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Cathedrals, Temples and Mosques: Spiritual Shrines in Virginia

On Laurel Street, near Richmond’s Fan District, sits the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, considered the finest ecclesiastical example of the Italian Renaissance Revival style in Virginia. (New York’s Carnegie Hall was built in the same style.) Constructed more than a century ago, it was designed by New York architect Joseph H. McGuire and financed by tycoon Thomas Fortune Ryan and his wife Ida Barry Ryan.


Thomas Ryan converted to Catholicism as a 17-year-old while on a train ride to Baltimore to seek his fortune. He later married Ida Barry, a Catholic. Ryan and his wife contributed half a million dollars for the construction of the cathedral. The two also supported the arts in Richmond and contributed almost $20 million to 20 churches, schools and hospitals in Virginia. They supported well-known artists such as August Rodin, who sculpted a bust of Ryan, as well as the explorer Richard Byrd.


The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, however, is not Virginia’s first such building. The Diocese of Richmond was established in 1820, 30 years after the nation’s first Catholic see or diocese was created in Baltimore. The first cathedral for the Diocese of Richmond, St. Peter’s, was built in 1834 and still serves as a parish church in downtown Richmond. The building was used as a hospital during the Civil War and due to damage and neglect, a plea went out in 1882 for funds to build a larger building. This is when Ryan and his wife made their large donation to complete the building. The church was officially dedicated at a Thanksgiving Day mass in 1906.


The development of a Catholic cathedral in the commonwealth is due in part to greater tolerance for Catholics after the War for Independence. This was thanks to the ideal of religious freedom found in such documents as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which served as a model for the concept of freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights. It also arose from a sense of gratitude to France, a Catholic nation, for its help during the war.


Other faiths also have cathedrals in Virginia. The term derives from the Latin “cathedra,” which means “seat” or “chair” and, in addition to Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Anglicans have cathedrals where a bishop or archbishop presides over a geographical area called by various names such as “diocese,” “see” or “metropolise” in the Orthodox Christian faith.


In Norfolk, the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral traces its origins to the arrival of the city’s first Greek immigrant, John Grates in 1898. By 1911, the Greek Orthodox community had its first Holy Father and by 1920, the group’s first church was purchased. It moved to its present location in 1955 and opened a Hellenic Center in 1959. A second Greek Orthodox cathedral Saints Constantine and Helen Orthodox Cathedral is located in Richmond. It held its first worship service in a rented room on North 7th Street in 1917. The cathedral relocated to 30 Malvern Avenue in 1960. It is part of the Metropolis of New Jersey, which in turn is a part of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of America.


The cathedral seat for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia is not a traditional building. It is the open-air Shrine of the Consecration, a part of the diocese’s Shrine Mont retreat center in Orkney Springs. The cathedral seat was consecrated in 1929 and made of local stone pulled by horses from the surrounding mountain. The baptismal font was a dugout stone originally used by Native Americans to grind corn. There are two other Episcopal Dioceses in Virginia, which were formed from the original. These include the Diocese of Southern Virginia, formed in 1892 and the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, established in 1919.


While cathedrals are associated with Christian faiths, the term “temple” is used in such major religions as Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. In Judaism, conventionally, Reform Jews call their houses of worship “temples” and Orthodox Jews refer the “synagogues.” In synagogues, there is clear separation between seating for men and women, either with a balcony or partition. In Richmond, Congregation Kol Emes traces its heritage to Orthodox Jewish synagogues in Richmond dating back to 1789. Ohef Shalom Temple in Norfolk is the oldest Reform Jewish congregation in the Hampton Roads area and was established in 1848. In 2000, there were about 53 Jewish congregations in Virginia.


As Virginia’s diversity has grown over the past decades, there are more houses of worship representing the Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic faiths. Virginia has several Hindu temples or mandirs, including the Bharatvani, Hindu Center of Virginia near Richmond, the Hindu Temple of Hampton Roads, the Durga Temple in Springfield, as well as Rajdhani Mandir in Chantilly. A prominent Buddhist temple in the state is the Wat Lao Buddhavong Temple in Catlett near Manassas. The Web site lists about 30 mosques scattered throughout the state, as well as a number of Islamic schools. These include Islamic centers in Blacksburg, Charlottesville, Richmond, Hampton Roads, Williamsburg and Prince Edward County, as well as Northern Virginia.


Every 10 years, the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies conducts a Religious Congregations and Membership Study. Based on its most recent 2000 survey, the largest group of religious adherents in Virginia are evangelical Protestants with 1.2 million members. Mainstream Protestants total about 925,000. There are more than 600,000 Catholics, 11,000 Orthodox Christians and 190,000 in the “Other” category. More than 4.1 million did not claim a formal religious affiliation.


While Virginia can’t boast grand places of worship such as Westminster Abbey, Chartres or the Blue Mosque, its long tradition of religious freedom has allowed many sacred places of worship to flourish.


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