America on Wednesday will welcome a new cathedral — or co-cathedral — in the Lone Star State, as the shiny new co-cathedral of the Sacred Heart finally is dedicated in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

It’s been a massive undertaking — and will serve as a reminder that the South not only has a new cathedral, but a new cardinal, as well.

A preview, from the Houston press:

The mahogany doors open this week on a $49 million downtown Roman Catholic cathedral with enough space and heft to hold a community that has blossomed in size and distinction.

Though the new Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart offers seats for more than 1,820, it also serves as a symbol of the Catholic community’s coming of age, said Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

“The fact that we were building a much larger one is an indication that we physically need more space,” he said. “But we are making a statement about who we have become. We have become a much larger, more dynamic, richer archdiocese in the state of Texas.”

With a history rooted in Galveston in the days of the Texas Republic, the Catholic community here has grown to nearly 1.5 million in the past two decades.

The co-cathedral shares its duty as the cardinal’s home pulpit with St. Mary Cathedral Basilica in Galveston, the area’s original cathedral and the first in Texas.

The new building, at 1111 Pierce, fills a city block facing St. Joseph Parkway across the street from the archdiocese’s administrative offices, which moved to Houston in 1963 from Galveston.

“This will be a fine symbol for our Catholic faithful but also for the city,” DiNardo said. “This is a place to come to in the midst of the bustle of downtown, and there will be a silent place to pray.”

The new co-cathedral will be dedicated at noon Wednesday in an elaborate ceremony open only to invited guests. It replaces the current Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral, which was built as a parish church in 1912 and seats about 700. The building has structural problems, and its future remains unclear, said the Rev. R. Troy Gately, co-cathedral rector.

The new co-cathedral took shape in the minds of church leaders about a decade ago as the Catholic population grew with transplants from Mexico, Nigeria and Vietnam as well as Michigan, New York and Connecticut.

The building was guided into existence by Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza, who led the community from 1984 until he retired in 2006.

During his tenure, the Vatican elevated the church’s status in the United States and made it an archdiocese, or regional church authority, in 2004. Pope Benedict XVI added DiNardo to the top ranks of the clergy worldwide last year by naming him a cardinal, the first in the southern United States.

“We thought it was time for us to have a new cathedral that would be sufficiently large for us to gather a large number of our people for the important moments in the life of the church,” Fiorenza said.

The nearly 28,000-square-foot cathedral, built in the shape of a cross, was designed by Ziegler Cooper Architects and constructed by the Linbeck Group, both of Houston.

It is covered in Indiana limestone and features a copper dome topped with a golden cross. The facade is dominated by a stained-glass depiction of Jesus rising above the Houston skyline.

A 140-foot-tall bell tower topped with a cross stands beside the co-cathedral. Fiorenza said the co-cathedral cost $39 million, plus $10 million for interior artwork. The bell tower cost about $2 million. A $2.2 million organ is being made and is scheduled to be installed in 2010.

When the idea first was hatched, the priests’ council was consulted and signed off on the project, which at the time focused on a fundraising drive for the co-cathedral and other projects.

A company hired to test the idea polled about 5,000 Catholics, most of whom were supportive, Fiorenza said.

A $75 million fundraising drive was launched and pledges topped $100 million, he said. Plans were publicly announced in May 2001, with an estimated finish date in 2004.

“Then a lot of problems developed,” Fiorenza said.

The first blew in with Tropical Storm Allison, which devastated the homes of many parishioners and damaged churches in June 2001. After the storm came Sept. 11, the outbreak of a nationwide clergy sex abuse scandal that rocked the faithful from Boston to Los Angeles, and the fall of Houston-based Enron. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita followed.

“All of these things combined made it difficult for some people to pay off their pledges,” Fiorenza said. “That delayed us for a while, but we were able to collect enough funds to begin.”

The first set of cathedral plans floated publicly in 2001 was more ambitious than the final result. It included gallery seating, pew seats for about 2,100 and a basement level that would have featured a crypt and a chapel.

Its proposed $100 million price tag gave diocese officials a case of sticker shock.

“That was the easiest decision I ever made,” Fiorenza said. “I said, ‘No way are we going to do this for $100 million.’ … That took time for us to get the building down to the proper size.”

There’s much more at the Chronicle link, along with a video tour of the new place.

For a more detailed look at the new digs, check out the Archdiocese’s website. It’s a beaut.

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