The precursor to the cathedral was Saint James the Apostle Church, dedicated on Arch Street by Bishop Benedict Fenwick of Boston on July 24, 1842. The Catholic population of city at the time was estimated at 250 souls.
The first Catholic church in Fairfield County, Saint James predated the establishment of the Diocese of Hartford (now an Archdiocese) by four months. It served a congregation made up almost exclusively of Irish immigrants from surrounding towns and from as far away as Norwalk, under the pastorship of Father Michael Lynch.
The cornerstone was laid in August 1864, and the church was completed in 1869. Hailed by The Bridgeport Standard as "the largest church edifice in the state," it was built of stone from the abandoned Pequonnock quarry in Black Rock that had been purchased for the parish by its pastor. Huge stones were dragged to the site by parishioners - Irish immigrants known as much for their ability to do back-breaking manual labor as for their deep dedication to the Catholic faith.
The cathedral was opened for public worship on Saint Patrick's Day, 1868, and rededicated to Saint Augustine.
Photo: View west showing façade. (Tod Bryant)
Photo: View southwest showing north elevation. (Tod Bryant)
Photo: View southwest showing east elevation and façade of school building. (Tod Bryant)
The cathedral was renovated in 1978 and most of the original artwork and finishes were removed or destroyed and no record of them was kept. In 2003, an entirely new, but traditional interior was designed under the direction of Bishop William E. Lori.
The original church that the cathedral replaced had been called St. James, and it is unknown why the original name was changed. Diocesan archivist Msgr. John Horgan-Kung offered several possible explanations.
First, the cornerstone was laid on August 28 - the Feast of Saint Augustine. Or perhaps it was an act of recognition of America's first Catholic settlement (1565) at Saint Augustine, Florida. Msgr. Horgan-Kung noted that Bishop Francis McFarland, successor to Bishop O'Reilly and the driving force behind the cathedral's construction, had turned down a transfer to Florida in 1857 to remain in Connecticut.It is also possible that Father Augustine Hewitt, a Fairfield native and second superior general of the Paulist Fathers, was the inspiration for the name change. The origin of the cathedral's name may remain a mystery.
Saint Augustine became the mother church from which all other parishes and Catholic institutions in Fairfield County sprang. Buildings housing Saint Augustine Elementary School and a convent for the Sisters of Mercy were completed in 1884, rounding out the complex. The school/convent was steadily expanded until, in 1916, it was taken over completely by the school. A new convent was constructed on Calhoun Place.
Duff, Beth Longware, "A Brief History of Saint Augustine Cathedral," Diocese of Bridgeport
Waldo, George C.,Jr. Ed., History of Bridgeport and Vicinity, New York: S. J. Clark, 1917.
St. Augustine's is a stone Gothic church which faces east. It's facade is dominated by a rectangular central tower surmounted by a steeple. The tower projects from the central block of the building, which is flanked by one story wings with shed roofs which are set back slightly from the facade of the main block. There are entrances with double wooden doors centered in Gothic arches in the tower and both wings.
The main entrance in the tower is flanked by lancet windows on the façade of the main block. A belt course of a lighter colored stone runs across the main block and the tower above the door with a large lancet window above it in the tower. There are smaller lancet windows, identical to those below, on the façade of the main block on each side of the larger window. Another belt course runs around the tower near the peak of the roof of the main block. The tower becomes octagonal above this belt course with buttresses at four corners and another. A Gothic window is centered at the bottom of this section of the tower with a narrow belt course above it and a tall, louvered lancet opening above the belt course. Another narrow belt course runs around the tower above this opening. There is a row of modillions above this at the base of the spire. The octagonal spire has narrow dormers on four of its elevations and it is surmounted by a gold cross. There are oval windows above the doors in the wings.
The interior of the cathedral was redesigned in 2003. The top of the Altar is of dark green marble with the gilded inscription, PASCHA NOSTRUM IMMOLATUS EST CHRISTUS (Christ, Our Passover, Is Sacrificed For Us). The base is a combination of limestone and Breccia Pernice marble. The floor immediately surrounding the altar is of parquet wood, to give importance to the Altar as distinct from the surrounding marble flooring. Since it must stand alone in a high space, it required a "housing" to affirm its significance. This was accomplished by constructing above it a 12-ft square, 24 ft. high bronze baldachino inspired by the one in Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Surmounting the baldachino is a bronze fleche surmounted by an original three-foot bronze statue of Saint Gabriel blowing his trumpet at the Last Judgment.
The sanctuary platform, three steps above the nave floor, was extended out to allow more space for liturgical functions, especially ordinations. The flooring is of alternating dark and light- green marble tiles laid in a diamond, checkerboard pattern. The bases, trim, and secondary platforms are of dark green marble. The tabernacle is located on the main axis of the Cathedral on a platform directly behind the Altar. It is placed on a small marble table with a dark green top containing the gilded inscription: AVE VERUM CORPUS (Hail True Body).
The Tabernacle itself is finished in gold, with Christ the King depicted on the door. It is set in front of the central section of a large, 24-foot-high Triptych. This three-paneled Triptych functions as reredos for the sanctuary. The upper portion of the central panel is composed of pointed gothic arches fabricated in Honduran mahogany. In the lower portion there is a projecting canopy over the Tabernacle. The mosaic panels to the left and right depict two angels which are facing the Tabernacle. The adjacent panels of the Triptych are lower in height than the central panel. In the middle of the left panel is a door leading to the Cathedral Chapel. Side doors are surrounded by Gothic arhes and incorporate elongated, gothic bas-relief wood statues of the Evangelists Saint Matthew and Saint Mark. The right panel is of similar design; however, that door leads to the Sacristy, and the bas-reliefs are of Saint Luke and Saint John. The symbol of each Evangelist is carved into the base of the statue: the winged angel for Saint Matthew, the winged lion for Saint Mark, the winged ox for Saint Luke, and the eagle for Saint John. All of the figures in this central panel are facing the Tabernacle. Two small Credence Tables of marble and limestone are located to the right and left of the Triptych.
The cathedral of the Bishop is located to the left of and on the axis with the Altar. The chair itself is an antique and has been used by previous Bishops of Bridgeport. The chair rests on a stepped, marble platform. Behind the chair is an arched wood panel recalling the Triptych design and containing an ornamental, gothic tapestry. On each side is space for chairs for assistants. Directly behind the Cathedra panel is an open wood screen serving as a backdrop and unifying element with the Triptych. A matching screen is located on the opposite side.
On the right of the Sanctuary is the ambo or pulpit. The base is of limestone and the upper portion of Honduran mahogany in the gothic style. On the far right of the Sanctuary is the Carrara marble Statue of the Holy Family, resting on a marble base of Breccia Pernice. Behind the statue is a panel of wood and mosaics reflecting the gothic motif of the Triptych. On the far left is another Carrara marble statue of Saint Augustine. The sculpture, honoring the Cathedral's patron saint, also rests on a base of Breccia Pernice marble. It is directly in front of a wood and mosaic panel identical to the one on the right side.
The curved portion of the ceiling is a deep aqua color, similar to that of the Basilica in Assisi, Italy. The ribs of the arches are painted in a combination of tan and gold, and the capitals are rendered in gold with a tan setting. The vertical walls are of off-white.
The flooring of the nave is of alternating salmon and gray granite tiles laid in a diamond, checkerboard pattern. The large central aisle of the nave has repetitive granite circles of deep red marching down the aisle starting with a special larger design around the font at the entry and terminating at the Sanctuary steps, with a double row of circles within a wider aisle designed for various liturgical functions, weddings, and funerals. The Vestibule flooring is also of granite in a similar design to the nave.
The main lighting in the Nave is from down-lights in the upper ceiling augmented by ten new chandeliers, specially designed for the Cathedral, which are 6 feet high and contain amber translucent glass panels. The special lighting for the Altar, Triptych, Cathedra, Ambo, and Statues are hidden within the Baldachino or behind arches.
This cathedral faces east onto a wide, busy street which runs next to Route 8, a six lane highway connecting Bridgeport with Waterbury. There is a well preserved nineteenth century Italianate home to its south and an nineteenth century Oriental revival apartment building with a curved facade to its north. The rest of Washington Street is lined with parking lots and twentieth century apartment buildings.
Date(s): 1869 Style(s): Gothic Historic Use: Religious Present Use: Religious Architect: James Murphy
Exterior visible from public road.
Interior accessible (During services and by appointment.).
The Irish experience has had a profound impact on Connecticut's past, and its narrative spans all periods of the state's history and touches every one of its eight counties and 169 towns.