Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Gargoyles perform at The Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour August 9, 2010

THE CHURCH DOOR bangs, the weight of the solid wood slamming against the frame as if decisively shutting out the hot, humid air that oppresses on this sultry Sunday afternoon in August in Minnesota.

We entered The Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour through this heavy side door, which you need to push rather than pull, we learned after waiting outside, thinking we were locked out of the church.

Inside the sanctuary, I seek respite from the suffocating 90-plus degree heat. I settle onto a purple cushion which softens the hardness of wood against flesh in a pew that forces me to sit ramrod straight.

My husband and I, expecting a packed house, have arrived early for a performance by The Chicago Gargoyle Brass at The Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour in Faribault. This massive structure with its looming tower was constructed from 1862 – 1869 as the first Cathedral of the American Church.

The Chicago Gargoyle Brass presented a Sunday afternoon concert at The Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour in Faribault.

The Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour sits along Second Avenue across from Faribault's Central Park.

Inside, I welcome the coolness, visually defined by stone and by the dark wood that shapes the arches of the ceiling.

In the chancel area, which stretches an interminable distance from the pews and which is bigger than some country churches I’ve seen, Gargoyle Brass members have positioned their gleaming instruments and music stands at the forefront. Six stained glass windows embrace this “stage” with the glorious 1871 pipe organ (with more old pipes than any other in Minnesota), to the right.

Concert attendees filter into this historic cathedral made of dark wood and stone.

Truly, I am in awe of this cathedral. “This place smells old,” I whisper to Randy as I run my hand along the back of a pew. “Are these the original pews?” They are, I learn upon reading a brochure I’ve picked up. A Civil War veteran cut and planed the wood from northern Minnesota white pine.

I can’t seem to take my eyes off the brass eagle that serves as a lectern given in honor of Bishop Henry Whipple’s wife, Cornelia, who died in July 1890. Bishop Whipple settled in Faribault, oversaw construction of the cathedral and Episcopalian schools and was known for his efforts in helping and befriending Native Americans.

While I wait for the concert to begin, I contemplate the beauty and history of this place and the effort it must have taken to build this stone cathedral.

Soon the concert, part of The Vintage Band Festival hosted in nearby Northfield, begins and we are swept away by the sounds of trumpets, horn, trombone, tuba and timpani (kettledrums) melded with the organ.

The Chicago Gargoyle Brass performs at the Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour.

I am surprised mostly that the organ does not overpower this cathedral. Often, the music sounds more sedated and muffled than majestic, as I had expected. That has nothing to do with the quality of the organists—for they are superb—but more, I think, to do with the organ placement.

At one point during the concert, a key spring on the organ breaks and a second organist must hold up the key during a performance. “Does someone have some bubblegum?” one of the musicians asks the audience. I’m not sure whether he’s serious or joking, but the concert continues without the gum.

Admittedly, I am no music expert. I can’t read notes. I barely know one instrument from another. So my enjoyment of music is purely, solely authentic, grassroots basic. When my head bobs spontaneously, when I feel the music reverberating, tingling my feet, when I feel an emotional connection, then I know I am hearing good music.

Sunday afternoon I heard good, even great, music from The Chicago Gargoyle Brass, which began in 1992 as a University of Chicago based group. The name was derived from the university’s architecture.

“I love this church,” horn player Arisia Gilmore tells us before performing “Twas a Dark and Stormy Night” with Michael Surratt at the organ. “It’s fitting for the atmosphere we’re trying to portray here.”

As I listen to the music build, like a storm, Randy leans toward me. “Does this remind you of two weeks ago?” he speaks softly into my ear. I nod. He is, like me, recalling the night of July 23 when we were caught in our car on a rural southwestern Minnesota road in the middle of a raging thunderstorm that packed 70 mph winds.

That’s the purpose of music, I think—to stir passions, emotions and, yes, even memories of dark and stormy nights when gargoyles lurk.

A looming tower marks the cathedral located along Second Avenue across from Faribault's Central Park.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling