The day after Christmas, I visited a great Gothic Revival masterpiece – the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, New Jersey. Sacred Heart was my mom’s local church when she was a little girl, and she wanted to take me to see it. It was wonderful, and visiting was the perfect addition to my Christmas break. I’ve been to some of the most important medieval Gothic churches, and yet, I still felt a bit giddy when we pulled up to Sacred Heart. To my mind, it is an impressive church, even alongside the great ones.
Sacred Heart is in the Diocese of Newark, one of New Jersey’s largest cities not too far from New York City. It’s a massive building – the fifth-largest either in the United States or in North America, depending who you ask. At 45,000 square feet, 365 feet long, and 260 feet high, it is equal in footprint to Westminster Abbey and taller than Notre-Dame in Paris. It’s also bigger than the more-famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
Construction began in 1899, but the church was not completed and dedicated until 1954. There were several architects and revised designs, and the church started holding select services decades before completion. Oh, and there’s a crypt underneath where several Bishops of Newark are buried. Yep, it sounds like a Gothic church to me! Most of the tremendous cost was funded through donations, including some from my grandparents, who lived in Newark for many years. You can learn more about the cathedral’s history in its online History and Heritage booklet.
Not only is Sacred Heart a cathedral, meaning that it is the seat of the Bishop of Newark, but it is also a Minor Basilica. In architectural terminology, the word basilica refers to the building form most churches employ. However it’s also a distinction of honor in Catholicism. Certain churches receive the title Minor Basilica in acknowledgement of their architectural or religious importance. Sacred Heart became a Minor Basilica in 1995, when Pope John Paul II visited the church and held Mass there.
Let’s take a tour, shall we?
We will begin our imaginary visit at the front doors, although this is not the path I took.
This is the entry façade of Sacred Heart Cathedral. I found it rather impressive. Since it’s located in a crowded urban setting, this church is difficult to take in from a distance, unless you stand in the nice little paved courtyard out front where I took the above photo. I think this façade is really cool and unique because it’s not flat. The towers meet the rest of the church at 135 degree angles, giving the façade some dimension not usually seen in buildings like this. It also creates a cool space inside, as we’ll see in a minute. While we’re here, check out the gargoyles on the towers.
Moving up a little closer, we can examine the three portals (doors and their arched surrounds). I’m struck by how simple they are compared to most other Gothic and Gothic Revival buildings. In the central portal, for example, we have some low-relief Biblical imagery in the tympanum (arched section above the door) and no decoration at all on the archivolts (thin arches above the tympanum) or jambs (columns on the sides). There is, however, a lovely statue of Jesus with His Sacred Heart, as well as beautiful bronze doors. The church’s guide brochure says the doors were imported from Italy, and that doesn’t surprise me, because they are very Italian in style.
The smaller portals also follow this same pattern. There’s an elegant cleanliness to the exterior decoration that I really appreciate. It makes this church feel approachable, and there are still enough Gothic details to be visually interesting. I especially love the sculpture on the bronze doors.
If you walk through the front door, you would find yourself in an entry hall called the narthex. Most churches have one, but Sacred Heart’s is cool because it has an irregular hexagon shape caused by the towers being at angles to the building. If you turn around to look back the way you came in, you’ll see an elegant tympanum over the central door. It depicts the Virgin and Child with angels on either side.
There are many doors in the narthex. Two have lovely Flamboyant (flame-like) stained glass windows over them. Now, turn back around and look ahead of you to get your first glimpse of the nave. Let’s walk in.
Wow, right? Nobody would ever look at this photo and guess they were in a 20th century American structure. The interior of this church is spectacularly decorated in stone, wood, metal, mosaics, and stained glass. It’s actually quite a bit more elaborate than the exterior. Check out all the gorgeous carvings on this door inside the nave.
As we walk up the church towards the apse (where the altar is), let’s enjoy all the stained glass in the aisles and clerestory, as well as the elegant wood carvings around the built-in confessional stalls. The church’s woodwork is made from Appalachian Oak. The stained glass was carved in Munich, and we’ll see it much more closely in a little bit. In between the confessional stalls are glittering mosaics representing the Stations of the Cross.
If we walk up the right side of the nave, we’ll soon come upon an elegant stone pulpit that is even more impressive than it appears in this photograph. And now the fun really begins, because we’ve reached the choir or apse.
As befits a massive church, Sacred Heart has a massive choir, which is separated from the nave by a low stone railing with lovely bronze gates depicting angels. Most Catholic churches in America got rid of their railings a long time ago, so it’s cool to see one here. The public can’t walk inside the choir, but if you stand or kneel at the railing, you can get a pretty good view. The choir stalls have woodwork that’s even more beautiful than what we saw a moment ago. The altar has a baldachin (stone canopy) that’s made of imported Italian marble.
No Gothic church would be complete without chapels behind the apse, and Sacred Heart has several. But before we visit them, let’s turn around and look back down the nave. See that massive rose window at the far end? It didn’t photograph too well because of all the sunlight coming in, but it is apparently the largest rose window in Western Christianity.
We’ll enter the chapels from one of the transepts. On the way, we’ll look at the elaborate portals at the end of the transept arms. Each side has a giant rose window with smaller lancet (arched) windows below it. This configuration was used in places like Chartres Cathedral.
There’s lots more tracery around each portal, as well as large statues of major saints. I spot St. Peter with his key, St. John the Baptist with his long cross and hair shirt, and Mary Magdalen with lots of long hair. I find it so fascinating that the interior doorways of this church are much more highly decorated than the exterior ones. Of those that I saw, I would say that these interior transept portals are the fanciest in the entire building.
Just past the west transept, we’ll encounter the first chapel. There’s a baptistry off the west transept as well, but I didn’t get to see it. Sacred Heart has eight chapels in total. Two, one adjacent to each transept, are dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Joseph. Five radiating chapels around the choir are dedicated to St. Lucy Filippini, St. Patrick, St. Boniface, St. Stanislaus, and St. Anne. According to the cathedral literature, each of these five chapels is supposed to represent an immigrant community who worshipped at Sacred Heart in the first half of the 20th century. In addition to the named saint, whose statue appears in his or her chapel, stained glass windows depict several other saints. In any of these seven chapels, you can light a candle to make a little prayer. All you do is place a small donation in a metal box (mine was stamped “for the poor”), then choose an electric candle from the nearby display and push the button on top to light it.
I chose the chapel dedicated to Saint Patrick and other British and Irish saints like Columbkille, Brigid, and Margaret of Scotland (shown above). Pushing a button definitely isn’t as satisfying as lighting a real candle, but I’m sure it’s much safer for the building.
The eighth chapel is by far the largest and most important. It’s called the Lady Chapel, and it’s dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Although Sacred Heart is French Gothic in style, the Lady Chapel is a very English addition. Most of the major British churches have them. The other chapels are just little round rooms with a statue of the saint on a small altar, candles, and a place to kneel and spend a moment with the saint. There’s no cross, no pews, nothing like that. By contrast, the Lady Chapel is basically a miniature church. They can hold actual masses inside. Sacred Heart’s Lady Chapel is directly behind the main altar behind a pair of glass doors, but it’s ok to go in. It’s just beautiful! The statue of Mary is much more elaborate than those of the other saints. She’s set in a Gothic altarpiece-type setting, entirely made of Carrera marble, and the chapel is lit by three hand-cut crystal chandeliers. The Lady Chapel is a special, intimate space inside a church where everything else is on such a grand scale.
We’re going to exit the cathedral the way I actually came in and out – through the sacristy leading to the church offices. This sacristy is lined with many stained glass windows depicting less famous saints, and I enjoyed the opportunity to view them close up. They’re quite remarkable – medieval in spirit, I think, without trying too hard to look medieval.
We’re back outside now, so let’s peruse the exterior architecture on our way back to the parking lot. The outside of the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart looks remarkably like a French Gothic church. The copper spire made me sad, because it reminded me of Notre-Dame de Paris’s 19th-century lead spire destroyed by fire earlier this year. However, there’s one really notable difference between the exterior of this church and that of any medieval French Gothic church. Can you spot it? The photo below will help you.
There are no flying buttresses! Just a few non-flying buttresses. Possibly either the use of steel in the construction or the building’s massive foot rendered extra support unnecessary. More substantial buttressing did appear in an earlier version of the design. What’s crazy, however, is because the rest of the building’s silhouette is so believably French Gothic, it took me a really long time to actually notice the lack of flying buttresses.
I really hope all of you enjoyed this visit to the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, New Jersey. I know that I certainly did. It truly is a spectacular church, and I would encourage everybody to visit in person.
A thought to end our visit
A year or two ago, I watched a wonderful series of lectures about Gothic cathedrals by Dr. William R. Cook (The Cathedral, produced by The Great Courses). Towards the end, Dr. Cook stated his belief that the best Gothic Revival churches should be considered alongside medieval ones because they used the same architectural vocabulary to express similar ideas. In other words, they continued the Gothic spirit by doing exactly the same thing that the great medieval cathedral builders did, only centuries later. Although I love Gothic Revival, I didn’t fully get Dr. Cook’s point until I visited this church. Sacred Heart is a gorgeous Gothic structure, even though it doesn’t date from the Middle Ages. It isn’t a carbon copy of any medieval church, like some Gothic cathedral theme park. But it has many of the same themes and features, and it uses them in its own way to serve a similar end in a different era. And I think the result is quite spectacular.
Details about visiting
Find out more about visiting the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart on its website.
Sacred Heart is open to the public when Mass is not in session, but I would suggest calling ahead to be sure. When we visited, we had to enter through the church offices, sign in and out, and have an employee buzz us into the church. There’s no fee of any kind. Once you’re inside, please remember that that the cathedral is primarily a place of worship, and most other visitors are there to pray. No matter your own religious beliefs or reasons for visiting, please respect the building’s religious function during your visit.
There’s a parking lot behind the church, as well as street parking on Ridge Street, where the church offices are located. I would not suggest parking far away or walking from another part of the city unless you are a local who is really familiar with the area.