St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre revealed the first of several major renovations to parishioners on Palm Sunday, including a new chapel.

"To see the people's faces today and to listen to the people's reactions, the ones who spoke to me about it afterward, I think they're all very happy with it," said Bishop William Murphy, who heads the diocese of about 1.5 million Catholics. "It's not completed, but they now can get a better sense of how much that's going to be a place that will gather us together and draw us here."

About 400 people packed the 11 a.m. Mass Sunday, getting their first look at renovations the diocese began in January. The project is to continue into 2016, with a projected final cost of $4.5 million. The refurbishments are the first in 34 years and part of the first of a three-phase project.

St. Agnes was built as a parish church and opened in 1935. It was designated as a cathedral in 1957 for the newly created Diocese of Rockville Centre, now the nation's sixth-largest diocese.

For some parishioners, the renovations are a symbol that Catholicism can endure for future generations, even as some churches are closed in New York City.

Bishop William Murphy walks down the aisle during Palm Sunday Mass inside the newly renovated St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, Sunday, March 29, 2015. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

"Any improvement in my parish is going to be an improvement for the whole community," said Nina Fiore, a 15-year parishioner who donated money toward the renovations. "It's for future generations; we want to see it improved and stay as beautiful as it is for the children and grandchildren."

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A notable change was the opening of a new "veneration chapel" where the tabernacle was previously held.

The chapel is to stay open after the church closes at 2 p.m. with hours varying depending on the season, said Msgr. William Koenig, the cathedral's rector and lead on the project.

The vaulted ceiling above the sanctuary was repainted off-white, replacing oft-criticized bright red, green and blue squares. The rest of the ceiling retains the vivid pattern, but is to be repainted as renovations continue.

Carol and Bruce Lombardi, parishioners at St. Agnes for 34 years, called the renovation work "beautiful."

"It's the hub of the diocese, we feel very grateful to be part of that," Carol Lombardi said of donating toward the project.

Bruce Lombardi said he is most looking forward to the completion of the sanctuary's wood finishings, part of Koenig and Murphy's final vision to replace the all-white paint.

"The oak works together and it gives it a warmth that it didn't have without that," Murphy said outside the cathedral Sunday. "What's really happened is a harmony in the building that we didn't have before."

Other changes include relocating the tabernacle to the center of the sanctuary; moving a reproduction of Michelangelo's Pieta, a sculpture of Mary holding Jesus' dead body, into the chapel; and shifting the bishop's chair from the center to left of the sanctuary.

Work still to be completed includes refinishing pews, installing new kneelers and making exterior repairs.

St. Agnes hosts 10 Masses each Sunday, with about 4,000 parishioners attending. Hundreds more attend weekday services, which had been suspended until the unveiling of phase one's progress.