A Brief History
The Saint Paul Seminary was founded through the generosity of James J. Hill and the vision of Archbishop John Ireland to establish a firm foundation for its long history of preparing priests and other leaders for the Church. St. Mary’s Chapel was included in the original seminary plans drawn up by architect Cass Gilbert in 1891, but it was not completed until 1905. Clarence H. Johnston, a well-respected Minnesota architect, was chosen to design the chapel. Construction was completed by the Lauer Brothers, a local building firm.
Archbishop Austin Dowling oversaw the artistic decorating of the chapel in the 1920s by the Boston ecclesiastical firm Maginnis and Walsh. He specified the spiritual themes for both the exterior and interior of the chapel. The Annunciation scene over the exterior portal portraying Mary’s humble acceptance of God’s plan for her life, was chosen by him as a fitting model for seminarians to emulate on their path to priesthood. The richly carved exterior is made of large stone materials that reflect the earthbound, solid, fortress-like quality of Romanesque-Byzantine architecture with a touch of Renaissance and Gothic features.
The interior has the traditional design features of the basilica style of early church buildings. It has a flat, wood-beamed ceiling, a long nave with side aisles, apse, and sacristies adjoining it. The richly colored stained glass windows and murals were created by artist Bancel La Farge of New Haven, Connecticut, who was the son of American muralist, John La Farge. His designs for the murals were influenced by the Byzantine style he studied on his travels to Ravenna, Italy, and the Middle East. The prominent rose window contains the symbols of the four evangelists set among a floral and acanthus leaf design.
The seminary chapel was renovated in 1988. The primary design was created by liturgical consultant Frank Kacmarcik and the architectural firm was Rafferty, Raffferty, and Tollefson Inc. of St. Paul.
The chapel supports a wide variety of liturgical events, from daily worship for the resident seminarians and priests to full community gatherings and larger public occasions. A 22-stop tracker pipe organ from The Noack Organ Co., Inc., of Georgetown, Massachusetts, was installed in 2000. The organ, dedicated to the glory of God, serves the liturgical life of the seminary in a continuation and renewal of the long tradition of excellence in worship at The Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity.
The chapel is the heart and soul of our community. If you visit the chapel in person, we hope you will take time to reflect not only on the chapel’s artistic beauty, but more importantly, on its strongest legacies - the long tradition of people’s faith and their yielding to the will of God.
(This brief history is taken from a guidebook entitled “Saint Mary’s Chapel of The Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity: An Historical and Artistic Guide” by Noreen Waters. This book is available for purchase at the seminary reception desk.)