Touring Minnesota’s Oldest Cathedral in Faribault
Just before Christmas, I went on an amazing tour of Minnesota’s oldest Cathedral. Just fifty miles south of the Twin Cities in Faribault, the Cathedral of Our Merciful Savior endures as a symbol of justice and tolerance for one of Minnesota’s most important historical figures, Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple.
Bishop Whipple and the Dakota ConflictAfter being ordained the first Episcopalian Bishop of Minnesota in October of 1859, Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple moved to Faribault in 1860. He visited the Dakota people and began to learn their customs and way of life. He quickly became concerned after seeing their condition and the failure of the federal government to provide promised money and food from past treaty agreements. After years of being pushed off their native lands and near starvation, Dakota warriors attacked homesteaders in western Minnesota and started the Dakota War of 1862 . During the Dakota War, Bishop Whipple visited President Lincoln in Washington. He described the plight of the Dakota and suggested reforms to the President. The war only lasted a couple months. Over 300 Dakota were sentenced to death by hanging in hasty trials where the Dakota often did not understand the charges against them and lacked representation. While the Dakota were awaiting execution, Bishop Whipple published a number of newspaper articles and wrote to many political officials pleading for justice for the Dakota and for reforming federal Indian policy.
Construction of the Cathedral
Besides being the oldest cathedral in Minnesota, it is also the oldest Episcopalian cathedral in the United States. Construction on the Cathedral started under Bishop Whipple’s direction in 1862, just a month before the beginning of the Dakota War. Because of the social unrest caused by the war and a lack of money, it took seven years to complete the main church. Architect James Renwick, Jr., who also designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., drafted the plans for the Cathedral. The iconic and beautiful bell tower was built in 1902 as a tribute to Bishop Whipple, who died a year earlier.
Highlights of the Tour
The Reverend Justin Chapman, Dean of the Cathedral of Our Merciful Savior, gave me a wonderful tour. It began in the Guild House, which was built next to the Cathedral in 1893. It consists of several offices and a gathering room/chapel. In 1905, the Guild House expanded with the addition of Gilbert Hall, a dining area and kitchen, which is used today to serve free meals to those in need in the Faribault community. Adorning the walls of Gilbert Hall, you will see some amazing murals that depict the Quest for the Holy Grail. The murals are actually photographs of Sir Edwin Abbey’s murals in the Boston Public Library in Massachusetts. They tell the story of Sir Galahad, a Knight of the Round Table, who is sent by King Arthur to find the Holy Grail, or the cup which Christ used at his last supper. Under the murals, you will also see an incredible linear sculpture which runs the length of the wall. It is a reproduction of the Italian artist Luca Della Robia’s Cantoria, featuring singing and dancing children. Both the murals of the Quest for the Holy Grail and the sculpture of the Cantoria are beautiful to behold!
The interior of the Cathedral of Our Merciful Savior is also breathtaking to behold. It is designed in an English Gothic style. Originally, Bishop Whipple was actually buried underneath of the alter. In the 1930’s the Cathedral underwent some remodeling. A crypt was constructed in the basement and the Bishop’s remains were moved to this final resting place. A chapel was built on the south side of the church. It was designed to resemble the chapel Bishop Whipple had inside his house, which was originally located where Parker Kohl Funeral Home now stands.
I always love seeing stained glass windows and the ones featured inside the Cathedral do not disappoint. Behind the alter, you will see a series of seven windows and wood molding that create a beautiful backdrop for the alter. Native Dakota Indians helped to build the Cathedral. Because of Bishop Whipple’s honest dealings and treatment of the Dakota, he earned the name “Straight-Tongue” from them. Dakota children sold berries to raise money to donate a stained glass window in honor of Bishop Whipple. The window is located in the main area of the church where the congregation sits and is called the Angus Die (Lamb of God).
One of the artifacts I enjoyed learning about was the Bishop’s crosier, or staff. Bishop Whipple received the crosier as a gift from other pastors on his 25th anniversary of being a bishop. Just below the circular part of the crosier, you can see the names of the bishops that came before Bishop Whipple etched on the wood, going all the way back to Pope Gregory the Great who lived in the sixth century.
After we viewed the main floor of the Cathedral, we went down into the basement to see the crypt, or the tomb of Bishop Whipple. Behind black iron bars, you will see a large rectangular stone tomb. Behind the tomb, there is a wall with a columbarium, an area with spaces for the ashes of the congregation who have passed away. I decided against publishing a picture of the tomb out of respect for Bishop Whipple. I will say that it was really interesting to see because it was so unexpected! I had no idea that the Bishop was buried in the Cathedral.
For our final stop on the tour, we headed upstairs to the first level of the bell tower. There, to my surprise, was this wooden apparatus that reminded me of foot pedals on an organ. It is actually a very simple carillon, a musical instrument made up of several bells that correspond to a chromatic series of notes. Technically, to be considered a true carillon, you need twenty-three bells. The one in the Cathedral bell tower contains ten bells. To play the carillon, musical notes are replaced by numbers. You simply push down the handle which corresponds to the numbers listed on the sheet of music. I was so surprised when Dean Chapman asked if I wanted to try to play it! Even though all of Faribault was listening, I took my chances and played Amazing Grace on the carillon. I am pleased to report, I did not make any mistakes! It was quite thrilling to play the bells of this iconic bell tower in Faribault!
I greatly enjoyed learning more about Bishop Whipple and viewing the beautiful space and artifacts inside the Cathedral. This tour is a hidden gem in southern Minnesota!
- Guided tours are scheduled on the first and third Wednesday of the month at noon. Double check the Cathedral’s website to view their calendar for dates. They are also available by appointment.
- The tours are free, but donations to the Cathedral are appreciated.
- The Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour
- Episcopal Church
- Rice County Historical Society
- Visit Faribault
In preparing this post, I read the book The First Cathedral: An Episcopal Community for Mission by Reverend Benjamin Ives Scott and Robert Neslund. It gives a great history of the construction of the Cathedral, Bishop Whipple, Dakota interactions, and early Faribault history. It can be purchased at the Cathderal of Our Merciful Saviour and is available at the Faribault Public Library.