More than 7,000 people are expected to arrive at St. James Cathedral on Seattle's First Hill today and tomorrow, seeking the peace and pageantry of a traditional religious Christmas.
From his seat in the very last pew, Dennis Morse has a clear view of what is wrong with the balcony at St. James Cathedral.
Sure, the pine garlands are pinned to the top in neat, green sweeps. The poinsettias grace the floor in tidy clusters of pink and red. And the 4-foot-tall wreath is poised just so, beneath the towering stained-glass window.
But Morse is not satisfied.
“What I see are the two burned-out lights and the garland to the right that’s too short,” says Morse, facilities manager for the church.
And so it goes in the days before Christmas, as a handful of staff and volunteers dresses the cathedral in all its finery, from 6-foot-tall gilded angels to 24-foot-long red satin banners. More than 7,000 people are expected to arrive at St. James Cathedral on Seattle’s First Hill today and tomorrow, seeking the peace and pageantry of a traditional religious Christmas. It is one of the two most important holidays in Christianity, second only to Easter.
If all goes according to plan, worshippers will arrive for midnight Mass to a spiritual feast of the senses. Marble floors will gleam with polish. A choir of nearly 90 voices will swell with song. Children will wind through the pews holding lanterns in the shape of stars. A breath of incense will perfume the air.
The midnight Mass will be televised — a modern twist on an ancient ritual. That adds to the pressure to create a perfect backdrop of peace.
“I think they do sort of imagine it just ‘poof!’ appears,” said Patricia Bowman, pastoral associate. “I guess in some ways you kind of hope they don’t notice all the effort.”
The scene behind the scenes is especially hectic at St. James, where parishioners are not allowed to decorate the cathedral until after the last Sunday in Advent. During that monthlong religious season, Catholics are asked to focus on penance and live a simple life as they prepare for the birth of Christ.
So on Wednesday, with Christmas just three days away, the people who do the everyday work of running the church slipped into entirely different roles. Savage, the music director, choreographed the maintenance crew as it hung wreaths. The secretary, Dorlene Agenbroad, stood small under the vaulted ceilings, ironing silk banners she had sewn. The organist, Clint Kraus, sat before a computer, reformatting the brochure for holiday services.
Members of Morse’s maintenance crew rode a crane lift to the top of the columns to hang fixtures. They fire-proofed the indoor trees, laced lights on the potted trees outdoors, and stretched mesh canopies over walkways into the cathedral, creating a roof of purple, pink and green ribbons that will flutter over visitors as they stream into Mass.
“I learned early that you just fasten your seat belt,” said the Rev. Michael Ryan, the senior pastor at St. James.
For all the effort, and all the beauty, mistakes are always made in the mad rush to Christmas. Last year, the cord on a cart carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary got caught. As the procession moved on, Mary wobbled back and forth; it was unclear whether she would fall. A Sunday-school teacher rushed into the fray and loosened the cord.
Then there was the year the clergy forgot to join the procession.
This year, Morse hopes no one will notice that the towering angel statues aren’t in quite the right position on their podiums.
“It wouldn’t be the work of the people if it was flawless,” said Corinna Laughlin, director of liturgy.
As some staff scurried around with poinsettias in their arms, others were working with a different goal in mind. St. James’ programs for those in need kick into high gear during the holiday season, from Christmas dinners for hungry families to gifts for the elderly in nursing homes. Parishioners are working to collect 3,000 pairs of socks for homeless people.
Even with all the need she sees, Bowman, the pastoral associate, said she takes no issue with the money being spent on holiday celebrations. Church officials estimated the cost at about $3,000, most of it covered by donations and some of the work done by volunteers. Susan Church, 67, spent Wednesday night polishing pews, something she and friend Marie Therese Collette have done every week for more than 10 years.
“Oh my, isn’t that beautiful?” Church said, looking up at a gold foil mobile that hung in the center of the nave.
Bowman sees the cathedral as a means of teaching charity, from the stories in the stained-glass windows to the donation envelopes tucked into the pews.
The building itself is styled after cathedrals from the Italian Renaissance, with ceilings that soar to 76 feet at the oculus dei — the highest point in the church. Even as they labored to dress it up, the staff members at St. James said they are inspired by the building daily, without all the trimmings that come with Christmas.
They see it as a sacred space, a place that offers welcome and refuge to anyone in need.
“They can approach the divine through the beauty of the place,” Savage said. “There’s something about beauty that points the way to bigger things.”
During the Christmas season in particular, the cathedral draws people from across the city, some of different faiths, some long lapsed in their religion. It is their time of year to take in the peace of the place and, sometimes, make it their own.
So when Bowman sees strangers streaming in for midnight Mass, frustrated that they cannot find a seat, she is tempted to stand up from the pew and offer some words.
“I want to say, ‘Come, you can have my seat,’ ” Bowman said. “I’ll be here tomorrow.”
Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or firstname.lastname@example.org