St. Agnes Cathedral is in the midst of a $4.5 million renovation -- the first overhaul in 34 years of the church that is the symbolic center of the nation's sixth-largest Catholic diocese.

Parishioners will get their first look at refurbishments completed in the project's first stage during Palm Sunday services at the Rockville Centre cathedral.

The tabernacle and the bishop's chair, objects of religious significance, are in new locations -- with the tabernacle returned to its original place in the center of the sanctuary. A new chapel is open and will be available to those who wish to come and pray far beyond the former closing time of 2 p.m. Part of the high, vaulted ceiling has been repainted.

More is coming in the second and third phases: refinished pews and new kneelers for worshippers, as well as enhanced lighting and exterior masonry repairs.

Bishop William Murphy, who heads the diocese of about 1.5 million Catholics, said the renovation and remodeling is "something that's been in my heart for a long time."

"I think it is going to be a gift to the Church and beyond the diocese," he said. "This will be a beautiful worship space."

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Each Sunday, St. Agnes hosts 10 Masses, drawing a total of about 4,000 people. Hundreds more attend weekday services. And across the country, millions of people see the cathedral during daily Masses on Telecare, the diocesan television station picked up by cable companies.

"That daily Mass is the most important thing that we offer, and the cathedral sanctuary was looking pretty tired if you watch on television," Murphy said. "This is going to restore and actually improve what was there originally."

Long wait for renovation

The present St. Agnes, built as a parish church, opened in 1935. Designated a cathedral in 1957 for the newly created Diocese of Rockville Centre, its last renovation was in the early 1980s.

Msgr. William Koenig, the cathedral's rector, is spearheading the project, which will continue into 2016.

"A lot of the things we are doing for safety and maintenance," he said. The renovated church is "something that can help lift up our hearts and our spirits to pray to God, which is what the tradition of churches are -- they lift us up."

Since the project's start in early January, the cathedral has been closed on weekdays. Weekend Masses have been celebrated, but first a temporary wall and then a curtain blocked the public's view of the new tabernacle area.

The curtain was taken down Friday, and the cathedral will return to its regular operation for Sunday's services that mark the start of Holy Week, leading up to Easter.

The cathedral will temporarily close again for weekday Masses in January, when the project's final phase kicks in.

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Murphy raised $2.3 million by reaching out to Catholics he believed could make a sizable contribution, Koenig said. Another $2.3 million was pledged by parishioners of St. Agnes parish, and priests in the parish committed $100,000, he said.

The cathedral is an especially important place for diocesan priests, Koenig said, because it is where most are ordained.

New touches for tabernacle

The focus of the project's first phase was moving the tabernacle, the gold box that holds the bread wafers that the faithful believe are changed into the body of Christ at Mass.

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When the church originally opened, the tabernacle was in the center of the sanctuary. It was moved to a small room to the right during the last renovation, and in that location it could not be seen by all worshippers, Koenig said.

"I think it is very appropriate that it can be seen throughout the church," he said. "It certainly should have a place of prominence."

The 2010 Roman Missal, approved by Pope Benedict XVI, called for the tabernacle to be in a "truly noble, prominent, conspicuous" place, Koenig noted.

The tabernacle's former location has been turned into a "veneration chapel" where people can enter the cathedral through a side entrance to pray when no services are taking place. They will be able to view the tabernacle and altar.

The cathedral used to close about 2 p.m. each day for security reasons. The new chapel will allow worshippers to visit into the evening without having access to the rest of the cathedral, Koenig said.

A large wood reproduction of Michelangelo's Pieta, which depicts Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus, has been moved into the veneration chapel. The carving previously was located near a side exit by the pews.

The chapel will include an altar donated to the diocese by Cardinal Timothy Dolan from a church that was closed in the Archdiocese of New York, Koenig said.

The tabernacle has been placed on a four-step marble platform so it can be seen from congregants in the pews. Immediately behind it, a massive religious wall sculpture called a reredos has been repainted a woodlike color to make it stand out more distinctly and give a feeling of greater "warmth," Koenig said. In the 1980s renovation, the reredos was painted white, and it blended in too much with the white wall, he said.

Serene makeover

Wood paneling will be installed on each side of the reredos to give it added prominence. In addition, a four-columned wood baldachin, or canopy, will be erected over the tabernacle in the next few weeks.

To make room for the tabernacle, the cathedra, or bishop's chair, where the bishop sits during Mass, has been moved to the left side of the sanctuary.

When the bishop says Mass on Sunday, he will be in a different chair -- the one used by the late Bishop Walter Kellenberg, the diocese's first bishop. Kellenberg's chair was in storage in the cathedral's basement and has been refurbished, Koenig said.

And for parishioners who have jokingly called the ceiling "Rubik's Cube" because of its bold colors, the new palette is a serene off-white.

The cathedral's ceiling "was the one thing people complained about," Koenig said.

Koenig said he was impressed when he got his first full view of the changes this month. "I think it's more beautiful than what I expected," he said.

In another beneficial aesthetic change, the cameras used to broadcast Masses will be less conspicuous. Koenig said workers have installed small, stationary cameras that can be operated remotely. Until now, Telecare has used full-sized cameras placed on large pieces of plywood that rested on the tops of pews.

Phase two of the renovation will begin in April as workers repair the exterior and install new lighting to better illuminate the cathedral and its iconic three-level bell tower, seen from miles away.

Phase three, scheduled to start in January, will complete the work inside the cathedral.

That should be done by Easter 2016, Koenig said, and the finished product is something the faithful "are going to be proud of."

St. Agnes Cathedral renovation

PHASE ONE

Relocate tabernacle to center of sanctuary

Install four-column wood baldachin over tabernacle

Repaint reredos wall sculpture

Create "veneration chapel" in space where tabernacle previously was located

Move bishop's chair from center to left of sanctuary

Repaint a portion of multicolored ceiling

PHASE TWO

Repair masonry, flashing, bricks, pointing and stone work on outside of cathedral

Install new exterior lighting

PHASE THREE

Finish painting rest of the ceiling

Paint walls, refurbish wooden pews, replace kneelers, install better lighting and new flooring

HISTORY OF ST. AGNES CATHEDRAL

1894: St. Agnes parish established

1905: First parish church opens

1933: Original church demolished

1935: New church opens

1957: The church is designated the cathedral for the newly created Diocese of Rockville Centre

1981-82: Renovation

2015-16: Second renovation