Travel Interstate 70 through eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania in the United States, and you will cross through a narrow sliver of land between those two states, a sliver that is part of the state of West Virginia. In that West Virginia sliver, in the town of Wheeling on the Ohio River, is a spectacular—and starry—Catholic cathedral. Hop off the expressway and visit it. You will not be disappointed!
According to the cathedral’s web page, the Wheeling cathedral was originally (and before the current church building was constructed) titled to Saint James the Apostle. But “in 1872, in response to the rising devotion to Saint Joseph, Husband of Mary throughout the universal Church and the burgeoning labor movement among the Catholics of the coal fields, Bishop Whelan petitioned Rome to change the title of the Cathedral to honor Saint Joseph.” The current church building was dedicated on April 21, 1926. The bishop at the time, Bishop Swint, said that it had been built “not for a few years, for fifty years or a hundred years, but to… stand for hundreds of years and be a beautiful legacy which the present congregation would bequeath to future generations”.
The cathedral’s stars are all on its ceiling, of course—the ceiling behind its altar and the ceiling of its dome. Stars go with angels in this example of Astronomy in Art & Architecture (click here for all Astronomy in Art & Architecture posts). From a nerdy astronomer’s standpoint, the stars do not really look like stars. But the stars are not there to be a realistic depiction of the night sky. Rather, they are part of imagery from the Book of Revelation. The dome includes verses from Revelation, too:
And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne, and the living creatures, and the ancients; and the number of them was thousands of thousands, Saying with a loud voice: The Lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power, and divinity, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and benediction. And every creature, which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them: I heard all saying: To him that sitteth on the throne, and to the Lamb, benediction, and honour, and glory, and power, for ever and ever. (Rev. 5:11-13)
The artwork may not be astronomically realistic, but it is remarkable, nonetheless. My photos do not do it justice. The cathedral’s website does a better job, but really—you must see the cathedral for yourself.
In older Bibles the Book of Revelation is called The Apocalypse of St. John the Apostle, and this cathedral is especially remarkable because, were a person brought forward in time from the Wheeling of the 1920s (shortly after this cathedral had been completed) to today, he or she would probably think that Wheeling had been through its own apocalypse. Wheeling, and the whole region around Wheeling, has suffered greatly by the economic changes of the past century. Wheeling’s population peaked in the 1930’s and is today half of what it was then. The economic engine that was able to build a cathedral like St. Joseph is long gone. The cathedral is by no means the only structure of substance that the people of Wheeling built, but many of those other substantial buildings are empty and in need of work. There are many well-built homes, with lovely views of the Ohio River valley, that appear to have been unoccupied for many years. A two-hundred-year-old church just uphill from the cathedral is well on its way to becoming a ruin.
So Wheeling’s Cathedral of St. Joseph, which is beautifully maintained, and has a Catholic high school next to it, and lovely grounds around it, really stands out in the town. It seems clear that people past and present have continued to ensure that these Catholic places would survive. No doubt a strong Catholic cathedral and high school are a great asset to Wheeling, a legacy to future generations indeed. The Cathedral of St. Joseph is itself a star. Once it was part of a constellation. It should never have become not part of a constellation, and I look forward to a time when Wheeling regains its economic footing, so that the cathedral will be part of a constellation again.