CHARLESTON—When the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist reopened its doors on Aug. 1 after being closed for 10 months for renovations, some who entered couldn’t contain their emotions.
Msgr. Steven L. Brovey, rector of the Cathedral, said many were moved to tears when they saw the transformation of the interior for the first time.
It is easy to understand their reactions, because to walk through the Cathedral’s front doors now is to enter a worship space transformed, a sacred space that demonstrates earthly artistry and evokes heavenly beauty.
“There was always beauty here, but I feel like the renovations have really brought it out and brought it to another level,” Msgr. Brovey said as he walked through the interior on a recent morning.
The renovation project started in October 2019 and carried on with barely an interruption even after the novel coronavirus pandemic uprooted most of daily life in March. Artists and workers from Conrad Schmitt Studios, Inc., of Milwaukee, spent months in Charleston on the project, working even through the weeks of quarantine.
Funding, which cost about $1.8 million, was raised through the “Restoring All Things in Christ” campaign at the Cathedral. The goal was to have the renovation completed in time to celebrate the Diocese of Charleston’s Bicentennial.
Rick Statz, senior project director with Conrad Schmitt, said he and others from the studio came to Charleston in 2017 to develop the plans. Msgr. Brovey worked with a parish building committee and gathered input from parishioners to form an idea of what people wanted and needed from the project.
Conrad Schmitt, founded in 1899, was selected because of the firm’s long history of restoring buildings of historic significance around the country, including many cathedrals, churches and basilicas.
“The new decorative scheme needed to both respect the Cathedral’s neo-Gothic architecture and also enhance the worship experience,” Statz said. “From the beginning, Msgr. Brovey’s passion for the Cathedral and its parishioners was the driving force that propelled this project forward.”
Working on the design was special for Eileen Grogan, director of historic preservation and a project manager with Conrad Schmitt, because she had developed a love for the Cathedral while studying for a master’s degree in historic preservation at Clemson University and the College of Charleston. For her thesis, Grogan did a survey of all of the stained glass windows in churches below Spring Street, and consequently spent a lot of time at the Cathedral as part of the project.
“The whole city and the Cathedral are close to my heart, so I was thrilled when we got involved,” she said. ‘One of the most important parts of the project is the use of color. Msgr. Brovey was very interested in bringing color to the interior, and doing it in a thoughtful way in relation to the liturgy. We also wanted to respect the history of the building.”
The new use of color is the first thing that catches the eye. Before the renovation, all the walls and the ceiling were done only in white plaster, but not any longer. The new hues used throughout add a rich depth to the interior and completely transforms the experience of being inside the Cathedral.
The most striking addition is blue paint on the ceilings, covered with gold foil stars, evoking the image of the sky and of heaven. A gentle, warm rose hue covers the ceiling along the side aisles. The rest of the walls have been done in a rich ecru tone, and behind the high altar, a crème color has been added that is covered with stenciling that depicts a wide range of Christian symbols, including a cross, a shell that represents baptism, and a Celtic symbol for the Holy Trinity. An oil painting depicting Christ as the sacrificial lamb is found at the top of the high altar.
The Cathedral’s columns and pilasters have been redone with faux marbling, and gold leaf was added as accents on the columns and around the interior. All of this is enhanced with new lighting, which brings out new elements in everything from the Cathedral’s stained glass windows to the Stations of the Cross.
Visitors will also notice that they can hear what is being said during Mass more clearly. A completely new sound system was installed, with speakers attached vertically to every column that go unseen unless you know where to look. The system also includes a component that assists people with personal hearing devices to hear more clearly. In addition, a completely new HVAC system helps keep the interior comfortable.
“It’s a great relief to have it completed, especially after having to deal with the pandemic,” Msgr. Brovey said. “The workers have given us a masterpiece, and it has all come together in a beautiful way.”
Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone will rededicate the Cathedral at the 11:15 a.m. Mass on Sunday, Aug. 30.