Beauty in the Divine
Art, history and design inside the Catholic Diocese of Peoria
As westbound travelers along I-74 approach the Illinois River and cast their glances to the Peoria skyline, the waterfront reflects a formidable view. Crossing the Murray Baker Bridge, the defining structures of downtown—from the planetarium dome of the Peoria Riverfront Museum to the bright-red paddlewheel of the Spirit of Peoria steamboat—adorn the river’s edge. To the north, the twin spires of St. Mary’s Cathedral stretch upwards, historic beacons of faith and community.
This is the mother church of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, lovingly preserved for more than 130 years, amidst periodic restoration efforts. Along with the Spalding Pastoral Center, which houses the Diocesan and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen museums, the cathedral is a tribute to the rich heritage of Peoria’s Catholic community—and a testament to the beauty that unites its diverse population.
An Iconic History
Located just a block from St. Mary’s and named for the Peoria diocese’s founding bishop, the Spalding Pastoral Center was intended to be a central gathering point for the region’s Catholic ministry. During its construction from 2006 to 2008, Bishop Daniel Jenky decided to incorporate a space within the center highlighting the diocese’s past.
“Bishop Jenky has a great love of history,” explains Monsignor Stanley Deptula, rector of St. Mary’s Cathedral and executive director of the Archbishop Fulton Sheen Foundation. “He wanted to make sure there was a diocesan museum right on the main floor, near one of our front doors.”
The space offered a pair of distinct exhibition areas—perfect for what Msgr. Deptula and his team of Sisters had in mind. The smaller of the two is home to the Diocesan Museum and its exhibition of artifacts, rotated on a yearly basis. The larger space is dedicated to Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who was ordained in Peoria and became a global icon of the Catholic faith from the 1920s until his death in 1979.
Maintained by the Sheen Foundation, which spearheads the cause for his canonization, the Archbishop Fulton Sheen Museum is home to numerous collections of artifacts from the Archbishop’s life, including items he used in his ministry, gifts from his followers, and copies of documents sent to the Vatican as testaments toward sainthood. The museum, Msgr. Deptula says, is more than a chance to showcase the Archbishop’s good works; it’s a way to bring peace to those who knew and loved him.
“A lot of people—when they heard what we were doing—were very happy that we were going to take good care of these historic artifacts,” he remarks. “They really appreciated that there was a place they could entrust their beloved mementos of this man who was their friend, this man who was their family member. And we take that trust very seriously.”
Art Within Relics
Among the artifacts that can be found in both museums, as well as the cathedral, are relics—objects associated with saints and other past leaders of the church. This concept dates back to the Old Testament, Msgr. Deptula says. Just as family heirlooms provide a sense of connection to deceased loved ones, the relics of holy people offer a tangible feeling of intimacy with Jesus Christ. “And by that physical association with the hero of our faith, we believe that it helps us to be closer to God.”
According to Catholic tradition, there are three classes of relics. First-class relics include the physical remains of a saint or martyr, like a piece of bone or lock of hair. A second-class relic is an item that holy person wore, owned or used, such as vestments or rosaries. Third-class relics include objects, often a piece of cloth, touched to a holy person, to their first-class relic or to their shrine.
At the Fulton Sheen Museum, most items on display are second- or third-class relics. From his first communion book—complete with handwritten notes—to the crucifix he wore as a pectoral cross around his neck, each aspect of the museum comes together to form a creative expression of the Archbishop’s life and legacy. The dedication of a space to honor him, Msgr. Deptula says, provides an enlightening and artistic experience that is more than just an exhibition.
“In essence, ‘museum’ might be a secular, worldly word we would use,” he explains. “But we also might see this museum, from a faith perspective, as something like a shrine… A historian might walk in and see the history in the museum, [while] someone of faith might come in and be awed to be able to see Fulton Sheen’s prayer book, to pray in front of the crucifix where he prayed, to be able to see the vessel he used at Holy Mass.”
Ministry Through Beauty
The Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception was dedicated in 1889, a dozen years after John Lancaster Spalding was consecrated as the first bishop of Peoria. Over time, nearly every bishop has had a hand in maintaining and updating the cathedral—in addition to leaving his unique mark in the design and art within its walls.
At times the cathedral underwent significant changes, such as Bishop Schlarman’s decade-long renovation in the 1930s. When Bishop Jenky became Peoria’s eighth bishop in 2002, he determined that another restoration was in order. This was completed last year, paying homage not only to the history of the Catholic faith, but to the cathedral’s original design. “The first step was to be true to the history and architecture of the building,” notes Msgr. Deptula of the initial restoration planning. “I think it is an accurate historical reproduction that is sensitive to the history and architecture of what this building was.”
The most recent effort involved mimicking the 19th-century, Neo-Gothic Revival style of architecture that was fashionable when the first stone was laid. Working with Daprato Rigali Studios, a Chicago firm known for its restoration of historic churches, the cathedral underwent a four-year renovation process: from fixing leaks and reinforcing the windows, to refurbishing the original stone of the walls and altars. The components of the cathedral that remain from the time of Bishop Spalding include its twin steeples, marble communion rails and towering front doors that face Madison Avenue.
Adjacent to the sanctuary, the St. Thomas More Chapel contains a large display of relics from nearly every Catholic saint, well-preserved behind ornamental cases. At the head of the room is The Crucifixion, an original 1873 painting by Spanish artist Yzquierda, purchased by Bishop Spalding for display at the old St. Mary’s Cathedral. An exact replica of the nearly life-size image hangs at the high altar in the main sanctuary.
The restoration journey also involved a variety of new artistic touches. The ceiling of the narthex, or front entry area, was designed to reflect the starry sky on the night the Peoria diocese was established in 1875—including the trail of a comet that passed through that early morning. The ceiling of the nave, the main chapel, was reimagined as a dark-blue evening sky, complete with stars and planets with particular detailing: viewed up close, one can see every continent in its depiction of Earth. Gold trim molding crisscrosses the sky, framing intricate paintings of three priesthood medallions: Archbishop Sheen’s Book of the Gospels, Bishop Schlarman’s chalice and Bishop Jenky’s miter, the traditional, ceremonial headdress of bishops.
The attention to the tiniest of details—ensuring each alteration and addition is meaningful and symbolic—was well worth the time and patience, says Msgr. Deptula. “There are some beautiful things that only God ever sees, but we give God our best because God gives us his best,” he explains. “The [design] details, in an overall sense, add to that… We believe God is beautiful, and anything that is beautiful can lead us to God. So to have beautiful art, beautiful music in a church—especially a cathedral—would be part of the ministry of that church.”
A Living Church
Not only is the cathedral a safe home for sacred relics and an artistic work on its own, it’s a gathering place for worshippers from all walks of life. With its membership spanning ethnicity, race and socioeconomic circumstance, the recent restoration effort highlighted this diversity. Nodding to the parish’s substantial Hispanic population, for example, a side altar was designed and dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, with an artist brought in from Mexico City to paint her famous depiction.
“Our Lady of Guadalupe is considered the patroness of the Americas in North, Central and South America,” Msgr. Deptula notes. “That would not have been a devotion in central Illinois 140 years ago, but it is absolutely a devotion now.
“A cathedral is a living church, like any parish church,” he adds. “They are not meant to be frozen in one time or one moment, or by one bishop. The church is the living body of Christ, and a good cathedral becomes an icon of that.”
The changes to St. Mary’s Cathedral are far from over. Its majestic, 14-ton pipe organ—featuring 3,329 pipes and keys made of genuine ivory—awaits restoration, and Msgr. Deptula and his team hope to add a parish hall for children’s classes and catechisms in the future. In the meantime, the church continues to be a welcoming center for community, a hallowed space for worship, and an enduring vessel of art and history.
“I like to think that if Bishop Spalding walked in, he would recognize and appreciate his cathedral,” Msgr. Deptula declares. “It’s changed… [but] for 140 years, we’ve had a presence. And I’d like to hope that still today, the community more and more knows that we are Peoria’s cathedral.” a&s
The Diocesan Museum and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Museum are located in the Spalding Pastoral Center at 419 NE Madison Avenue in Peoria, open Monday through Friday, 9am to 4pm. Visit cdopmuseums.org or call (309) 671-1550 for more information. To learn more about St. Mary’s Cathedral and its recent restoration, visit cdop.org/the-cathedral-of-st-mary.