Building Tour

Tour of St. Paul Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts

tour1The Church has adapted many styles of architecture for public worship–from the ancient synagogues of Israel and the temples of Greece and Rome to the medieval Gothic and now modern styles. St. Paul’s is a “Romanesque” church, patterned after the meeting halls of the Roman Empire. An oblong hall is divided by matching rows of columns, surmounted by a barrel-vaulted ceiling and rounded arches. Since the weight is supported by the walls, the windows are small. St. Paul’s, designed by architect Edward Graham, is modeled after the Church of San Zeno Maggiore in Verona, Italy. Beside the church building is the campanile, or bell tower (modeled after the campanile of the Torre del Commune also in Verona). At its top is a clock donated by the teachers and students of the parish schools; originally the clock tolled the quarter hour and angelus and, after falling into disrepair for many years, was recently restored and once again marks the passing of the hours.

tour2Beneath a large rose window there is a stone frieze above the doors. In the frieze above the central door is a figure of St. Paul, the patron saint of the parish, portrayed as interpreter of the Old Law and the New Law, his finger on the text of the Bible, the page held open by a sword, which does not represent physical force but the spiritual force of God’s word: “Indeed, God’s word is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates and divides the soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the reflections and thoughts of the heart.” (Hebrews 4) Beneath St. Paul is the Angel of Revelation, holding up the cross, the symbol of salvation; followers are drawn to the cross from both sides. Above the side doors are the coats of arms of those in office when St. Paul’s was built: on the left is the coat of arms of Pope Benedict XV, on the right the coat of arms of Cardinal O’Connell. A vine runs through the frieze, symbolizing the Christ-like love which unites the community; the imagery is from the Gospel of John (“I am the vine, you are the branches.”).

After passing through the outer doors one enters the vestibule, patterned after a cloister chapel and dedicated to the memory of those who served in World War I. Small basins of holy water stand on both sides of the central doors leading from the vestibule to the inner church; these recall one’s first entry into the Church through the waters of baptism.

tour01The interior of the church is more than a convenient meeting place; it is designed as an expression of Christian life, imagery dating from the earliest days of the Church: “You form a building which rises on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone.” (Ephesians 2) As in the imagery from Ephesians, Christ is the capstone, dominating the interior of St. Paul’s Church in the bas relief above the altar. In the nave the row of pillars not only holds up the roof but represents the “foundation of the apostles and prophets.” The effect is to focus attention on the sanctuary.


The sanctuary is the center of public worship in the liturgy of the Mass. It contains the altar in the center, the ambo to the right, and the celebrant’s chair to the left. At the high altar, the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the tabernacle. To the side of the high altar, a red candle constantly burns, announcing the presence of the Eucharist and symbolizing God’s continual presence in our lives.

The statues and windows in the church represent the continuation of Christ’s work through the Church. To the right of the main altar table is a statue of an elderly man holding a scroll; he is the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Like all the other statues in the building, it was carved from Caen stone by the French sculptor Lualdi. To the left of the main altar is a statue portraying divine love in human form, the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

tour5 Above the tabernacle on the high altar is a crucifix, expressing both the depth of God’s love for humanity and the self-sacrificing love man must imitate to share in divinity. Behind the crucifix are twelve large pillars of Brescia stone. The pillars recall the twelve pillars set up by Moses to symbolize the covenant between God and the Israelites, and also represent the twelve apostles. Atop each pillar is a portrait of an apostle and a part of the Apostles’ Creed. In medieval times, the Creed was thought to have been composed by the twelve apostles themselves before leaving Mount Olivet on the day of Christ’s Ascension. Each apostle supposedly had written one article, symbolized by the text of the creed atop each pillar. Now historians tell us that the Apostles’ Creed was developed for baptisms in the early centuries of the Church, before the Nicene Creed in 325. The name “Apostles’ Creed” means that it was faithful to the beliefs of the original apostles, not that it was composed by them. However, the medieval legend still presents a basic truth: that the formulas of the Church are the expression of a community, not the writings of one person.

Atop the pillars is a frieze carved from Caen stone. In the center is a cross, with peacocks (representing immortality) under its arms. In the far right part of the frieze is the Paschal Lamb. The lamb as a symbol of God’s grace originates with the feast of the Passover in the Old Testament; the early Church applied the same imagery to Christ. “The sheep gives her flesh for food to those who are strong, her milk to those who are weak; with her fleece she clothes the naked, and with her skin she shelters the cold.” (Rupert of Tuy) In the far left part of the frieze is a pelican, which may seem a strange symbol for Christ until one reads the medieval legends of this bird: “The pelican, after having killed her young, revives them at the end of three days by opening her breast and sprinkling them with blood, even as on the third day God raised his Son.” (Honorius of Autun) Above the frieze is a bas relief of the Ascension. Christ’s hands are outstretched in welcome, while his followers are gathered below on Mount Olivet; Mary, Peter, and John are in the center. Theology can only deepen but never exhaust the mystery presented–the ultimate possibility for human existence. The limitation of human understanding is seen even in the bas relief, where clouds and angels hide the ascending Christ from his followers, who gaze upward in faith and hope, though they cannot see clearly.

tour6In the nave of the church the large columns of Roman Travertine stone not only hold up the roof but also symbolize the Scriptures. Atop each pillar is a six-pointed Star of David, representing the Old Testament. The New Testament is represented by the four beasts which are placed in turn atop the pillars: man, ox, lion, and eagle, symbolizing the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John respectively. The New Testament is explicitly presented above the columns in the two rows of bas reliefs (carved by Hugh Cairns) that face each other above the main aisle. As you enter the church, those on the left portray scenes from Jesus’ youth: the annunciation, the visitation, the presentation in the temple, the visit of the three kings, the flight into Egypt, the teaching in the temple, the workshop at Nazareth, and the wedding feast at Cana. On the right are scenes from the public ministry of Jesus: his baptism by John, calling the apostles, conferring primacy on Peter, preaching the Sermon on the Mount, blessing children, forgiving Mary Magdalene, raising Lazarus, entering Jerusalem, the Last Supper. Between the panels is a chasuble with golden cross, surmounted by a tiara, the symbol of the pope. The passion and death of Jesus are portrayed in the Stations of the Cross located on the walls between the stained-glass windows; these were also carved by Hugh Cairns.

tour7 To the left of the main sanctuary is the St. Joseph altar, above which is a statue of St Joseph, foster father of Our Lord Jesus and patron of workers and families. On each side of the statue is a painting by Marisaal of a major event in the life of Joseph: on the left is the espousal of Mary and Joseph, and on the right, the death of Joseph. Above the statue are the words, “Ecce fidelis servus et prudens” (“Behold, a faithful and prudent servant”).

tour8aIn an alcove facing the center of the church is a statue of Mary, crowned after the Assumption as Our Lady of Victory. At the apex is the crown of glory, showing the new star, Mary, now added to the heavens. Two angels trumpet the title, one to heaven and one to earth. In front of the statue of Mary is the baptismal font, where the sacrament of reception into the Christian community takes place. To the left of the statue is a painting of the presentation of Mary in the temple, and to the right is depicted the dormition (falling asleep) of Mary at the end of her earthly life. The feast of the dormition was widely celebrated as early as the fifth century. As time passed, the Western Church emphasized it as the feast of the Assumption of Mary.

tour9Farther along the wall is the statue of St. Peter. In one hand he holds the keys of the kingdom, symbol of his office, and in the other, he holds the Scriptures, symbol of his mission. The statue was donated by the local Knights of Columbus, whose names are sealed below in a box in the masonry. Facing St. Peter across the church, between the stained-glass windows and the organ, stands the statue of St. Paul. The statue was donated by the Harvard-Radcliffe Catholic Club in honor of six of its members who died in World War I; their names are carved on a bronze plate on the front of the pedestal. In addition to his statue, the patron saint of St. Paul’s is also portrayed in two bas reliefs in the church over the side doors leading to the vestibule: To the left of the window portraying St. Gregory, Paul is in Ephesus, where his preaching is successful, and those hearing him are burning their books of magic. On the opposite side of the church Paul is addressing the philosophers of Athens; in the background are the Acropolis and the temple of Athena. This was a less successful effort–the philosophers are interested but unpersuaded.

tour10On the right side of the church overlooking the choir stalls is the statue of St. Patrick, patron saint of the Archdiocese of Boston and of Ireland, home of many of the early residents of St. Paul’s parish. On each side of the statue is a painting of a major event in Patrick’s life. On the right he and his followers are conducted into the court of Tara by Erin and his warriors (note the Gaelic carvings and Irish hound). On the left Patrick is at the cathedral at Armagh, blessing the crown to be worn by the Christian king of Ireland.

tour12There are three stained-glass windows near the choir stalls. In the center is St. Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. Above her is written: “Benedictus fructus ventris tui” (“Blessed is the fruit of your womb”), the words with which she greeted Mary. On the left is John the Baptist. Above is written: “Ecce Agnus Dei” (“Behold, the Lamb of God”), recalling John’s mission of preaching. On the right is St. John the Evangelist. Above him are the words: “Verbum caro factum est” (“The Word was made flesh”), from the opening of his gospel. To the left of the window is a painting of missionaries who had served the Church by 1923, when St. Paul’s was constructed. Cardinal O’Connell is blessing them, and beside him stands the pastor of St. Paul’s, Father John Ryan.

The remainder of the tour of St. Paul’s covers the stained-glass windows found on both sides of the nave of the church and explains the role each saint depicted in them played in the history of the Church.

lady_altarLearning has always been a major part of Catholic tradition. As St. Bernard wrote eight centuries ago: “God is Wisdom, and he wills to be loved not only sweetly but wisely; as St. Paul says: ‘Let your service be one that is worthy of thinking beings.’ For if you neglect knowledge, the spirit of error will lead you astray effortlessly by means of your own zeal.” The ten stained-glass windows in the nave of St. Paul’s Church portray those who combined holiness and scholarship in a way suited to the tempers of themselves and their times. The windows were made in Germany, patterned after Renaissance images of the saints. Our tour of the windows begins with the one nearest the statue of St. Peter on the left side of the church.

St. Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor (297-373)

St. Athanasius is shown carrying the book of a scholar and the staff of a patriarch. Above him are the words “Incarnatus est” (“The Word was made flesh”), referring to his lifelong struggle to defend the doctrine of the Incarnation. Beneath him is a ship, recalling his youth as a dockworker and his time in exile.

Educated in Alexandria in both Greek and Christian learning, his biography of St. Anthony spread the idea of monasticism to the West. Most of his life was spent combatting the Arian heresy, which claimed Christ was not divine and equal to the Father but a lesser creation. His feast is on the anniversary of his death,

St. Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor (344-397)

As one moves toward the doors of the church, the next window depicts St. Ambrose with the book of a scholar and the staff of a bishop, hand raised to bless. Above him are the words “Tu rex gloriae Christe” (“You are the King of glory, Christ”), taken from the hymn Te Deum, which, according to legend, Ambrose composed at the baptism of St. Augustine. Beneath Ambrose is a beehive, a pun on the saint’s name (the word for honey in Latin is “ambrosia”); his preaching was said to be mellifluous, as sweet as flowing honey. Ambrose continued to develop the music of the Church and is credited with the texts of several hymns that appear in the hymnal used at St. Paul’s. His feast is celebrated on December 7th.

St. Augustine, Bishop and Doctor (354-430)

The next window depicts St. Augustine with the book of a scholar, the staff of a bishop, and a heart aflame with love. Above him are the words “Mediator est” (“He is the mediator”), referring to the saint’s theological writings on Christ. Beneath him is a child pouring water out of a seashell. Legend says Augustine was once walking along the seashore, lost in thought and trying to reason out the nature of the Trinity. He came upon a child attempting to empty the ocean by carrying away water in a seashell. “It’s impossible,” Augustine told the child, “for your shell is too small.” The child replied, “So also your mind is too small to hold so great a mystery as the Trinity.”

One of the great theologians of the Church, Augustine wrote extensively on many subjects, including the nature of Christ in his treatise “The City of God.” His “Confessions” is a classic of Catholic theological thought. Augustine’s feast is celebrated August 28.

St. Jerome, Priest and Doctor (340-420)



In the next window St. Jerome holds the book of a scholar. Above him are the words “Beata Virgo Maria” (“Blessed Virgin Mary”), referring to his defense of the doctrine of the virginity of Mary. Beneath is a lion, a desert beast, recalling Jerome’s years as a solitary in the desert of Syria. Some legends describe how he made a pet of a real lion by pulling a thorn from its paw.

His major work was a translation of the Bible. By the end of his life he had translated almost the entire Bible into Latin, a translation used by the Church for over fifteen centuries, until Vatican II. His feast is observed on September 30.

St. Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor (540-604, Pope from 590 to 604)

In his window, St. Gregory holds the book of a scholar and the pen of a writer. The dove whispering in his ear symbolizes the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Above him is written “Christe eleison” (“Christ, have mercy”), recalling the chant which he inserted into the Mass: “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison.” Below him are the two keys of St. Peter, symbols of the primacy of the Pope. Gregory developed the plainchant which now bears his name. The St. Paul hymnal contains more than 25 hymns set to Gregorian chant. Gregory’s greatest contribution, however, may be his writings on the spiritual life. Gregory’s feast is on September 3, the anniversary of his elevation to the chair of Peter.

St. Anselm, Bishop and Doctor (1033-1109)

On the right side of the church the window nearest the entrance depicts St. Anselm, who holds the staff of a bishop, the book of a scholar, and the pen of a writer. Above him is written “Cur Deus Homo” (“Why the God-Man?”), the title of one of his books on the Incarnation. Beneath him is a cross ringed with the limbs of a fruit tree, contrasting the tree of man’s downfall in the Garden of Eden with the tree of salvation, the Cross.

One of the first to apply logic to theology, he is regarded as the “father of scholasticism.” His best-known work is on the “ontological proof of the existence of God.” Anselm’s feast is celebrated April 21st.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Abbot and Doctor (1090-1153)

HCC_stained glass

As we move toward the altar, the next window depicts St. Bernard in the habit of a Cistercian monk. Above him is written “Missus est” (“He has been sent”). This may refer to the Annunciation, as in Luke: “The angel of the Lord was sent…to Mary,” recalling Bernard’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin. It may also refer to Bernard himself, sent from the Abbey at Cîteaux to found the monastery at Clairvaux. Beneath him is a cross,.wreathed in a shroud and accompanied by a lance and sponge, the instruments of the Passion.

Bernard is best remembered for his theological writings. If Anselm is the father of scholasticism, then Bernard may be called the last of the patristic fathers. Living at about the same time, the two men exemplify the variety and vitality of the medieval Church. Bernard’s feast is on August 20.

St. Bonaventura, Bishop and Doctor (1217-1274)

In the next window St. Bonaventura wears the red hat and robes of a cardinal. Above him is written: “Lignum vitae” (“The tree of life”). Legend says that St. Thomas Aquinas asked to see the books Bonaventura had read to acquire his great wisdom. Bonaventura replied by showing him a crucifix. Beneath the figure in the window is an angel with a chalice and the Eucharist. Another legend says that when Bonaventura was too humble to take communion on one occasion, an angel appeared and brought the Eucharist to him.

Bonaventura died on July 15, 1274, He was canonized in 1482 and in 1588 was made a doctor of the Church, the “Seraphic Doctor.” His feast day is on the anniversary of his death.


St. Thomas Aquinas, Priest and Doctor (1225-1274)


St. Thomas wears the habit of a Dominican friar, and in one hand he holds the book of the office for the Feast of Corpus Christi, which he wrote. Above him is written: “Panem de coelo praestitisti eis” (“You gave them bread from heaven”), a reference to the manna given the Israelites in the desert as a type of the Eucharist. This passage is part of the office for Corpus Christi. Beneath the figure is a dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit. Like the sunburst on Thomas’ chest, it is a symbol of wisdom and inspiration.

Several of his hymns are still in use today, but Thomas is most remembered for his philosophical and theological writing. The influence of his work has been enormous. A prolific writer, his basic concern was to reconcile the faith of the Church, based on scripture and tradition, with the learning of Aristotle, based on observation and reason. Aquinas was canonized in 1323 and proclaimed a doctor of the Church in 1567, the “Angelic Doctor.” His feast is celebrated January 28.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, Priest (1491-1556)

In the window closest to the organ St. Ignatius is depicted as a priest. Above him is written “Ad majorem Dei gloriam” (“To the greater glory of God”), the motto of the Jesuit Order. Beneath him is the monogram of the order: IHS (the Holy Name of Jesus), surrounded by the crown of thorns and the three nails of the Crucifixion. Ignatius died in 1556 and was canonized in 1622. His feast is celebrated July 31.




We have “toured” St. Paul’s Church in a fairly straightforward fashion: in the front door, through the vestibule, up the central aisle to the sanctuary, then around the outside walls. However, this is not the only way to appreciate the art of the church. If the Church wished her art to be seen always in the same order, she would have strung her symbols out along a corridor as in a museum, with a large sign pointing “One Way.” They are not so arranged. They surround a person and provide many views for prayer and reflection. What Thomas à Kempis says of books applies equally well to art. Both help a person seek God: “A book has but one voice; yet it does not instruct all men alike. For within the soul am I, the Teacher, the Truth, the Searcher of the heart, the Understander of all thoughts, the Mover of actions: giving unto every man as I shall judge meet.”

The building of a church is one of the few works of art we view from within; indeed, we ourselves become part of the work of art. The building is, after all, important only as the expression of a vibrant community. As St. Bernard told his fellow monks eight centuries ago: “What sanctity can these stones have, that we should celebrate their feast? Yet they are indeed holy, but because of your bodies….Holy are your souls because the Holy Spirit dwells in them; holy are your bodies because of your souls; and holy is this house because of your bodies.”