by Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Not long after the Land Run of April 22, 1889, atop a spot known as “Blue Hill” to the founders of this city, a group of 16 families gathered to make plans for a Catholic parish in Oklahoma City. In memorable references from early residents, the name “Blue Hill” came from the lovely wild flowers that carpeted the area.
According to a summary incorporated into a state House proclamation, St. Joseph’s parishioners initially celebrated Sunday liturgies at McGinley’s General Store.
On July 1 of that first year that year, the people began work on a 24×40 foot wooden structure. By August 4, a 650-pound church bell called the faithful to Sunday worship.
On May 1 of this year, the parish community at St. Joseph Old Cathedral in downtown Oklahoma City celebrated a full 125 years of vibrant Christian living and community service at N.W. 4 and Harvey Avenue.
That original 1889 parish was not small for long. On October 19, excavation began for a 137×64 foot building. Bishop Theophile Meerschaert dedicated that holy facility on Dec. 18, 1904, naming it the first Cathedral for the state of Oklahoma. Lumber and pews from the simple original wooden structure were used in the brick structure.
In 1905, Pope Piux X raised the “Vicariate” of Oklahoma Territory to diocesan status, and St. Joseph’s became the original Cathedral for the Sooner State.
Over the years, many notable events took place at or near the site, including the horror of the April 19, 1995 bombing of the A.P. Murrah Federal Building across the street. The explosion did not destroy the sacred space, but shattered its stained-glass windows, and damaged the beautiful statues of Joseph, his wife Mary, the mother of Jesus, and other edifices inside the building.
Additionally, the nearby rectory where then-Pastor Louis Lamb lived was heavily damaged. In the years that followed, members of the inner-city congregation were comforted because the Tabernacle candle (a sign of the Real Presence of Jesus, in Catholic belief) remained lit during the “megaton explosion” that rocked the building. Additionally, the crucifix with its “life-size corpus remained unscratched by the flying glass and debris” of that fateful day.
After more than a year of work, on Dec. 1, 1996 – in the words of a narrative from Gov. Mary Fallin – “a joyful rededication Mass was celebrated in the newly restored cathedral. The happy re-opening of St. Joseph culminated in May 1997 with the solemn dedication of the ‘And Jesus Wept,’ statue.”
After the anniversary Mass this month, parishioner Michael McNutt read the proclamation from Fallin to the grateful gathering in the Church. McNutt, Fallin’s press secretary, read her words: “St. Joseph Old Cathedral has grown into a vibrant and thriving part of Oklahoma’s capital city. Its cosmopolitan and culturally diverse membership enlivens this growing downtown parish. Each year, hundreds of visitors from all over the nation and the globe attend Masses here; some simply stop in to admire its great beauty and to appreciate it for what it certainly is, an enduring testament to God’s ever-present love.”
As part of the observance, Oklahoma’s chief executive designated May 1 “St. Joseph Old Cathedral Parish Anniversary Day” in the Sooner State.
In addition to Fallin’s gubernatorial proclamation, state Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, and state Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, prepared citations from their respective chambers of the Legislature.
Rep. Morrissette’s House citation praised St. Joseph’s “as a truly vibrant and thriving part of Oklahoma’s capitol city, as its cosmopolitan and culturally diverse membership enlivens a growing downtown parish where each year hundreds of visitors from all over the nation and the globe attend Mass or stop to admire its great beauty and to appreciate it for what it certainly is, an enduring testament to God’s ever-present love.”
Senator Floyd’s Senate proclamation declared the urban parish “recognizes the need for spiritual guidance and influence in the community, and has continued its ministry with worship and fellowship, striving to meet the spiritual needs of the people in the community, the State of Oklahoma, and the Kingdom of God.”
Bishops from throughout the southwest sent notes of congratulations to the parish and its leadership.
A total of 17 ordained clerics – bishops, priests and deacons – celebrated the St. Joseph Old Cathdral anniversary Mass, with Archbishop Paul Coakley presiding.
Among others present were Rev. John Michalicka (a retired priest), Rev. Louis Lamb (emeritus pastor, third from left), Archbishop Emeritus Eusebius Beltran, Rev. Price Oswalt (now pastor at St. Joseph), and St. Gregory’s Abbot Rt. Rev. Lawrence Stasyszen, O.S.B.. Also participating were Revs. William Novak and Michael Chapman, priests residing at city-area parishes.
The gala reception that followed the Mass included diverse ethic foods prepared by a variety of local chefs and and staffs. The basement area that so long ago served as the home of the nascent parish was alive with joyful noice long into the evening with music, sounds of praise and expressions of friendship for the church, staff, congregation and the people who reside near it in the heart of Oklahoma City.