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Cathedral is unifying force in community

Bishop John C. Wester of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City speaks at a service in Huntington in 2007.
Bishop John C. Wester of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City speaks at a service in Huntington in 2007.
Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

As the "mother church" of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, the Cathedral of the Madeleine is not only home to Utah's Catholic parishioners, but serves as a unifying force within a community that has often been divided along religious lines.

That's how Bishop John Wester sees the building where he was installed more than two years ago, noting the bishop's chair is a physical presence within the cathedral and a "great symbol of unity" itself.

Yet he's concerned about how to maintain the building for future generations.

"When I became a bishop, I saw parts of the church I didn't know existed and other parts I didn't like. The bishop's role is to keep people together and affirm them in our faith."

Though they don't always agree with each other, he said, Catholics see their cathedral not only as a place they can come together despite their differences, but as a community gathering place for the arts as well as a quiet respite for the poor, despairing or downtrodden.

Often he speaks with people of various faiths who find a sense of spiritual solace as they come inside.

"Obviously the bricks and mortar are far more than that" to those who visit, but especially to those who experience the most symbolic moments of their lives from birth to marriage to death celebrated within its walls, he said.

"It becomes symbolic of those life and death relationships with God and with each other. That's why when we close a church or it burns down or there is an earthquake, it's just devastating for people. Those who are otherwise very competent and kind and rational become very upset because it means so much to them."

The architectural lines and incense draw people's eyes heavenward, he said, noting that he prays that he and the parishioners "will be that pleasing fragrance to (God) as we raise our hearts in prayer."

The music provided not only by the Cathedral Choir but by the organ and by guest performers bear out St. Augustine's comment that "to sing is to pray twice," he said.

The cathedral has become known throughout the region for its music festival in the spring. This year's events focused on the building's centennial celebration and included the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in its second-ever performance there.

The bishop said he enjoys the cathedral most "in the midst of a celebration when the people of God are there. But for me personally, there is something special about those quiet moments," often in the late afternoon, when the building is quiet, the sunshine makes long shadows through the stained-glass windows and the smell of candles and beeswax hangs in the air.

While geographical distance makes it impossible for the state's Catholic community to come together each Sunday for Mass, he hopes their concern for the building's future will translate into financial help with an endowment to provide for future operations and maintenance.

The recession has hurt since the majority of regular parishioners tend to be "older people who have stayed in the city and tend to be poor," as opposed to those who worship weekly in large, suburban churches.