know began by naming the top three female philosophers of the first half of the twentieth century, and noted that all three were Jewish, though two of them later converted to Catholicism. He never said why he found them to be such “luminous thinkers” as he put it, but described parts of their lives in so much detail that I thought his point was something about females and philosophy. In this talk, he threw in mention of Husserl and phenomenology, which he followed by stating that Catholics do not believe in phenomenology because they are “realists”. When most sermons would be wrapping up, he then focused on Simone Weil.

He spoke about the holocaust and how Weil apparently wanted to become a martyr by dying alongside her fellow Jews. She attended a Catholic church, yet never converted. The details of this are fuzzy to me because the leader kept interrupting his own story with tangents about other people, like Husserl and the Pope. In the end, Weil refused to eat more than those in concentration camps were allowed to eat and died in a hospital. He failed to mention that she was considered an anarchist and sent to a sanatorium. Briefly, during all of this, he read from Weil’s essay “The Love of God and Affliction.” By this point, the tangent had gone on for so long that it was hard to connect this to the scripture.

What’s more, the talk also veered into discussion of executions in Tunisia and included a small rant about the “secular media.” Later, after a beautiful song that I thought signaled the end of mass, the leader began talking again, making another remark about the “secular media” and how Hollywood is “not the real Los Angeles.” His example of a mother holding an infant in church was the picture of true Los Angeles, which had absolutely nothing that I could think of to do with the day’s message.


Strong points: The stained glass windows create a gorgeous effect inside and the sheer enormity of the structure is impressive. The woman singing (I’d use her name if she was given props verbally or in bulletin) hit every note. This was the most racially diverse group of parishioners I’d seen: Asian, Hispanic, black, white…you name it. Every age range was covered too. It’s centrally located and home to the Archdiocese of Hartford. I was not offended during the mass. The leader dude was interesting to listen to, but…

Weak points:

…if you’re interested in a succinct and clear message, it’s not going to be found here, or at least not from this leader. No coffee. No warmth, no sense of community among congregation. Not visitor-friendly. There’s an ad for Birthright volunteer opportunities in the bulletin and other literature included photos from a March for Life that they participated in.

The Cathedral of Saint Joseph is located at 140 Farmington Avenue, in Asylum Hill. They have ample parking and are on a bus line that features regular service. There was no bike rack near the entrance or front of building; after 105 minutes I was drained of curiosity and did not snoop around the back to locate a bike rack.

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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