Begun in 1900 and dedicated in 1909, the cathedral is the only one in the United States named for St Mary Magdalene, patron saint of penitents. It is the second Bishop of Salt Lake City, who was enamored of all things French, who insisted that the French spelling of the Magdalene’s name be used. The predominately Neo-Romanesque exterior is somewhat reminiscent of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, and is the work of architect Carl M. Newhausen, who designed private mansions, orphanages, and railroad depots in the Baroque and Renaissance styles. Sadly, Newhausen did not live to see the cathedral completed; after his death, Bernard O. Mecklenburg, who specialized in hospitals and commercial buildings, took over the work. The Spanish Gothic interior, considered by many to be the most beautiful of any church in the United States, was designed by John Theodore Comès, who built numerous Roman Catholic churches primarily in the East and South. It was extensively renovated in the 1990s to conform to the dictates of Vatican II; at the same time, the exterior was cleaned and repaired. The colorful stained glass is eye-catching, as are the many murals and paintings that grace the interior. The Stations of the Cross are the work of Utah artist Roger Wilson and combine traditional iconography with American Southwest coloration.
The cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of Salt Lake City and is home to the only co-educational Catholic choir school in the United States. They are especially proud of their music program; their award-winning choir has toured extensively in Belgium, France and Italy. The cathedral regularly hosts guest choirs, organ festivals, and other artistic events. They conduct several religious education classes for children, youth and adults. Their Good Samaritan program provides meals, toiletries and counseling for the needy. Each Sunday, in addition to three masses in English and one in Spanish, the offices of lauds and vespers are sung, followed by Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament. There are two masses each day Monday through Friday, with a morning mass plus vigil masses in English and Spanish each Saturday, in addition to vespers.
Salt Lake City is best known as headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although earlier explorers knew of the existence of the lake the Shoshone Indians called Ti'tsa-pa, meaning ‘bad water,’ it was Brigham Young and his band of pilgrims who founded the city a short distance from its shores in 1847. Young laid out the city streets in a grid pattern and directed that they be made wide enough ‘so that a mule-drawn wagon could turn around without the driver resorting to profanity.’ Today’s Salt Lake City is surprisingly cosmopolitan and, besides being the mother city of Mormonism and the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, is also home to the Episcopal Diocese of Utah as well as the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. The Cathedral of the Madeleine is located somewhat to the east of downtown, in a residential area featuring fine old Victorian and pre-war houses impeccably maintained by their owners.
A gentleman in cassock and surplice but no collar, who we were led to understand was the choir director. He was assisted by a young gentleman in cassock but again no collar. Neither of them introduced himself.
What was the name of the service?First Vespers, Second Sunday in Lent.
How full was the building?
There were three in our party, plus two others: a young gentleman and a middle-aged lady.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not really – see pre-service atmosphere below.
Was your pew comfortable?
A combination of chairs and benches – they weren’t bad.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People were lined up for confession at the back of the cathedral. Other than that, the nave was empty save for our party. As start time approached and the cathedral remained empty and dark, we were beginning to wonder if vespers had been canceled. Just then I noticed that there were a few people seated behind the altar. There was a small chapel behind the altar, separated from it by a screen. In its midst was a glass tabernacle in which I assume the Blessed Sacrament was exposed or reserved, although Jesus was not at home this particular evening. I went back and asked a lady seated there if this is where vespers was being held, and she said yes. Around the tabernacle were arranged some benches and chairs. The lady explained to me that vespers would be chanted antiphonally by the ‘east choir’ and ‘west choir,’ and that we could sit wherever we chose. We chose east choir.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘O God, come to my assistance.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A printed sheet with all of the chants that would be used.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
The austerity of it all was a distraction. I really didn’t know what to expect, but this is not what I thought I might be expecting.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The entire service was chanted: opening verse, hymn (Audi benigne conditor), psalms, canticle, reading, Magnificat, intercessions, Lord’s Prayer, blessing, dismissal. The closing hymn was Ave Regina caelorum, in Latin, with Gregorian notation. East choir that we were, we chanted along as best we could – everyone in my party could read music, although some of the chants were unfamiliar to us and we did our best to sight-read. West choir – the helpful lady, the young gentleman, and the gentleman in cassock – seemed like regulars and chanted somewhat better than we did.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Being in this magnificent cathedral and chanting vespers monastic-style.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The coldness of it all: no introduction by the leaders, no welcome, no after-service greeting or visiting. It seemed to be a closed service, put on only for the regulars. Although advertised on their website, a stranger wishing to attend (and not being as inquisitive as I was) would not know where to go or what to do.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The choir director left in silence. The cassocked gentleman collected our service sheets (I didn’t give him mine) and also left in silence. Then so did we. As mentioned above, no greeting, no ‘Welcome, are you visiting, where are you from?’ from anyone.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none. Our party retired to a nearby Italian restaurant for a delicious dinner with plenty of wine.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 – based on the fact that it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be visiting Salt Lake City again. If I lived here, however, I would consider dropping in regularly. It’s not every day that one gets to experience vespers, and chanted monastically at that. I’m sure I’d get used to the chants over time, and that the regulars would make some friendly overtures – but then again, maybe not.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, despite the unfriendliness.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
How unfriendly and cold it all seemed.