Cathedral Days: the 25th Anniversary of Trinity Cathedral, Portland

Cathedral Days: the 25th Anniversary of Trinity Cathedral, Portland

By the Very Rev. Nathan LeRud, Dean of Trinity Cathedral

On Sunday morning, November 18th, Christians around the world heard Jesus’ words as recorded in Mark’s gospel: “do you see these great stone buildings? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be torn down” (Mark 13:2). These were not, on first glance, the most propitious words with which to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral’s consecration as cathedral for the Diocese of Oregon – but ours is a lectionary church, and we respect the texts that are assigned to the day!

In his sermon that morning, Trinity’s Dean Nathan LeRud remarked on the irony of these texts in the context of the morning’s celebration, but noted that when the Jerusalem Temple did come crashing to the ground in the year 70AD, “[the people] survived it. They preserved the stories and the hymns and the prayers, they created a form of meal fellowship that survives to this day – in beautiful stone buildings like this one, and in simple house churches, shacks and fields and tents around the world. Turns out we don’t need a building to worship God. What we need is one another.”

Despite the apocalyptic texts, it was a celebration weekend at Trinity. Serving as a cathedral is a mantle Trinity wears lightly, but “Cathedral Days” became a time to reflect on what cathedral identity means for Trinity as a congregation, and for the Diocese of Oregon, the city of Portland and the Pacific Northwest region. The technical definition of a cathedral, as church nerds know, is simply the place where a bishop has her or his seat.

But cathedrals have been and are places of pilgrimage, places of hospitality and service –not just for Episcopalians and Anglicans, but for people of many faiths and people of no faith at all. Cathedrals have historically belonged not just to worshipping congregations that calls them home but to cities and to regions; cathedrals are civic space as much as religious sanctuary.

Dean LeRud sometimes says that Trinity belongs to the people of Portland, to the citizens of the state of Oregon, to the entire Pacific Northwest region. Centuries before there was a Protestant English stone building on NW 19th Avenue, the site upon which Trinity now stands was a gathering place for members of many native tribes: the Multnomah and the Clackamas, the Tualatin Kalapuia and the Kathlamet, the Molalla and the various Chinook bands that made their home along the Columbia River. Trinity’s campus sits on land that has long served as sacred space, where people of different tribes and ethnicities meet to celebrate that which binds them together. So for Trinity, “cathedral” means embracing a longer legacy as a gathering place where a certain kind or quality of conversation can happen about who we are as a people.

Perhaps there has never been a more important time in history for cathedrals to serve as gathering places for conversations that matter. Twenty-five years ago, Trinity’s leadership answered the call to step into that vocation– to learn how be cathedral in the twenty-first century – and twenty-five years into that project, Trinity is only beginning to scratch the surface of what a cathedral can be and do in a region like the Northwest.

Honoring Canon Mary Sicilia

Trinity used the occasion of a twenty-fifth “cathedral” birthday to honor a beloved retired member of staff: Canon Mary Sicilia, who retired in 2008 after serving for many years as Canon Educator. Mary’s ministry was diocesan-wide (and church-wide!) as one of the pioneering lay professionals to serve full-time as a church educator.

Not a cradle Episcopalian – nor, for that matter, a cradle Christian – cathedrals became central to Mary’s return to church after a time away: “It was Sunday morning and there I was in church again: St. Mark’s Cathedral in Minneapolis,” Mary remembers. “I sat in the back pew where I’d be left alone. The service ended and I was just about out the door when a woman said, ‘Would you sign our guest book?’ I said, ‘no, no, I’m just a tourist.’ And in the most splendid form of evangelism I’ve ever witnessed she said, ‘So are we all.’”

After a successful career at St. Mark’s, Mary was recruited to Portland by Trinity’s first dean, Anthony “Bud” Thurston, in 1992 – just months before the parish would become cathedral for the diocese of Oregon in November of 1993. “In the language of church development,” Mary remembers, “I found a family-sized parish ready to become a program-sized parish…the rummage sale took up all of the space where the Sunday school is now!” Mary’s call was a clear one: “My job description when I arrived was to light a fire underneath the education program. And that remained my only job description all the way through.”

Along with Dean Thurston, organist and choir-master Canon John Strege and founder of the Center for Spiritual Development Canon Marianne Borg, Mary Sicilia helped to build the vital, thriving, and growing congregation that worships and serves at Trinity today.

Looking Forward

Not just an occasion to mark a milestone, Cathedral Days at Trinity were also an occasion to reflect on the directions the congregation is pursuing in this century. “Since I retired ten years ago, so many things have happened that absolutely made me dance in the streets,” Mary Sicilia observed during a Sunday morning forum. “The Red Door Initiative [which seeks to take outreach and justice ministries into the community] makes me really, really happy. I also see an expansion of ecumenical relationships, all that the Arts Commission has done, a lot more grappling with issues dealing with justice: immigration, racism, homelessness.”

Bishop Bob Ladehoff, the bishop who asked Trinity to serve as cathedral in the 1990s and consecrated Trinity as his cathedral in 1993, noted that “Trinity is marvelous in the way it touches the lives of those here and also in the community.” The Bishop described a cathedral as “the place where the diocesan family gathers,” and was pleased to see that Trinity’s Cathedral Days celebration included a Diocesan Evensong honoring William Temple House, sung by a combined choir made up of singers from the Cathedral, St. Michael and All Angels in Portland and St. Paul’s in Salem.

Bishop Ladehoff also raised the question of Trinity’s ongoing relationship with the larger diocese: “I don’t see many people from the Cathedral serving on diocesan committees, yet you have so much to offer the diocese.” Canon Marianne Borg spoke of Trinity’s ongoing role in theological education: “my hope for Trinity would be that it makes a contribution to theological conversation…I was at a conference [recently] where everyone was celebrating that they were children of God.  Well, I think it’s time that we became adults – adults of God.” Borg went on to observe that “Trinity has never suffered from a failure of nerve.  And I pray that it will not suffer from a failure of nerve moving forward. My overall vision for Trinity is for a more humane community, and for a more humane Christianity.”

As Trinity moves forward into a second quarter-century as Oregon’s cathedral, these are the themes that will guide our mission and our ministry: expanded work in justice and advocacy, continued excellence in arts and music, an enhanced role in Diocesan leadership, and a vision of a more humane Christianity for our region and our times. With renewed vision and burgeoning energy, even if the stones come crashing down, we’re confident that God is doing a mighty work in this little corner of Northwest Portland.