Building the Cathedral was the dream of the Most Reverend Camillus Paul Maes, third Bishop of the Diocese of Covington.
The project began in 1894 and ended in 1915, incomplete. Though largely unfinished even today, the Cathedral is a monument which speaks of the faith and determination of the Bishop and the community. It is an art and architectural monument to be treasured for centuries by people everywhere.
What Makes the Cathedral a Basilica?
Traditionally, churches attained the title of basilica because of their antiquity, dignity, historical importance, or significance as centers of worship.
There are Two Classes of Basilicas: Major and Minor. There are only four major basilicas in the world, all in Rome. The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption is one of 85 minor basilicas in the United States.
Pope Pius XII elevated St. Mary’s Cathedral to the rank of minor basilica on December 8, 1953 during a Solemn Pontifical High Mass celebrated by the Most Reverend William T. Mulloy, D.D.
Gothic architecture was indicative of the economic and cultural world view of the Middle Ages. Built with contributions of self-conscious and pious merchants, cathedrals were the physical centers of expanding commercial cities. A cathedral, the bishop’s church by definition, was the locus of religious life for the community.
The most bizarre and fascinating element which adorned a cathedral are the sinister gargoyles. In addition to diverting rainwater away from the cathedral, their chimeric designs personified human qualities antithetical to the behavior of virtuous Christians. The central entrance features statuary and stone carvings by the honored American sculptor, Clement Barnhorn. Atop its twin-towered facade, 32 gargoyles reach out from the ornate upper colonnade, and 26 chimeras stand watchful guard against evil spirits.
The floor plan of a Gothic cathedral was essentially a conglomeration of squares and rectangles, at the corner of which ascended piers that stretched skyward to support the canopy of arches. The distinguished innovation of the ribbed, or groin, vault enabled the cathedral builders to canopy vast expanses. The intersection of two pointed arches, held in place by a keystone, formed the ribbed vault. These vault arches, which were its groins, or ribs, distributed and channeled the weight of the stone vault down the piers to the ground below. The groin vault provided the architects of the cathedrals with a technological advancement that was lighter and more flexible than former vaulting systems.
The Building Process
In 1834, St. Mary’s Church was dedicated by Bishop Purcell of the Diocese of Cincinnati as the first Catholic church in Covington, Kentucky. But by 1851, because of a rapidly growing Covington population, St. Mary Church became insufficient to accommodate the needs of the parish. That year, the congregation purchased a lot on the north side of Eighth Street between Greenup Street and Scott Boulevard for the site of a new church.
On July 29, 1853, Pope Pius IX established the Diocese of Covington and the first bishop was appointed. The bishop chose the site purchased for St. Mary’s Church for the construction of a diocesan cathedral and laid the cornerstone on October 2, 1853. As early as 1868 the parish had outgrown the cathedral but due to several circumstances, including the death of the bishop and the congregation’s debt, plans for a new cathedral were put on hold until 1885.
In 1885, Reverend Camillus Paul Maes successfully commenced the planning for the construction of a magnificent cathedral. In 1890, he purchased the Delaney residence on the northeast corner of Twelfth Street and Madison Avenue, a site considered the center of the city of Covington, for the planned cathedral. Later he acquired the McVeigh property creating a total site for the new cathedral measuring 118-3/4 feet by 190 feet.
To design the cathedral, he contacted Leon Coquard, an artist and architect who had experience in designing ecclesiastical architecture. There were many negotiations between the bishop and architect, but they were able to reach agreement and the specifications for the cathedral were completed by late 1893. At that point, Bishop Maes began to solicit “subscriptions” to fund the cost of construction. Thanks to many private donations, including $100,000 from wealthy distillers Peter O’Shaughnessy and James Walsh, construction was able to commence.
Ground was broken on April 13, 1894 and construction of the cathedral began in mid-July. On September 8, 1895, Bishop Maes placed the cornerstone in the presence of thousands of people who came to witness the auspicious occasion. The vaults, columns, and walls of the nave, transept, and apse were complete by September of 1897 and plans were made to construct a steel roof over the Cathedral.
In January of 1901 the nave, apse, and transept were completed. Funds had dissipated, inhibiting the construction of a facade or the installation of the stained glass windows, so a plain brick wall closed the nave and temporary plain glass windows were installed and then glazed to remove the glare. Bishop Maes dedicated the cathedral for use on January 27, 1901. Specifications for the building of the facade were not completed until 1908 (once sufficient funds had been raised). Construction began in 1908 and was completed, along with the stained glass window installation in 1910. Instead of additional external adornment, Bishop Maes instituted a program of interior beautification, most of which Bishop Brossart completed after the death of Bishop Maes in 1915.