New bishop’s chair at Anchorage’s co-cathedral once held John Paul II

An historic chair once used by Saint Pope John Paul II will play a central role when Our Lady of Guadalupe Church is established as a co-cathedral for the Anchorage Archdiocese on Dec. 12.

Now considered a relic of the recently canonized pope, the high backed carved walnut chair, circa 1900, has resided in Archbishop Emeritus Francis Hurley’s private chapel in Anchorage since the pope’s landmark visit at Delaney Park Strip on Feb. 26, 1981.

“The chair was brought out by the Dominican priest, Father Larry Farrell, before the papal visit,” Archbishop Emeritus Hurley recalled. “I’ve had it for all the years since in my chapel for daily use, and I’ve  always said it should go to a church for a special use someday.”

Since the pope presided from the chair (or cathedra) in 1981 it has never been used in a public Mass.

Some details about the chair’s history, however, will likely remain a mystery. Father Farrell passed away in 2012 and no one seems to know the chair’s history prior to the papal visit, Archbishop Hurley said.

Father Donald Bramble, a Dominican priest who took part in the 1981 papal visit, thinks it may have come from Saint Benedict Church. “I could be wrong — it’s been awhile,” he said.

Michael Bagenski, an architectural designer who helped plan the papal visit, described the chair as a sturdily-carved turn-of-the century relic. “It wasn’t a throne. It was ordinary but sturdy dark wood,” he said.

Joanne Hodel recalled her task on the papal visit committee was to locate new velvet to upholster the chair’s back and seat. But finding cloth worthy of a pope wasn’t easy.

“I went all over town looking for the right velvet fabric covering. We had so little time — most cities, when they know the pope is paying a visit, have a year or longer,” Hodel said. “We got our committees together and made it happen with only 42-46 days to build the stage and get electronics and everything ready.”

Ultimately Hodel wound up at Kimball’s Fabric Store — owned by Decema Kimball Andresen at the time.

“I remember coming into the little old store and I said ‘oh Decema, this is what I need,’” Hodel said. “And she said, ‘I think I have exactly what you need.’”

The chair was then re-covered in the special red velvet cloth.

When Pope John Paul II arrived, he sat in the chair during the course of the Mass.

That visit on a frosty Feb. 26, 1981 remains the largest single gathering in Alaska, drawing some 65,000 to 80,000 people to Anchorage’s park strip.

Behind the scenes planning for the upcoming Dec. 12 Mass dedicating Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church to co-cathedral status interweaves these historic pieces into a new chapter of the history of the Anchorage Archdiocese.

Holy Family, approaching its 100th birthday in 2015, will remain the primary Anchorage cathedral, but in an effort to better serve the needs of a growing Catholic population, Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz decided to establish Our Lady of Guadalupe Church as the co-cathedral.

The official dedication occurs at Our Lady of Guadalupe during the 5:30 p.m. Mass on Dec. 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Holy Family Cathedral will continue as the “historic cathedral” and should always be considered to be the “primary church of the archdiocese,” Archbishop Schwietz told the Catholic Anchor.

According to Catholic tradition, a cathedral is the bishop or archbishop’s church. Every Catholic church has a presider’s chair for the celebrating priest but in a cathedral there is also a “cathedra” on which only the bishop sits when celebrating liturgies.

Installing the chair once used by Pope John Paul II carries the symbolism of “our continuity and connection to the Holy Father in Rome who is the primary pastor and shepherd of our souls,” Archbishop Schwietz explained. “That sense of the universal nature of the church is important for us to celebrate because it is what makes us so unique as Catholics and what we’re so determined to continue as people who are faithful to the establishment of the church as Jesus established it.”

Father Steven Moore, a priest organizing the upcoming Mass, is working on the details for installing the cathedra and another important liturgical item, a metropolitan cross. It is a processional cross used by the archbishop.

“This one is being made in Italy of carved wood, Linden wood, which comes from Germany,” Father Moore said. “The cross is liturgically significant because it’s only used for processions when an archbishop or bishop is presiding.”

In attendance at the Dec. 12 Mass will be the Vatican’s apostolic nuncio (or ambassador to the United States) Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. During the Mass a decree officially elevating the church to co-cathedral status will be read from the Congregation of Bishops in Rome.

It makes sense to create a co-cathedral, Archbishop Schwietz said. Holy Family Cathedral has been crowded several years due to summer visitors along with regular parishioners and those who want to attend cathedral services.

Father Vincent Blanco, priest of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, said his congregation is honored to help serve as a co-cathedral.

“It’s an honor and a challenge at the same time,” he said, noting that the new status as co-cathedral offers parishioners a new way of experiencing their church.

Following the Dec. 12 Mass, attendees are invited to attend and bring a dish for a celebration potluck. The event will include dances and songs that highlight the Hispanic and Filipino cultures within the parish.

'New bishop’s chair at Anchorage’s co-cathedral once held John Paul II'
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