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St. Agnes Cathedral renovations nearly complete for Palm Sunday

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After more than a year and $4.4 million spent, renovations to St. Agnes Cathedral are nearly complete. This is the first overhaul in 34 years of the church that is the symbolic center of the nation's sixth-largest Catholic diocese. (Credit: J. Conrad Williams Jr.)

The $4.5 million renovation of St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre is almost complete, just in time for the holiest week of the year for Christians.

At Masses on Palm Sunday, many of the Catholic faithful will get their first look at the interior overhaul of the church that is the symbolic center of the nation’s sixth-largest diocese. The work is the first refurbishment and remodeling in 36 years.

Bishop William Murphy offered blessings and praise in a service of rededication on Friday night, expressing thanks to all who donated money for the 86-year-old cathedral’s renovation.

“Thanks to you, all of you, we have something beautiful to offer to God,” the bishop said. “Thanks to your prayers, your generosity, your love, this cathedral will welcome one and all to let the beauty of this place draw our hearts to God and remind us that he so loved the world that he sent his son to save us all.”

The bishop said he was thinking of a talk he had years ago with Dorothy Day, the social activist who converted to Catholicism and spent years working with and advocating for the poor and homeless.

“She reminded me that cathedrals should always be beautiful for the sake of the poor who, like us all, need beauty in their lives and can find it often only here, where they can enter freely and let the beauty inspire them as one with him,” Murphy said. “Here all are truly welcome!”

Sunday, worshippers will see a new altar, baptismal font and pulpit — all carved in Italy. The pews and floors have been refinished. And the ceiling no longer has the multicolored panels that earned the less-than-complimentary nickname “Rubik’s Cube.” Those who look upward now will see an expanse of serene, creamy white.

The tabernacle has been returned to the middle of the sanctuary, instead of off to the right. It is surrounded by a majestic, four-columned wood baldachin, or canopy, that features paintings of 12 saints, including St. John Paul II, St. Thomas More and St. Vincent de Paul.

The faithful will rest their knees on new kneelers. Many of the old ones broke frequently, said Msgr. William Koenig, the cathedral’s rector.

“Just as much as a church lifts our hearts, it is really Christ that we celebrate at Holy Week — and his death and resurrection,” he said. “And so this is a very fitting week for us to have our first Masses.”

On Palm Sunday, priests, lectors and altar servers will start the six Masses being held over the course of the day by gathering at the cathedral’s entrance. A priest — including the bishop during at least one Mass — will bless palms that commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem only days before the Romans crucified him 2,000 years ago.

Then the group will proceed up the aisle as a priest sprinkles holy water on palms held by parishioners. The faithful believe that three days after Jesus’ death, he was resurrected, on Easter Sunday.

The first phase of the interior work took place during the first four months of 2015 and focused on the tabernacle area. The second interior phase, which included the new altar, refurbished pews and repainted ceiling, started on Jan. 4. It is complete, except for installation of new, more efficient lighting.

Work on the exterior of the building, some of which is covered by scaffolding, should be done by the end of the summer, Koenig said.

The overhaul was funded by donations from St. Agnes parishioners, diocesan priests and other Catholics on Long Island to whom Murphy reached out, Koenig said. The church was built in 1930 and last renovated in the early 1980s.

The most recent effort started two years ago after a stone cross fell off the front of the cathedral and an engineering firm determined the exterior of the building needed extensive repairs.

Diocesan officials also decided to upgrade and remodel the interior, including giving a more prominent location to the tabernacle — the gold box that holds the bread wafers that the faithful believe are changed into the body of Christ at Mass, Koenig said.

The space where it was located previously, off the right side of the sanctuary, has been turned into a small chapel where people can pray and still see the tabernacle and altar.

The “cathedra” — the chair used by the bishop and adorned with his coat of arms — has been moved from the right side of the sanctuary to the left. It also is a completely different chair: the one used by the first bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, Walter Kellenberg, who took over the diocese when it was founded in 1957.

The chair was being kept in storage in the cathedral’s basement and has been refurbished.

The Palm Sunday services will have the aura of a homecoming for those who regularly worship at St. Agnes. The main level of the cathedral has been closed since early January, and Masses have been held in its basement or the nearby parish hall.

“I’m excited,” Koenig said. “Certainly it’s a great, great weekend to open the church for the first time for people to see.”

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