Sacred & Superlative
Newark’s historic cathedral soars to spiritual and architectural heights.
he Reverend Armand Mantia has
been leading tours of the Cathedral
Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the
seat of the Archdiocese of Newark
and home of Cardinal Joseph
Tobin’s pulpit, for 42 years. He
doesn’t get bored.
“This is the most perfect and
exact example of French Gothic
architecture in the Western
Hemisphere,” he declares from the
towering cathedral’s sanctuary on a
warm day in late May. Though he is
wearing a priest’s collar, he comes
off as slightly braggadocious.
He is just warming up.
The building, the fifth largest cathedral in North America, embraces 45,000 square feet, roughly the
size of Westminster Abbey. It is 365
feet long and 161 feet wide, with
enough to seat up to 2,000, Mantia
The cathedral’s two towers are
most boast-worthy. At 232 feet,
they are 7 feet taller than the
towers at Westminster Abbey in
London and 6 feet taller than those
of Notre Dame in Paris.
“Size matters,” Mantia says,
History does, too. Construction
of the cathedral began in 1899, following a proposal by Newark’s first
bishop James Roosevelt Bayley,
who had been appointed by Pope
Pius IX six years earlier. The exterior, made of limestone and Vermont
Rockport granite, was finished in
1929, but work on the inside was
halted the same year, as the Great
Depression and then World War II
gripped the country.
When construction of the staggeringly beautiful interior finally
resumed in 1950, it took four years
to complete. The building incorporates several different types of domestic and imported marble; hand-carved Appalachian oak; crystal,
silver and bronze for chandeliers;
and a whole lot of stained glass
handcrafted in Munich, including
three rose windows, the kind most
coveted by architecture buffs.
In fact, Mantia says, art historians consider the cathedral’s
stained glass the second finest in
the world, after the Chartres Cathedral in Northern France.
Everything in the place—from
the 5-foot-7-inch marble statue
of Jesus on the bronze crucifix
hanging from the baldachino to
the massive pipe organ—exudes
Over the years, the cathedral
has withstood blizzards, hurricanes
and perhaps most notably, the
Newark Rebellion of 1967. “The
riots were a few blocks away from
here,” Mantia says.
In recent years, the cathedral
has become a minor basilica—that
is, a church of special prominence
honored by the pope. “It’s sort of
like being knighted,” Mantia says.
Pope John Paul II made the designation when he visited in October
1995; then President Bill Clinton
was also in attendance.
Whether the cathedral will one
day be called the former home of
America’s first pope remains to be
seen. But the building, snuggled up
against Branch Brook Park in Newark’s lower Broadway neighborhood, fulfills the need for splendor,
whoever is at the pulpit. It’s “a
symphony of praise to almighty
God,” Mantia says.
—Tammy La Gorce