History of Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral

Written and Researched by Dr. Gretchen Harvey

It could be said that Gethsemane Cathedral and the City of Fargo grew up together. In September of 1871, the Northern Pacific railroad announced its intention of crossing the Red River at the site where Moorhead and Fargo now stand. Within a month of the announcement, two tent communities sprung up in Fargo: “Fargo on the Prairie” and “Fargo in the Timber.” With the railroads came missionaries and Fargo enjoyed its first Episcopal service on August 29, 1872, the Reverand Joseph A Gilfilian, Rector from Brainerd, presiding. Early church services were held in a Northern Pacific dining tent for a congregation made up of mostly railroad employees and their wives. Although tent services proved tolerable during summer months, North Dakota winters compelled the growing congregation to find a sturdier structure in which to share communion. In 1873, Fargo Episcopalians began meeting for worship in “Pinkham’s Hall,” located at the corner of Front (Main) and 3rdstreet, until money could be raised to build a church of their own. Known as “The Church of the Crossing,” this mission church served a congregation of about 20-25 regular attendees.

B.F. Mackall, a young druggist living in Moorhead, was an important lay leader for Fargo’s growing congregation. In addition to helping raise money to build a church proper, Mackall led regular prayer services during those times when an ordained Priest was absent. By the summer of 1874, less than two years after the first Episcopal service was held in Fargo, congregants had raised enough money to begin building themselves a permanent church. Newly named Christ Church, it was completed in 1875 and located at 204 9th St. South, on land donated by General George W. Cass. Within the next few years, Christ Church was blown off its foundation, rebuilt, granted parish status, and renamed Gethsemane church. The booming agricultural economy of the 1880s led to growth in church membership (188 members in 1881), the addition of vested choir, and to structural additions including a vesting room, stained glass windows, a bell tower, and a pipe organ.

After the missionary district of North Dakota was formed in 1883, Fargo was chosen as its See City. Bishop W. D. Walker, North Dakota’s first bishop, began publishing the “North Dakota Churchman” in 1886 (renamed the “North Dakota Sheaf” in 1902). He is also famous for outfitting a Pullman railroad car as a traveling mission church in 1890. Called “The Church of the Advent” and “The Cathedral Car of North Dakota,” Bishop Walker used the car to minister to the diocese for about a decade until the costs of maintaining the car were no longer practical.

By the 1890s, Gethsemane’s congregation had outgrown its church, which by this time had also been badly damaged by wind and had once again been blown off its foundation. Ambitious plans to build a new cathedral out of red sandstone were made and then altered due to the onset of a national economic depression. In the end, a new cathedral was built, but it consisted of a wood-frame building resting upon a sandstone foundation. The new cathedral was unique in that it possessed decorative wooden features, normally made of stone, to duplicate the original plans for a cathedral in the gothic revival style. Some 300 people attended the new cathedral’s first service on February 11, 1900. It would be another thirteen years, however, before the cathedral would be debt-free and able to be consecrated.

In 1980, Gethsemane Cathedral was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tragically, after renovation efforts got out of control, the cathedral was burned beyond repair on September 12, 1989. In short order, the congregation rallied and on May 18, 1991, ground breaking began for a new Gethsemane Cathedral, located at its current site at 3600 25th St. South. Like its predecessor, Gethsemane Cathedral’s architecture is unique. Also, the spirit of that young druggist, B.F. Mackall, continues; volunteer lay and ordained ministry flourishes at Gethsemane Cathedral. The people continue to give generously; the “new” Cathedral became debt-free in January of 2003. Our church is historic, but it is always new, as long-time members and new arrivals in the Fargo Moorhead area expand Cathedral ministries by offering their time, treasure and talents to the glory of God.

Out of the Ashes: A New Cathedral for North Dakota

By The Rev. Frank H. Clark (Dean of Gethsemane Cathedral 1986-1997)

On September 12, 1989, a construction fire destroyed the 90-year-old building of Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral in Fargo, North Dakota. The congregation experienced all of the classic stages of grief—disbelief, anger, bargaining, denial and acceptance. The reaction of many congregations that have lost a building to a fire is to reconstruct the former building as soon as possible. The Gethsemane congregation was well advised to deal with the loss as that of a loved one. Members had been baptized, confirmed, communed, absolved, married, and loved ones buried from that building. They sat next to stained glass windows and other furnishings given in memory of family members. In a congregation of liturgical tradition, identity is obtained in knowing the place of Word and Sacrament—the font, pulpit and altar.

Now there was a sense of having become a nomadic people. It was anticipated that it might be at least two years before they would be in their own building again. Three months after the fire, the congregation moved into a storefront building that formerly housed a business college. Equipped with offices and classrooms, it was appropriate except for a space for worship. This was solved by tearing down partitions and creating a room for 300 people.

The room stood in sharp contrast to the long nave-chancel arrangement typical of many Episcopal churches. Experiencing a different shape for worship proved to be important in planning for the new building. Aesthetically, the space was uncomfortable. Acoustics were dead, and there were no windows. This was more than a psychological issue; it was liturgical as well. We learned that it is important to sense the difference between morning, noon, evening and midnight, and to know the seasons of the year.

While the Building Committee began work on the architect selection process, the Chapter (the Cathedral’s governing board) and the various church committees began work on a mission and ministry statement, which described the congregation and its vision for the future. The final statement was reviewed and edited by the Chapter before adoption. The choice of an architect was based on the strong design capability of Charles Moore and Arthur Andersson of Austin, Texas, as well as on their experience with “hands-on” workshops. The workshops were especially appealing. Given the circumstances of our loss, it was crucial for the congregation to feel participation and ownership in the process. The architects’ willingness and experience in involving large groups of people were very important. The first of four workshops began a year after the fire. Each was held for four hours on Sunday afternoons with a month in between. The results of each were used to prepare for the next. Each involved 80 to 90 people who volunteered to be part of the process. Jim Burns of Take Part Urban Design & Planning of San Francisco served as consultant for the workshops.

At the first workshop, the decision had not been made whether or not to build on the existing site. There were many logistical and emotional issues involved. The first workshop included a bus tour to potential sites. Each participant was provided with a booklet with property layouts. There was plenty of time to walk around and experience the ambiance of each site. On our return participants were divided into small groups to work on schemes for the utilization of each site. At a subsequent workshop the architects showed slides of over a hundred images, including secular and religious architecture, architectural features and landscapes. Specific churches were included but not those of the architects. Score sheets were provided to indicated participants’ likes, dislikes, etc. of each image. This process gave Moore and Andersson a strong sense of the participants’ taste in style and ambiance. As the workshops progressed, the groups were given components of church buildings in two-dimensional forms. To enhance the process, sprigs of parsley represented trees, and Moore took special delight in providing Fruit Loops cereal to represent people. After each session he was careful to summarize what he had seen and heard as reported by each group.

At the third session, three-dimensional models were brought to indicate the concepts beginning to develop in the imagination and vision of the architects. It was during this process that the existing property was sold and nine-acre site in the southern, growing section of the community was purchased. This allowed the design process to move ahead more rapidly. Through this workshop process, I believe the congregation was allowed to have a real part in the design process. For example, one area of concern was the steeple, and the proposals made met with less than enthusiastic response. One parishioner believed that the entrance needed to be through the base of the bell tower, as in the old building. The final proposal appeared with that modification. When Moore and Andersson brought a model of the final scheme to the congregation, it was accepted by consensus. But there was still a lot of work to be done. The local firm of Yeater Henning Ruff Shultz Rokke and Welch (YHR) began translating the design concept into working drawings for the bidding and contracting process. Now people were invited to four meetings to discuss the particulars of program, and spaces were considered in committee for worship, education, administration and fellowship.

The style of the building is postmodern and is described by the architects as Prairie Gothic. It features a whitewashed board and batten exterior, consistent with prairie buildings. The proportions of the nave are Gothic, with a crossing in the roof and false buttresses on the south facade. Each side of the building has a different appearance. The south facade appears Gothic. The north side, with many roof lines, gives the impression of a prairie village. The nine acres of land give a spacious surrounding to the building, in addition to providing room for growth. The building materials are simple and consistent with the heritage of the northern great plains. The exterior is accented by standing seam metal roofs on the buttresses and tower. The large T-lock shingles on the main sections of the roof are popular in the area and well scaled to the mass of the building.

Part of the building’s magic is the surprise of the interior. Its materials include colored concrete floors, sheet rock and concrete block walls, large fir timbers and exposed trusses. The interior blocks are large and scaled to the size of the building, giving the impression of stone. The total effect is surprisingly warm. Interior light was a major factor in the design. Long winters in the northern latitude call for the need to allow light in to the building. Insulated skylights allow light to play through the whitewashed ceiling trusses of the nave and Great Hall. Two interior courtyards provide light to interior rooms and a closed cloister walkway. Stained glass in the nave provides color that sweeps through the room throughout the course of the day. Although the roof lines of the worship area follow a traditional cruciform pattern, the floor plan provides for a more contemporary use of space. The area for worship is in the crossing of the cruciform. The false buttresses on the sides of the transept provide interior room to square out the floor plan. The leg of the cross provides a Great Hall for fellowship space.

Flexibility is a key to the use and design of the building. Movable glass doors separate the worship and fellowship spaces. When the glass doors are open, the two spaces become one, with the Great Hall providing seating for 250 additional people. (The nave will seat 350.) With this arrangement, the cathedral is able to provide for special occasions without compromising the intimacy of the Sunday worship space. These special occasions have included large funerals, concerts and the important consideration of diocesan events.

The building is a blending of new and old. It was important to the congregation to incorporate its heritage wherever possible. Many of the furnishings were salvaged from the fire, restored and used judiciously in the new building. The altar was refinished as a free-standing altar, as was the pulpit. Most of the relatively new pews of butcher block construction are refinished and used for nave seating. They are configured in a modified radial pattern. The bishop’s cathedra was preserved. The entire north side and front of the nave areas are open for musicians and other seating as needed. Movable chairs provide flexibility for musicians and guests. The space can be arranged for large weddings and funerals when the choir is not present. Other spaces provide for additional instrumentalists or seasonal liturgical displays. A new font bowl, in clear view of the assembly, is filled with continuously flowing water. The chancel has an accessible ramp and removable altar rail at floor level. With the movable pulpit, the entire chancel is flexible.

There is a chapel for meditation and midweek services which seats about 40 people. It includes a columbarium for the interment of ashes. Some of the furnishings are from the former building. One of Moore’s trademarks has been the creation of “memory palaces.” Gethsemane houses one set of stained glass windows from the former cathedral and artificial light illumines the scene of the Great Commission, and is followed by a depiction of the history of our congregation and the Diocese of North Dakota. It is a memory palace of our ministry and its history.

It is this writer’s opinion that the architectural design would not have been accepted without the process of hands-on-workshops. They gave the congregation an experience of resurrection.