“Unless the Lord build the house, in vain do the builders labor.” – Psalm 127:1
The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is a magnificent structure, a grand monument to the faith of thousands – past and present – and a wonderful house of prayer for all peoples. But the road to today was a long one; negotiated only through the arduous sacrifice of generations of the Faithful.
On May 3, 1821, Bishop John England, the first Bishop of Charleston, purchased property on the northeast corner of Broad and Friend (now Legare) as a site for the cathedral. A “dwelling house” was on the lot, and on December 30, 1821, Bishop England blessed it as a temporary chapel for the congregation, and it was named in honor of St. Finbar, the patron saint of Cork, Ireland.
The cornerstone was laid for the first cathedral at the present site on July 30, 1850. Called the Cathedral of St. John & St. Finbar, it was consecrated on April 6, 1854. This antebellum cathedral was able to seat 1,200 people and cost $103,000 to build.
On December 11, 1861, a fire broke out in a factory on Hasell Street, destroying much of Charleston including the cathedral. Everything was lost. Fund-raising for a new cathedral continued for the next 45 years, and finally the cornerstone for the present Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was laid in January of 1890. The Gothic architecture calls for a spire, but due to lack of funds, it was never built. The lower church includes a crypt where Bishop England (with his sister, Joanna) and four other Charleston bishops are buried.
The present church was built on the foundation of the 1854 cathedral. The structure is of Connecticut tool-chiseled brownstone. Over each entrance are unique stained glass windows including the Papal coat of arms and the seal of the state of South Carolina. The pews are of carved Flemish oak, and the three original altars are of white Vermont marble.
In the nave are 14 large two-light windows, representing the Life of Christ from His Nativity to the Ascension. Above the high altar is a five-light window copied from Leonardo DaVinci’s “Last Supper.” The rose window above it is the Baptism of Jesus by St. John the Baptist. In the clerestory of the sanctuary are windows honoring the four evangelists.
In preparation for the 50th anniversary of the cathedral in 1957, extensive repairs were made to the building. In the winter of 1966-67. For the 75th anniversary of the cathedral in 1982, renovations were initiated by Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler. In 1991, Bishop David B. Thompson commissioned the present permanent altar of celebration. A new bishop’s chair was situated to the left of the altar, and all of the furnishings in the altar area were commissioned during this renovation. The side walls were newly plastered and the entire church was painted in 1995. The color scheme and the gold-leafing highlight the Gothic architecture. A 31-rank French Romantic pipe organ, Bedient Opus22, was purchased from the Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral in Louisville, Ky.
Early in the new millennium, a committee was formed to guide an appeal for funds to restore the stained glass and the exterior stone work. Eventually, the project included the addition of the steeple and three bells, to proclaim the presence of God in the community. The Cathedral appeal was called ‘Forward with Faith’.
At the same time, Most Reverend Robert Baker, initiated a diocesan wide appeal named ‘Our Heritage, Our Hope’, which among other things, pledged half the cost of the additions and renovations. Now, the fruits of the generosity of the Catholics of South Carolina, the Cathedral parishioners, and visitors to the Cathedral are witnessed in the magnificent new spire, 103 years later than planned, no doubt, but a superb addition to the Catholic heritage of the state, and Charleston herself.
Thus continues the history of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, the “mother church” of the Catholic Diocese of Charleston.