See more of the story

The Rev. John Ubel is the rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul and the pastor of its congregation — jobs that don't often go together in the Roman Catholic Church, which tends to treat its cathedrals like museums and rectors like curators.

But while caring for a national shrine displaying gorgeous art and architecture is important, the historic church is also a spiritual home to more than 1,000 families. Its pastor has no desire to make it a museum.

Eye On St. Paul recently sat down with Ubel, a St. Paul native, to talk about the responsibility he feels caring for the city's most famous place of worship. This interview was edited for length.

Q: Father, what is your official title?

A: Rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul.

Q: How is being a rector different from being pastor of a parish?

A: My assignment letter lists both: Rector of the cathedral and pastor of the cathedral parish. In church law, technically, rector is a word for someone who is in charge of a church that isn't a parish. There are a lot of cathedrals in the world that actually aren't functioning parish churches. They're merely the building where the bishop has the chair and major ceremonies.

Q: How many parishioners do you have at the cathedral?

A: We have approximately 1,000 families and another 250 who we call friends and associates, people who technically belong to other parishes but come here with some regularity. So altogether about 1,300 families.

Q: Tell me about your duties.

A: As far as the building itself, it's interesting because the Archdiocese [of St. Paul and Minneapolis] actually owns the building. In [other] parishes, the people or the parish corporation owns it. [At the cathedral], the parking lots and the garage are owned by the cathedral parish. But the cathedral building and the rectory are owned by the archdiocese.

When I first got here in 2012, I came from a parish that had a K-12 school and I actually thought I might be less busy because I didn't have a school. It took me a couple years to figure out, "Why am I just as busy?" Well, it's because there's always something going on in the church. [Each year, there are 30-35 big events.]

Q: Archdiocese events take precedence?

A: Yes, pretty much. But they're very, very good about working with us. The chancery [archdiocese headquarters] is no longer right across the street. But we still get invited to their Christmas party. [laughs]

Q: How often do you meet with the archbishop [Bernard Hebda]?

A: It's funny. I joke that to my knowledge, I've never been in his office. But at Cossetta's, we've had a cappuccino on a Saturday morning many times. It's amazing how you can cover a lot of ground over a little cappuccino.

The Cathedral of St. Paul is more than 100 years old.
The Cathedral of St. Paul is more than 100 years old.

Q: Talk about your responsibilities.

A: We all have our own gifts and personality traits. I try to pay attention to detail. Some of the things that are most rewarding to me is when a priest will come and say something like: "What happened to these marble floors? They look great." It's constant. It's like painting the Golden Gate Bridge — you're never done.

We want people to feel welcome. I love driving by and seeing people on the front steps in the summer. We want this to be a treasure for everyone, not just for people who are Catholic who come for Mass.

Q: Is there also pressure to not have people see dirt in the corner?

A: I get a kick out of whenever we give a tour to schoolchildren. I'll address a group of sixth-graders and a hand will go up. "What are all the white spots on the ceiling?" Yes, that's called water damage. [laughs]

Q: How do you raise money?

A: The Cathedral Heritage Foundation is a separate 501c3 organization — they're the primary fundraisers for the cathedral. We've done dinners and galas. We did the [Christmas] light show. And we're going to gear up again next year for another one. They have raised a number of millions of dollars for these projects and it's worked well.

Q: Your neighborhood is also an urban parish in which the surrounding residents face a number of challenges. How do you balance security and accessibility to the community?

A: We do not want to be a fortress. We want to be open. It's really important to me that our church stays open all day long. I'm in my 11th year and I've seen the neighborhood change. There are challenges, with some people coming through having [mental health or other] issues. We want to be respectful. At the same time, everyone has a right to feel safe and welcome. So that's the balancing act. Since I've been here, we've added the cameras. You look around, there are cameras everywhere.

Q: In some ways, it seems like a museum...

A: I love visiting museums because I love history. But that's the last thing I want this church to be. We want this to be living and breathing. Typically, on the weekend, we have just under 1,600 people who come to various masses.

Q: What is the biggest challenge the cathedral faces for the next 100 years?

A: I think to preserve this beautiful church building is going to take the resources of a generation. To have that kind of passion for art and architecture, it's critical that people continue to support it. We have people who come through with no religious background whatsoever. But we have something that speaks to them, and we want that to continue.