St. Laurence Cathedral History

by Chris Albracht
February 6, 2011

Editor’s Note: In preparing for the erection of St. Mary’s Church, Amarillo, to Cathedral status on Friday, March 25, The West Texas Catholic continues a series of stories on the cathedral churches of the Diocese of Amarillo. Our second story is on the second cathedral, St. Laurence Cathedral, Amarillo.

Amarillo—June 12, 1949. The date is symbolic for Catholics in Northeast Amarillo, as the first Catholic faith community was formed, a community that would become St. Laurence Church in 1955 and St. Laurence Cathedral in 1974.

The June 12, 1949 issue of the Amarillo Register, the diocesan newspaper, reported that “St. Lucien’s Chapel on the campus of Price College, Amarillo, will be open to public worship on Sundays and holy days, beginning Sunday, June 12, it is announced by Monsignor John Steinlage, rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral.

The Amarillo Register reported in its next issue that “more than 40 people attended Mass on June 12 in St. Lucien’s Chapel.”

Fast forward nearly five years--on a late winter morning in 1954 Bishop Laurence J. FitzSimon, third Bishop of the Diocese of Amarillo was riding in the back seat of a car driven by Father Leroy T. Matthiesen. Father Matthiesen, editor of the diocesan newspaper and diocesan vocation director, was on Northeast 24th Street, having left the Chancery office on the campus of St. Mary’s Academy to drive to the newly completed Chancery office, completed on the campus of Price College in December 1953.

As the car turned off Northeast 24th south onto Spring Street, Bishop FitzSimon motioned the future sixth Bishop of Amarillo to pull over.

“Would you like to start a parish here?” he asked, indicating an empty pasture to the east, separated from Spring Street by a barbed wire fence.

“Yes, yes, I would,” said Father Matthiesen, who had ordained to the priesthood less than eight years earlier.

“Good,” said Bishop FitzSimon. “I’ll give the parish six acres of land here at this corner.”

“What shall we start with?” Father Matthiesen inquired.

“Ask Monsignor Steinlage what he advises,” Bishop FitzSimon replied.

Monsignor Steinlage recommended a school staffed by Franciscan Sisters of Mary Immaculate. Bishop FitzSimon approved the proposal.

The barbed wire fence was removed and ground was broken on a three-room school on Easter Sunday, April 18. Completed in August, St. Laurence School opened in September with 71 pupils in two grades and a Home and School Association.

Encouraged by the rapid growth of the Catholic community in Northeast Amarillo, Bishop FitzSimon established St. Laurence Church on May 16, 1955 and appointed Father Matthiesen as pastor. Without a church home to call their own, parishioners continued to worship in St. Lucien’s Chapel.

As Northeast Amarillo continued to grow, so did the St. Laurence faith community. In 1958, a capital fund campaign was undertaken to raise funds to build more classrooms, an auditorium/gymnasium to serve as a temporary church and a rectory.  The campaign was launched at a dinner in the Price College gymnasium on July 1. It was to be the final function attended by Bishop FitzSimon. He died the next day of a massive stroke.

After the capital campaign surpassed its $100,000 goal, construction began in early 1959 and was completed in December of that year. The new building was blessed and dedicated by Bishop John L. Morkovsky on Dec. 2, 1959.

The 1960’s were ushered in with a continuation of growth for St. Laurence Church, but that growth would be halted in its tracks with the closing of the Amarillo Air Force Base on Dec. 31, 1968. St. Laurence Church and School, nearest the base, were affected more adversely than most. The parish lost 600 families from its rolls and the school’s enrollment dropped. The parish survived the downturn, however, and grew, but the school entered a period of declining enrollment and increasing costs.

As it turned out after the closing of the base, many families of retired military men and women stayed, along with longtime residents, insuring that St. Laurence Church would continue to be a viable parish.

In 1974, it had become obvious that Sacred Heart Cathedral could not survive as a viable entity. Its membership had declined to less than 25 families. After consulting the pastors of the city’s seven parishes, Bishop Lawrence M. DeFalco made the painful decision to close historic Sacred Heart Cathedral, effective May 4. The final Mass there was celebrated Jan. 19, 1975.

St. Laurence Church, with a seating capacity of 500, was by far the largest Catholic church in Amarillo at that time. That it was located in a medium-income area of the city appealed to Bishop DeFalco, as did its location on diocesan property that was also home to the Chancery Office, the Bishop’s House, Alamo Catholic High School and St. Francis Convent.

On Nov. 10, 1974, Bishop DeFalco went to St. Laurence Church to execute the decree given in Rome from the Office of the Sacred Congregation of Bishops, to transfer the Episcopal Cathedral from Sacred Heart to the church dedicated to St. Laurence.

At St. Laurence Church the determination was made not to build a new cathedral church, but rather to remodel the existing building. The structure being used as a church at St. Laurence was intended when it was built in 1959 to be an auditorium/gymnasium at such time as a new church could be built.

Enter liturgical artist Andrea “Drew” Bacigalupa of Santa Fe and architect Paul Deeley of Fort Worth.

Father Norbert Kuehler, who was pastor at St. Laurence at the time, admired the efforts of both artist and architect. Both agreed that the rectangular lines of the St. Laurence structure needed to be softened to create an atmosphere of reverence and to use the space advantageously for the needs of the liturgy.

The pews from the church were replaced, with the old ones donated to two churches: Our Lady of Guadalupe in Matador and St. Margaret Mary in Lamesa.

The renovated church building for St. Laurence Cathedral was dedicated on Oct. 5, 1975. Seven bishops were in attendance: Bishops Thomas Tschoepe of Dallas; Thomas J. Drury of Corpus Christi; Bernard J. Ganter, then of Tulsa; Vincent M. Harris of Austin; Jerome J. Hastrich of Gallup; Stephen Leven of San Angelo; and John Cassata of Fort Worth. Also in attendance were a number of clergy and visitors from surrounding states, interested in the architecture and art of St. Laurence Cathedral.

St. Laurence Cathedral has been featured in a number of writings on contemporary church architecture and furnishings. The design won a first-place honor for architect Deeley, at the Design Awards Program of the American Institute of Architects in Fort Worth in 1977.

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