A walk through the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral sanctuary is a stroll through Omaha history.
Many of the stained-glass windows date from the early years of the building, which was dedicated in 1883.
The list of window donors reads like an Omaha street map — a Who's Who of early Omaha and parts surrounding.
“You've got Cuming, you've got Reed, you've got Poppleton, you have Woolworth. I mean, this place is literally loaded with historic figures. And, of course, J. Sterling Morton and his wife, Anna, were early parishioners,” said Joe McCartney, who served as senior warden of the cathedral from 1989 to 1992 and as treasurer from 1992 to 2009.
There's a story behind each window.
The South Transept window, for example, was donated by the family of Bishop Robert H. Clarkson, who spearheaded cathedral construction.
The window was given in memory of Bishop John Coleridge Patteson, who fought slavery in the South Pacific. In 1871, he was killed by natives whose family members had been slain by a gang. Patteson's death helped the effort to outlaw slavery in Great Britain and Holland.
Though most of the windows are memorials to adults, others honor the memory of children. The window called “Angels Heads” was given by James and Anna Boyd. Two of their children died in 1872 — Jennie at 11 months and Annie at age 4.
The windows are not without error. One of the 14 clerestory windows, for example, refers to “Brownell, Nebraska.”
“There never was a Brownell, Nebraska,” McCartney said. “It should have been Brownville.”
Most of the windows have been restored at some point. All came through the process with no problem, except for the window featuring St. Matthew.
After the window was stolen from the shop doing the restoration, the shop tried to reproduce it but was unsuccessful, McCartney said. A replacement was produced by British craftsmen who came to Omaha and did the work. Their experience had included work on the Canterbury Cathedral.
With a building as old as Trinity, maintenance becomes a priority, something with which McCartney is familiar. As junior warden from 1983 to 1988 and then as senior warden, he was very involved in dealing with problems in the building.
Some churches have bats in their belfry. But in 1988, bees were the problem at Trinity.
It all started innocently enough, when something began dripping down a column in the sanctuary. That “something” was honey — lots of it. The volume was such that Trinity collected and sold 150 jars of what it called “Holy Honey.”
A beekeeper sent to investigate found a 13-foot honeycomb and about 50,000 bees. The hives and bees were removed and relocated.
Problem solved, right?
Yes and no. The bees were gone.
“But then the sexton came to me and said, 'You know, the (baptismal) font has settled a little bit,'” said McCartney. “And I said, 'The font has settled?'”
Then the sexton said, “'Yeah, it's gone down a little bit.' And I said, 'You mark that. I'll come back, and we'll talk about this in about a month.'”
As agreed, the discussion resumed a month later.
“He says, 'Don't worry about it, it's only sunk that much more.' And I said, 'We don't sink in a cathedral,'” said McCartney.
Together with the junior warden, McCartney went to see a congregant who knew some engineers who could look at the problem. After the engineers determined the damage would cost about $85,000 to fix, the congregant made a $100,000 donation.
“Unfortunately, when they started to work, they started finding the termites,” McCartney said. “Of the 24 columns supporting this building, almost 20 of them were eaten through.”
At that point, the repair cost went up — way up.
“We tried to get a handle on this thing, and found out it was going to be $800,000 to a million,” he said.
Soon after, a construction company began pouring concrete and putting up steel to keep the building from collapsing.
“Of course, it was just an absolute disaster,” McCartney said.
And it was about to get worse.
At the same time the termites were eating the columns, the roof was leaking. The problems turned out to be related.
“The reason the roof was leaking was because the weight had shifted to the outside and it pulled the tiles apart. That was another $300,000. And at the same time, I had them re-doing the windows,” McCartney said.
“The whole termite thing was almost a million. And when we got done with the termites, and the roof and the windows, it was a million and a half. But it was a miracle, truthfully, that the roof stayed up. It's amazing.”
The restoration work took a couple of years.
“Meantime, we were meeting downstairs in what's called Gardner Hall,” he said.
In the interim, the cathedral started a fund drive.
“We raised enough money to pay for the whole thing — paid it in cash — and came out with some left over,” McCartney said. “There's nothing like a good tragedy to bring out the best in people.”
In the beginning
Episcopal worship in Omaha dates to 1856, just two years after the city was founded. Services were held in various homes, and even in the territorial government building, according to “A Church for the Frontier,” the official history of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.
The same year, the official documents forming Trinity Church were signed at the home of Thomas Cuming, an Episcopalian and governor of Nebraska Territory.
In 1880, this Trinity Church building at 18th Street and Capitol Avenue became known as “the church in the middle of the street” when it was moved onto Capitol Avenue to accommodate cathedral construction.
In 1859, the first Trinity Church opened at Ninth and Farnam Streets. The small brick structure sat on land provided by Omaha's first mayor, Jesse Lowe, and his wife, Sophie. Though not Trinity members, the Lowes gave the congregation a rent-free, 10-year lease.
A decade later, the congregation needed larger quarters and purchased a lot at 18th Street and Capitol Avenue where it built a wooden church that held 300. The new church burned in 1869 — the same year it was built — and was replaced by an “interim” wooden structure on the same site.
In 1880, to accommodate construction of the cathedral, the interim building was moved directly onto Capitol Avenue, where it became known as “the church in the middle of the street.” It was made a mission church the following year, when Trinity began holding its services in the nearby Masonic Hall until the basement of the new cathedral could be used as a temporary worship space.
Services at the cathedral draw worshippers from a wide area.
“Most of the people who come to Trinity Cathedral pass another Episcopal church on their way,” said Joe McCartney, a former senior warden of the cathedral. “They do it because this is a unique structure, and plus it has a traditional liturgy.”
The drums, tambourines and guitars favored as worship accompaniment at some churches are not part of the Trinity experience. Instead, music during services comes primarily from the Cathedral Choir and a restored 1932 pipe organ, and from the Handbell Choir.
The Rt. Rev. J. Scott Barker, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, said some of the challenges that tend to affect historic downtown churches are less of a problem at Trinity.
“Working to keep church ministry vibrant and relevant is challenging no matter where the church building sits, but historic downtown churches can be especially tough,” Barker said. “Trinity is blessed among downtown churches in the U.S. Omaha's growing and vibrant downtown means that lots of people — including families — live very nearby, so Trinity is increasingly a neighborhood rather than a commuter church. The cathedral also has a congregation that is forward-looking and determined to lead with the church's real strengths in service and mission, and the whole building is surrounded by a parking garage!”
Barker said he sees Trinity's history as a launchpad into the future.
“When I go into the cathedral and see those plaques with the names of the city's founding mothers and fathers, I don't think, 'Look how great we are.' I think, 'Those people built Omaha — its hospitals, its schools, its charities.' Now what will we do in our time to keep this a great city whose landscape in enriched by a great church?”
Services are held Sundays at 8:30 a.m. (no music) and 10:30 a.m. (with music); and Monday through Friday at 12:10 p.m.
Beyond Sunday and weekday services, Trinity offers youth activities, adult faith formation, Bible study for adults and youth, child care during services, Stephen Ministry, the St. Mary's Women of Trinity social/outreach group and the Dean Fricke Food Pantry, among other activities. The church also operates a gift shop and maintains its own historical society and museum.
For information: trinityepiscopal.org.