PROVIDENCE — Since 1972, the same wooden cathedra has served as the seat of each bishop’s teaching authority in the Diocese of Providence.
But this Sunday, June 19, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, that 50-year tradition will change when Bishop Thomas J. Tobin blesses a newly installed marble cathedra at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul that will henceforth serve as the symbol of a bishop’s role as shepherd of all Catholics in the diocese.
“We’ve talked about it for a good while, but it’s only recently that it came together,” Bishop Tobin said, as the new cathedra, crafted in the northern Tuscany region of Italy, was installed on June 9.
With all the other renovation work that has been taking place around the cathedral over the last couple of years — chiefly, the extensive work done on its roof and towers — changing the cathedra was not foremost on the priority list.
“As we were getting close to the anniversary, we thought it would be a good time to do it,” the bishop said. “We weren’t sure it would be done before the anniversary, because of all the issues about finding the right marble, supply chains and transport, but we’re very, very pleased that it will be done now.”
The Solemn closing Mass for the diocese’s 150th anniversary will be celebrated on June 26.
It took several hours for four workmen from Gothic Marble & Granite, of Southington, Connecticut, to unload and set up in the cathedral the 1,800 pounds of marble pieces that constitute the new cathedra. When Bishop Tobin later saw the finished product, he proudly posted a photo of it to Twitter.
“A spectacular new cathedra for our cathedral, just in time for our 150th anniversary,” he wrote, while lightheartedly noting that his coat of arms, near the top of the 7-foot-tall chair, is easily removable.
According to Brian T. Baker, president of Baker Liturgical Art, LLC, the Plantsville, Connecticut-based company that designed and oversaw the crafting of the cathedra, four principal types of marble have been used in the creation of the cathedra: white Carrara marble from the Carrara region of Italy; red Francino marble, also from the Carrara region; Yellow Siena marble, from the central Tuscany region; and green Guatemala marble, from Central America.
Both the carved and plain white capitals used as design elements which adorn the columns connected to the armrests are made of Botticino marble, quarried in the Brescia province in Italy.
In addition, the circular and colorful bishop’s crest, which is held in place primarily by magnets and is interchangeable for each new bishop who will lead the diocese in the years to come, is composed of more than 4,000 miniature pieces of various types of marble, most notably a lustrous and very high-end bright white marble known as White P.
“That’s one of a kind,” Baker said of the cathedra as it was being installed. “We have made other chairs, but they’re a bit more plain. This one is very ornate.”
Baker’s company, which was handed down to him by his father and works on boutique projects for religious entities, has been working with the diocese on the cathedra project for about a year.
Father Jeremy Rodrigues, director of the diocesan Office of Divine Worship, said the time was right to initiate the project, which had been discussed for some time.
“We were about to celebrate the anniversary of the establishment of the diocese, which of course revolves around an appointment of a bishop,” he said. “The symbol of the bishop’s ministry is the cathedra and this is traditionally the case throughout history.”
Father Rodrigues said that the cathedral’s original cathedra was more ornate in the sense of the ornamentation around it, and the one that had been in place since 1972 was a bit understated.
“We thought it would be a good opportunity to update the cathedra, make it more dignified, in a sense,” he said.
“The other cathedra that was there was rather simple, and I think it was understated. It’s not like the altar or the ambo. The cathedra has its own special meaning in the cathedral — that’s where the name cathedral comes from. So we wanted it to have a sense of importance. This one is going to speak for itself, it’s going to have its own dignity.”
Monsignor Anthony Mancini, rector of the cathedral, was pleased that the new cathedra very closely matches the ornate marble reredos that stands behind it.
“It’s beautiful, it fits well. It’s marble, so it looks very close,” he said.
Monsignor Raymond Bastia, diocesan vicar of finance, said he understood why, 50 years ago, a wooden cathedra was chosen to match the woodwork of the sanctuary.
“It was a concept, a design that was obviously acceptable, but it wasn’t really anything that was noble,” he said. “What was there was a bit understated.”
So discussions ensued in earnest last year on how to make such a symbol of a bishop’s teaching authority more distinctive within the cathedral.
Baker Liturgical Art drafted designs for diocesan officials to review, and when one was selected, Brian T. Baker, the company president, traveled twice to Italy over the months to ensure the cathedra was being crafted to the highest standards.
The white Carrara marble was laser cut and the different colored marble inlays were bonded to it, making it a unique creation.
Before the cathedra embarked on its long transport by ship to New York City, Baker had Marro Studio in Carrara, Italy, a manufacturing studio that works on high-end projects, assemble it so that he could see that it would fit together perfectly. Passing his inspection, the cathedra was disassembled and shipped to Gothic Studios, so they could deliver it to Providence and set it up in the cathedral.
While the cathedra was being constructed, Monsignor Bastia and diocesan CFO Mike Sabatino approached several contractors who’ve done significant work recently for the diocese — both on the cathedral and also on the new mausoleum construction project in St. Anne Cemetery — and asked for their assistance in paying for the new cathedra, which costs about $150,000.
“We appealed to them explaining the significance and importance of this project and they did respond. The various contributors were very generous in terms of supplying enough money to fund the chair,” Monsignor Bastia said, noting that the new cathedra was fully paid for through these donations.
To complement the new cathedra, a second phase of the project will add a pair of side chairs, made of wood, that will be designed with a backrest similar in shape to the cathedra, although much shorter.
Bishop Tobin will bless the new cathedra in a special rite at the beginning of the 10 a.m. Mass on Sunday. All are encouraged to attend.
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