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Raleigh’s Sacred Heart Cathedral: Ecclesiastical Grandeur in a Small Package

Regardless of your religious beliefs, you probably know that our city is home to many beautiful churches. These range from the historic gothic revival Christ Church (1853) on Capitol Square to the textbook modernist sanctuary of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (1959) on Clark Ave. And there’s everything else in between.

But one thing you probably don’t know is that Raleigh is also home to the smallest Roman Catholic Cathedral in the (48 contiguous) United States. Sacred Heart Cathedral is situated downtown on Hillsboro St. at the corner of McDowell. The irony is that its status was never intended to be.

There had been an organized Catholic presence in Raleigh since the 1820s, and a visiting priest ministered to the city’s tiny congregation until 1839. Sometime prior to 1860, a small, former Baptist church building on Capitol Square was secured for services.

Raleigh’s Catholic population grew following the Civil War, and the inadequate space and poor condition of the building soon became an issue. For a time in the 1870s Mass was held in a meeting hall in the Briggs Hardware building on Fayetteville St.

Then, in 1879, Fr. James White purchased the former Brian Grimes homeplace (aka the Pulaski Cowper mansion) on Hillsboro St., and the parish of Sacred Heart Church was established. He expanded the mansion so that it could be better utilized as both as a church and rectory.

Long-time pastor Fr. Griffin is buried on the grounds of the Cathedral. His gravesite is shown above.

In 1899 Fr. Thomas Griffin was appointed pastor, a position he held for 31 years. During his tenure a parochial school was established in 1909, and the church campus was later expanded with the addition of a rectory and convent. In 1922 the cornerstone of Sacred Heart Church was laid, and the French Gothic Revival stone building was dedicated in October of 1924.

At that time, North Carolina was the only state in the union without its own Catholic diocese. The move to create one had been anticipated by the Catholic leadership in the state for some time, and large, ornate basilica churches had been erected in both Asheville — St Lawrence, and in Wilmington — St Mary, in hopes of acquiring the status of ‘cathedral.’

However, as these cities were at opposite ends of the state, Rome decided the seat, or cathedra, of the bishop of the new diocese should be in a more central location – so Raleigh, instead, was chosen.

Thus, in December 1924, a mere two months after Sacred Heart Church had been completed, it became Sacred Heart Cathedral, the seat of the newly created Diocese of Raleigh, with the Most Reverend William Hafey of Baltimore as its first Bishop. His authority as bishop extended over the entire state of North Carolina.

Bishop Eugene McGuiness of Philadelphia succeeded Bishop Hafey in 1937. He thought that the modestly-appointed Sacred Heart should “look more like a cathedral,” so in 1939, the beautiful patterned terazzo floors and the magnificent stained glass windows we see today were installed. Marble altars and reredos rounded out his additions.

The interior of Sacred Heart Cathedral has undergone several ‘renovations’ over the years, but in 1998 a senstive and artistic restoration took place. Further improvements made in the 10 years since then have returned the Cathedral interior to very near its 1939 appearance.

Nowadays, the tiny cathedral, which seats barely 350, is the home church of more than 3,000 parishioners. Sacred Heart Cathedral is a familiar Raleigh landmark, a precious jewel, really, and is beloved by all who worship there.

Our Lady watches over passersby on Hillsboro St. The 15-foot marble sculpture was placed here when a wing was added to the Cathedral School building in 1949.

If you appreciate high ecclesiastical art, a visit to Sacred Heart Cathedral will be well worth your while. A good time to visit is after the weekday noon Mass. When you enter this sacred space, pause and reflect, as the quiet and intimate ambiance of the interior invites meditation, as well.

The iron fence that surrounds the Cathedral has been there since the days the Grimes mansion stood on this site.

Author’s note: If you find the front doors locked (this is a downtown church, after all), walk around back to the private entrance for visitors, located in the west transept adjacent to the rectory.


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