When the procession of archbishops, bishops, priests, deacons and altar servers wends its way through the newly renovated Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle on Thursday, one of the robed figures will be the pope's representative to the United States.
Besides high-ranking clerics, the dedication service celebrating St. Jude's $9 million makeover promises pageantry rich with music and incense, and the ritual anointing of a new marble altar.
The dedication of St. Jude's — "mother church" of almost a half-million Catholics in the Tampa Bay area — will be a historic occasion, says Bishop Robert Lynch, head of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, which encompasses Pinellas, Hillsborough, Hernando, Citrus and Pasco counties.
"I just hope that my Catholic people will be proud of it," Lynch said.
Jennifer Huffman, 38, says she can't wait to see inside.
St. Jude's is where she and her husband, Jerry, 44, became Catholics more than a year ago, and where their son, Mason, 15 months old, was baptized.
"I just can't tell you how excited I am," Huffman said.
Last week, though, the cathedral at 5815 Fifth Ave. N remained a construction zone. Mechanical saws shrieked as workers were still cutting marble for the sanctuary floor. Lifts stood near curved wooden pews and a botanical landscape of palms, bougainvillea and numerous Florida plantings were still being put in place.
"At this point in any project, nerves tend to take over," said Chris Oman, vice president for Herman Construction Services.
"We have been working seven days a week for the past couple months and will continue to do so until the night of the dedication."
It has been 15 months since work began. The new, larger cathedral, enlarged from 25,713 to 33,546 square feet, features wider side aisles with alcoves for shrines, new pews, floors, restrooms, a new roof and a baptismal font made for immersion. Accommodations also have been made for parishioners with physical limitations who read the Scriptures or serve Holy Communion.
"I think it will be a benefit to the parish and the community," said Kathy Lefferson, 73, who uses a wheelchair and now will be able to read from the ambo, or lectern, during Mass.
One striking feature of the project will be the 24-foot-high stained glass window behind the altar. A circular glass motif set in it will serve as a backdrop for the cathedral's refurbished gold-plated tabernacle.
Lynch counts the removal of the large columns that supported the cathedral's dome above the altar as a key improvement.
"Now it's one congregation united around the altar and no more pillars" to block sight lines, he said.
Now the dome is supported by massive steel beams from Belgium, concealed by what Clearwater architect Nelson E. Griffin describes as flying buttresses.
"We were trying to add elements that you would typically see in a cathedral," he said.
Built in 1963, the church also has new glass walls on its north and south sides. "We wanted to update it and bring new light to it," Griffin said.
The contemporary look is what Lynch wanted.
"I didn't want to build Chartres or Notre Dame in Paris with its stained glass windows," he said, referring to the famous European cathedrals. "I wanted to build something that when you look out, you see this gorgeous world that God created that we live in."
Thursday's service will reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of the diocese. Representatives of various groups will take images representing their heritage to the new altar. The music that night will include selections in Vietnamese, Spanish, Tagalog, Polish, Lithuanian, Italian and French, said Christopher Berke, St. Jude's director of music.
The early part of the service — expected to be attended by dozens of clergy, including Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the papal ambassador to the U.S. — will be conducted in the dimmed church. Lynch will bless the water in the baptismal font and anoint the cathedral walls and altar before the ceremonial "lighting of the church."
For those like Maureen Ahern, co-chair of the renovation committee with Father Joseph Waters, the cathedral's rector, the dedication completes a years-long effort. It signifies "a renewed spirit in both our parish and in our entire diocese," Ahern said.
Early on, Lynch was criticized by some who objected to the extensive renovation plans. The bishop said the work was overdue, though he first tended to "other priorities" such as the Pinellas Hope program for the homeless.
"I would not build a new house for the Lord until we had housed the homeless in Pinellas County,'' said Lynch, 72, who faces mandatory retirement at 75.
"I probably will say sometime during the ceremony, that as proud as I am of this moment, I am probably more proud of how we've reached out to the poor and would rather be remembered for that, than as a brick-and-mortar bishop," he said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.