By Richard Grace, Special to The Anchor
FALL RIVER — The Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption has seen 167 Easters on Spring Street in Fall River; but not all parts of the Cathedral complex are that old. Like many of the great cathedrals of Europe, St. Mary’s has come together over time. Think, for example, of Chartres Cathedral in France, with its two very distinct steeples, one from the 12th century and the other from the 16th.
When St. Mary’s opened for services in 1856 it was not a cathedral, because it was not the mother church of a diocese and therefore not the location of a bishop’s chair (cathedra). Built in the middle of the19th century (1852-1856), the church itself was followed by the addition of the Lady Chapel in 1869 and the Bishop’s Chapel in 1935. Seen from the air now, the complex has the shape of a T. The rectory and the archway leading to it from the Lady Chapel were constructed in 1928. Thus, the completion of the entire complex took about 80 years, in the course of which St. Mary’s became the Cathedral of the new diocese in 1904.
Likely the least familiar part of the Cathedral to the public eye is the crypt constructed below the Bishop’s Chapel for the burial of the bishops of Fall River. The chapel and crypt were built in 1935 under the patronage of Bishop James Cassidy, who defied the financial crisis of the Great Depression by undertaking these major additions to the Cathedral. The chapel was dedicated to Saints Thomas More and John Fisher, who were canonized in 1935, exactly 400 years after their executions by the government of King Henry VIII of England.
There had been burials at the Cathedral prior to that time, but their locations were not generally well known to the people of the diocese. The first two bishops (William Stang, 1904-1907, and Daniel Feehan, 1907-1934) were originally buried in the churchyard along Second Street. The Bishop’s Chapel was dedicated on June 9, 1935, and one month later the remains of Bishops Stang and Feehan were transferred from the churchyard to the Crypt below the new chapel. The next two bishops would in their turns join the first two in the Crypt. Bishop James Cassidy died in 1951. Bishop James Connolly retired in 1970 and passed away in 1986. Bishop James Gerrard, auxiliary bishop from 1959 to 1976, died in 1991 and was interred alongside his fellow bishops in the Crypt.
Sharing the Crypt with them are two priests named Murphy: Father Edward Murphy, a native of County Kilkenny, Ireland, who was pastor of the parish for more than four decades and the priest who had St. Mary’s constructed; and his nephew, Father James Murphy, who was assistant pastor under his uncle at St. Mary’s for several years and died in 1869. Father Edward Murphy died in Ireland in July 1887; his body was returned across the ocean for burial at St. Mary’s in August. The two Fathers Murphy were originally buried under the floor of the Lady Chapel’s northwest corner; their remains were transferred to the Crypt in April 1951.
The Crypt is a simple box of a room, with burial vaults in the west wall, and burial sites in the floor. The windows are all representations of resurrection: that of Jesus is depicted above the stairway to the Crypt, and the raising of Lazarus and the raising of Jairus’s daughter are represented along the north wall above the exterior ground level. The staircase entry to the Crypt sits between the Bishop’s Chapel and the choir area of the main church.
For most people who have ever worshiped at St. Mary’s the Crypt has been an unknown place in the Cathedral complex, not because it is deliberately hidden, but because visitors need a guide to lead them there and because there is no visible entry from the main church. At this time, the crypt is not accessible to visitors because of a major problem with the ceiling and roof over the stairway, which admits significant quantities of water during storms. Correction of this structural problem is on the schedule of repairs to which funds from the Lumen Christi Cathedral Gala, taking place on June 7 at White’s of Westport, can be directed.
For more information on this gala, including sponsorship information and tickets, please visit www.catholicfoundationsema.org/cathedral-gala/, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 508-675-1311.