This Majestic Newark Cathedral is Sacred and Superlative

Newark’s historic cathedral soars to spiritual and architectural heights.

Photo by Fred R. Conrad

The Reverend Armand Mantia has been leading tours of the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the seat of the Archdiocese of Newark and home of Cardinal Joseph Tobin’s pulpit, for 42 years. He doesn’t get bored.

“This is the most perfect and exact example of French Gothic architecture in the Western Hemisphere,” he declares from the towering cathedral’s sanctuary on a warm day in late May. Though he is wearing a priest’s collar, he comes off as slightly braggadocious.
He is just warming up.

The building, the fifth largest cathedral in North America, embraces 45,000 square feet, roughly the size of Westminster Abbey. It is 365 feet long and 161 feet wide, with 106-foot-high ceilings—roomy enough to seat up to 2,000, Mantia claims.

The cathedral’s two towers are most boast-worthy. At 232 feet, they are 7 feet taller than the towers at Westminster Abbey in London and 6 feet taller than those of Notre Dame in Paris.

“Size matters,” Mantia says, deadpan.

History does, too. Construction of the cathedral began in 1899, following a proposal by Newark’s first bishop James Roosevelt Bayley, who had been appointed by Pope Pius IX six years earlier. The exterior, made of limestone and Vermont Rockport granite, was finished in 1929, but work on the inside was halted the same year, as the Great Depression and then World War II gripped the country.

When construction of the staggeringly beautiful interior finally resumed in 1950, it took four years to complete. The building incorporates several different types of domestic and imported marble; hand-carved Appalachian oak; crystal, silver and bronze for chandeliers; and a whole lot of stained glass handcrafted in Munich, including three rose windows, the kind most coveted by architecture buffs.

In fact, Mantia says, art historians consider the cathedral’s stained glass the second finest in the world, after the Chartres Cathedral in Northern France.

Everything in the place—from the 5-foot-7-inch marble statue of Jesus on the bronze crucifix hanging from the baldachino to the massive pipe organ—exudes grandeur.

Over the years, the cathedral has withstood blizzards, hurricanes and perhaps most notably, the Newark Rebellion of 1967. “The riots were a few blocks away from here,” Mantia says.

In recent years, the cathedral has become a minor basilica—that is, a church of special prominence honored by the pope. “It’s sort of like being knighted,” Mantia says. Pope John Paul II made the designation when he visited in October 1995; then President Bill Clinton was also in attendance.

Whether the cathedral will one day be called the former home of America’s first pope remains to be seen. But the building, snuggled up against Branch Brook Park in Newark’s lower Broadway neighborhood, fulfills the need for splendor, whoever is at the pulpit. It’s “a symphony of praise to almighty God,” Mantia says.

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