The Cathedral of the Incarnation has a rich history dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century, when the Most Reverend Thomas Sebastian Byrne was the Bishop of Nashville. Today, the Diocese of Nashville includes more than 65,000 Catholics living in Middle Tennessee.
The Feast of the Incarnation celebrates the miraculous conception of Jesus in the Womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is assigned to the same day as the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, exactly nine months before Christmas.
Every cathedral is the home church of a presiding bishop, his home base, his center of operation. The word comes from "cathedra," which means a "chair" or "throne." The bishop's permanent chair is located in his cathedral.
The Cathedral of the Incarnation was the second parish in the Diocese of Nashville. The first was Saint Mary’s Cathedral, which still exists today and is located at the corner of Fifth and Charlotte Avenues, in downtown Nashville.
Construction on the present Cathedral complex began in 1907. Bishop Byrne first built the rectory, then the school (St. Albert Hall) and finally the church itself, which was completed in 1914. Saint Albert Hall served as the parish school until 1970. It was used as the parish worship space during two major renovations of the church, in 1937 and 1987. A third major renovation was recently completed.
The construction of the Cathedral of the Incarnation began in 1910, with the erection of the bell tower. Four and one-half years, and about $500,000 later, the church was dedicated on July 26, 1914. The local press gave credit to Bishop Byrne, "the Master Builder" for supervising the erection of "one of the most churchly, ornate and magnificent edifices south of the Ohio River."
This church resembles a typical Roman basilica: a rectangular structure serving as a court of law during the Roman Empire. Such buildings were converted into Christian worship spaces by Constantine I, after 312 A.D.
Nashville architect Fred Asmus in collaboration with Bishop Byrne, based its design upon that of one of the most famous churches in Rome, Saint Martin's on the Hill. The bell tower is similar to that of Saint Damase, another church in Rome.
As the church of the presiding bishop, every cathedral should be a model of proper liturgy and liturgical environment. It is a special place to pray and to celebrate the sacraments. It was in this spirit that the Cathedral of the Incarnation underwent two major renovations, one in 1937, the other in 1987.
From the beginning, this Cathedral was a beautiful church, rich in art and in symbolism. However, no structure lasts forever; it needs fortification against the ravages of time. For example, the original Cathedral had hardwood floors, which deteriorate over time. It also relied upon natural light, which resulted in blinding shafts of sunlight from the clerestory windows. The original church had no vestibule; there was nothing to protect the people in the pews from blasts of cold wind.
The 1937 renovation addressed these problems and more. Under the direction of Bishop William L. Adrian, the floors were replaced with a composite material made of asphalt and rubber. A vestibule was added to create a weather lock, and the windows were replaced with painted art glass. He enlarged the sanctuary and added a large sacristy, while changing the color scheme to darker shades.
Fifty more years of daily use took their toll on our Cathedral. The grandeur, comfort, and liturgical propriety of today's church is due to the second major renovation in 1987. The liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council were also a major factor in prompting this renovation.
Many of the changes - 80 percent, in fact - are hidden from view. New water and sewer lines, new air conditioning and seven miles of electrical wiring are additions that we will never see. Others are more evident.
Everyone agreed that the 1937 Cathedral was too dark. The sanctuary was extended ten feet, and the new clerestory windows with prismatic glass were put into place. The entire church was re-painted in soft, bright contemporary colors. A new, computerized lighting system was installed. The beautiful dark oak pews were refinished in the light color seen today.
The floor was replaced with new tile from Switzerland and Crossville, Tennessee. Thousands of tiles were cut to provide the desired effect. The baptistry was moved, and a pool added, to the north end of the main aisle, for both symbolic and liturgical reasons.
The old confessionals were removed from the inner wall of the vestibule and a high window was placed in that partition, providing a spectacular view of the baptismal font and the body of the church when a person enters the church through its front doors.
Statues of the Holy Family now flank the baptismal area; new sanctuary furniture was put in position with a matching altar, featuring the beautiful front-piece from the old main altar.
During the eight month renovation, Mass was celebrated in Saint Albert Hall. During this period, parishioners were kept informed of the changes and costs through a biweekly newsletter called the Cathedral Renovation News, written and edited by Father Stephen A. Klasek, associate pastor and de facto Cathedral historian.