In a December 13, 1841 letter to the prefect of Bouches-du-Rhône, Bishop de Mazenod stated that the diocese did not have any outstanding buildings. The cathedral which people called La Major was built in Roman style at an unknown date before the Middle Ages. The bell tower had been destroyed during the Revolution. The bishop often wrote that this building was unseemly and it was becoming ever more dilapidated.
From the time of his appointment as Bishop of Marseilles in 1837, he began to talk about the necessity of a new cathedral worthy of a great city. In the course of his trip to Paris in November and December of 1837 to swear allegiance to the king, as bishop of Marseilles, he told the king and the minister of Public Worship that he would need substantial help from the state to carry out this project. He requested three million francs from the ministry. The ministry responded by saying this was too much. The bishop replied that a city like Marseilles which brought in thirty two million francs from its customs fees alone richly deserved three million francs to build a monument which, in the eyes of everyone, it could not do without. (See Diary, December 16, 1837) From 1837 to 1860, Bishop de Mazenod wrote over one hundred letters to the mayor, to the prefect and to the ministers. The prefect of Bouches-des-Rhônes was in favour of the project. Hesitant at first, the mayor and the municipal council gave their consent on the condition that they would not have to contribute anything. In 1844, the bishop began to lose hope. Finally, in 1846, the minister of Public Worship sent the architect Vaudoyer to Marseilles and the municipal council said they were ready to contribute one million francs.
On his way through Paris at the beginning of August of 1850, Bishop de Mazenod visited the minister and the project began to take shape. The new cathedral would be built on the site of La Major and of the major seminary at a cost of five million francs. When he was passing through Marseilles in September of 1852, Louis-Napoléon laid the cornerstone and announced a government subsidy of 2,500,000 francs. Mr. Vaudoyer was appointed as the architect in 1853. In 1854, Bishop de Mazenod planned to consecrate the building as soon as the roof was built, but he acknowledged that the construction work would not be completed for twelve or fifteen years yet. On June 5, 1855, he told the mayor that the new cathedral would be consecrated to the Sacred Heart. In 1856, a part of the old La Major was torn down. In a report to the senate on March 18, 1856, Bishop de Mazenod stated that the foundations had been laid and that six and one half million francs had been promised by the city and the state. In 1859 and 1860, the bishop made the observation that the walls had hardly reached the height of three meters and that “a considerable length of time would have to elapse before the future cathedral would be finished.” (Letter to the Minister of Public Worship, September 25, 1859 and December 11, 1860) In 1869, the cost had already reached ten million francs.
The work lasted forty years under the direction of the architects Léon Vaudoyer, Henri Espérandieu and Henri Revoil. The cathedral was opened for worship in 1893 under the episcopate of Bishop Louis Robert. On January 24, 1896, with the title, Saint Mary Major, it was elevated to the status of a minor basilica by Pope Leo XIII. It was consecrated on May 6, 1897. On May 8, we read in the newspaper, L’Univers that “it is a joyful bouquet of cupolas which the worthy bishop of Marseilles has consecrated at the edge of the water. Never perhaps has Byzantine art tempered by roman art produced a creation which was at the same time more stately and more gracious.”
On May 7, 1897, the remains of the bishops of Marseilles were transported into the funeral crypt of the new cathedral. When they drew from the Major’s ancient vault the over two meters long coffin of Bishop Eugène de Mazenod, the workers exclaimed, “Was he ever a tall man!” “They spoke more truth than they knew,” commented the editor of Missions O.M.I. “The coffin their hands touched and their arms bore did, indeed, contain the mortal remains of one of the greatest bishops of this century and of all centuries [...] We hope that, in the future known to God, the God upon whom we trustingly wait, the holy prelate whose completely intact body has been resting for some days now before the altar in the funeral crypt of the bishops of Marseilles will be the object of a new translation.”
On the occasion of Bishop de Mazenod’s beatification in 1975, his body was laid to rest in the tomb under the altar of the chapel in the apse of the cathedral.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.
Sources and Bibliography
Oblate General Archives in Rome. Diary and letters of Bishop de Mazenod.
FABRE, A., Les rues de Marseille, vol. V, 1869, p. 350-366; La nouvelle cathédrale.
“Translation des restes mortels de notre vénéré Fondateur” in Missions O.M.I., 1897, P. 231-246.
CORMIER, Bernard, La cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure à Marseille, Marseille, 1990, 32 p.