Strolling down Clifton Avenue in Newark is an otherworldly experience that leaves a lasting impression on those who pass through the Lower Broadway neighborhood in New Jersey’s largest city.
For one, it is just a stone’s throw from the largest collection of cherry blossom trees in America—a spectacle of its own in the spring — but what you will find amid the ever-changing metropolis is something that is often seen yet rarely appreciated to the fullest extent.
It’s a structure that stands steady, continuously challenging the tests of time and transcending the sea of humanity that surrounds it. This is the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
Perched on Newark’s highest peak next to Branch Brook Park, the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart is a towering centerpiece that has marked the intersection of history, culture and faith since its inception in 1859. The 45,000-square-foot cathedral (comparable in size to Westminster Abbey) is a massive monument — the fifth largest in North America — that creates an unforgettable experience for all who enter.
As you pass through the bronze, Roman doors of the French Gothic structure, worlds old and new, far and near, come together in the ultimate expression of unity through art and architecture. Hand-carved selections of wood, stone and marble are illuminated in a golden glow as natural light pours through the beautiful stained–glass windows imported from Germany, creating pops of blue and purple that captivates even the most casual onlooker. Three rose windows form a trifecta of glass masterpieces, considered among the finest in the world, and second only to the Chartres Cathedral in France in quality. The 36-foot rose window in the main entrance gallery is the largest of its kind found in a Catholic church in the Western Hemisphere.
Just above the intricate windows, vaulted ceilings covered in mosaic tiles showcase the grandeur within the spiritual space, while balancing the power of place. The ornate interior evokes emotions of awe and wonder, which proves a point: Beauty has the ability to transcend personal beliefs.
“One of the things that people don’t realize — and every person who walks into this building does exactly the same thing because the building makes you do it — is you walk in the door and you look up,” said Rev. Armand Mantia, head docent and historian at the cathedral. “It’s one of the beauties of Gothic architecture. There are no horizontal lines in the building. Everything is vertical, everything comes to a point, and that’s done on purpose. When you walk through the door, believer or nonbeliever, you are taken up into ‘heaven’ and your eyes go to where we believe God is.”
As if the sights weren’t enough, the sounds that emanate from the largest pipe organ built by Schantz Organ Co. resonates through every inch of the structure, from the Appalachian oak pews to the top of the 106-foot ceilings. The impressive instrument is the biggest pipe organ in New Jersey and features9,513 pipes, 193 stops and 154 ranks. What does all that mean? The organ packs a musical punch and can produce some of the purest melodies in the world.
But the magnificent journey doesn’t end there.
Five ambulatory chapels on the outskirts of the sanctuary feature influential figures who are a reflection of the ethnic and racial diversity of the Roman Catholic church in the Archdiocese of Newark at the time of completion: St. Patrick (British Isles); St. Lucy Filippini (Italian, Portuguese); St. Boniface (German); St. Stanislaus of Kraków (Polish-Slovak-Hungarian); and St. Anne (Hispanic, African and Asian).
Sandwiched between the St. Lucy Filippini and St. Boniface chapels is the crown jewel of the cathedral: The Lady Chapel. The tabernacle holds the Blessed Sacrament, as well as an altar crafted from Carrara marble and three brilliant chandeliers of hand-cut crystal.
Like most buildings of this nature, some of its secrets are revealed simply by looking up while others are not so plainly in view. At the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, one hidden gem lies just below the surface … in the crypt, where a treasure trove of history awaits.
The secluded chapel and crypt contain the remains of five former bishops and archbishops of Newark as well as numerous religious relics. It’s truly a sight to see, but be aware that the space is only open to the public for select events.
The Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart is located at 89 Ridge St. in Newark. Masses are held daily in English and three days a week in Spanish, but you’ll have to call ahead for a tour of the cathedral, (973) 484-4600.
The cathedral’s concert series also provides opportunities to experience and appreciate one of New Jersey’s architectural wonders. The 49th Annual Candlelight Carol Sing on Dec. 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. (free), as well as the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s “Handel’s Messiah” performance (ticketed) are two events not to be missed.
“(The cathedral) is a must-visit destination because it is quite possibly the most beautiful building in the state,” Mantia said. “It is certainly the largest church in the state, and just to have this experience of the beauty of holiness, you need to come here.”
When you do come to enjoy the breathtaking sights and sounds of this grand symbol of strength, just remember that you can only find it...Just in Jersey.