Cathedrals of California, A Virtual Pilgrimage

Which Was the First Episcopal Cathedral?

The question of what was the first Episcopal cathedral in the United States is somewhat complex, as it reflects an evolution in the ecclesiology of the Episcopal Church that is central to the very concept of a cathedral.

James Lloyd Breck (1818-1876) was an Episcopal priest, educator and missionary to the Native Americans who became a prominent advocate for the establishment of cathedrals for the Episcopal Church.

Although the first Anglican bishop in the United States, Samuel Seabury, had been ordained a bishop in 1784, the authority of the bishop in the Episcopal Church was not what it is today. As Breck explained in 1867, “After long years of waiting on Heaven-commissioned men, who ought to have acted for us with alacrity, we at length obtained the Episcopate for America! But the condition of things here had been so long that of a Presbyter-Church, it was not an easy matter to put the Bishop in his right place. He had been imported for only two things, Ordination and Confirmation! He had no cure in a Diocese beyond these, except he went down to the rank of a Priest, in which case he could become the Rector of a Parish.”

Breck was heavily influenced by the Oxford Movement, which advocated a return to more ancient practices in the Anglican Communion. Key to the restoration of the role of bishop in the Episcopal Church, according to Breck, was the establishment of cathedrals, an idea avoided in the formative years of the new American church. Early Episcopal bishops who dared to wear a mitre, set up a cathedra or speak of cathedrals often faced stiff opposition from clergy and laity.

Cathedral of Our Merciful Savior, Faribault, Minn.

Cathedral of Our Merciful Savior, Faribault, Minn.

In 1862, as founder of Nashotah House in Minnesota, Breck worked with the bishop of Minnesota, Henry Whipple, to organize what is often said to be the first Episcopal cathedral, in Faribault, Minn. The Cathedral of Our Merciful Savior, a gothic church designed by James Renwick, was dedicated in 1869. Thus, while the Episcopal Church was an established presence in the East, the frontier became the place where tradition was re-established.

The Faribault cathedral is not without rival claimants to being the first Episcopal cathedral. Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral (Chicago, 1862; destroyed by fire in 1921) St. Paul’s Cathedral (Buffalo, 1866) and All Saints Cathedral (Milwaukee, 1873) all lay claim to this title. The Cathedral of All Saints (Albany, 1888) claims to be the first “Episcopal Cathedral in America built on the English and Continental model of bishop’s church, school and hospital.”

Perhaps because of differences in how these early Episcopal cathedrals were organized (many appear to be parish churches acting as pro-cathedrals), there is the further distinction of which is the first “full cathedral.” The Cathedral of St. John the Divine (New York, founded 1873; dedicated 1941) and the Cathedral Church of Ss. Peter and Paul (Washington National Cathedral, founded 1893; dedicated 1976) appear to be the first to have this distinction, for when St. Paul’s Cathedral in Los Angeles was granted this status in 1957, reports indicated that St. Paul’s would thus join the ranks of these two “full cathedrals.”

The question of what constitutes the first Episcopal cathedral in the United States appears to be open to debate, and no doubt some of our more learned Episcopal brothers and sisters can further enlighten us in the comments section. But one thing is clear: the influence of the Oxford Movement and the devoted missionary James Breck have left their mark. Something to think about each April 2, when the Episcopal Church commemorates James Breck on its liturgical calendar.

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One Response to “Which Was the First Episcopal Cathedral?”

  1. Gary Bridgman Says:

    Great summary of a complicated topic, Eric. In researching the topic for the Episcopal Cathedral I belong to (St. Mary’s, Memphis, Diocese of TN 1871-1983, West TN 1983-present) I was surprised that our 1871 “start date” puts us in the middle of the pack, chronologically, of the claimants to “first in the US.”

    It seems you have to weigh a bunch of different dates in defining the “age” of a cathedral. For example, St. Mary’s started was a “rent-free pew” mission in 1857, parish in 1858, then literally turned over our keys to Bishop Quintard in 1871 (good luck finding a reference to “pro-cathedral” in our records, although we fit that definition), and an order of nuns (Sisters of St. Mary) took up residence here 1873-1912, giving us extra high-church street cred.

    Then we built our current English Gothic Revival structure (designed specifically as a cathedral) 1898-1926. But then there’s a proclamation of consecration on our nave wall from the 1950s that makes it sound like everything that happened here before was unofficial (the same status granted to St Paul’s LA in 1957?).

    Perhaps we could lay claim to being the oldest Episcopal cathedral in the South.

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