Set in Stone - St. Paul's Cathedral still bears scars of Oklahoma City Bombing

The Journal Record, April 20th, 2010

It’s said buildings remember, and in the cracks on its walls, the history of an area seeps into the bones and memories of an edifice.

At St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in downtown Oklahoma City, the history of land runs, growing communities and an act of terrorism that traumatized a city are all etched into the stones of one of the oldest major church buildings in Oklahoma City.

More than 100 years old, St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral has been renovated, added to, damaged by a bomb blast and rebuilt, yet still retains the Norman-Gothic architecture of its beginnings.

St. Paul’s originally began in 1891 as a mission effort, but moved to a lot at 219 W. Second Street in 1893.

That small frame church served as the parish until 1903, when land was purchased at NW Seventh and Robinson. On Easter Day of 1904, the 175 member congregation held the first service in the new building, a church designed by architect Arthur J. Williams.

In 1907, the Episcopal Church placed the bishop and a cathedral at St. Paul’s. The first physical expansion occurred in 1909 with the addition of a parish house, designed by architect Leonard H. Bailey. In the 1940s, the church added a Sunday School building and small Cloister.

The Cathedral itself features a square Norman Tower, a gabled roof with wooden beams and Tiffany stained glass windows behind the altar.

The altar, along with the baptismal font and pulpit, were carved from Carrara marble in Italy. Several triptychs adorn the nave with windows depicting events in the life of Christ.

The entire church complex consists of four buildings, including the original 1904 Cathedral and Parish Hall. Both are now part of the National Register of Historic Places.

On April 19, 1995, the Cathedral stood even as a bomb imploded its sanctuary, lifting the roof and splaying out its walls.

The church stood witness to one of the greatest tragedies on America soil and served as a place of comfort and healing in the days, weeks, months and years following the bomb that took away 168 souls.

It fed rescue workers who carried out the bodies of children, served as a triage site for wounded Oklahomans shedding both blood and tears and became a sanctuary for those seeking peace.

“Everything was damaged,” said The Reverend Canon Susan Joplin. “When the explosion hit, the building just imploded! The walls went out and came back in, and glass blew out in shards and stuck in the walls. I remember a parishioner telling me that first church service after the bombing, ‘It’s just brick and mortar. We’ll rebuild.’”

The explosion tattered the stone Celtic Cross on the Cathedral’s facade, and the church itself closed for two years.

“That cross became the symbol of the Cathedral, a message that even though destruction happens, grace and love have the final word,” said Joplin.

“That cross is now embedded in our new construction, atop the Resurrection Gate that honors the 168 people who lost their lives.”

Renovations and healing were needed. Five years following the bombing, the Cathedral’s congregation, with the help of donations, a Kirkpatrick Foundation Grant and national church money, raised the $7.5 million needed to rebuild the facility.

All the buildings were renovated under general contractor Nashert Construction between 1995 and 1999, and the parish purchased an additional property to the east, adding the Dean Back Building that houses the clergy offices and outreach ministry.

It reopened in July 1997.

“We just had the Vicar of Baghdad visit, and he said he immediately upon walking in the Cathedral had a feeling of peace,” said Joplin. “As he sat through service, he felt more and more the presence of God in our liturgy. I think that is what this building has come to mean to those who walk through its doors.”