Below the bustling car and pedestrian traffic on Bluff Street and the hundreds of people who attend weekly services at St. Raphael Cathedral lies a unique part of Dubuque history.
In the cathedral’s lower level, there is a 100-plus-year-old mortuary chapel that houses the remains of some of Dubuque’s most notable members of the clergy.
Mary Rae Bragg, parish secretary at St. Patrick’s Church in Dubuque, has led many on tours throughout the cathedral, including the mortuary chapel.
“I always enjoy seeing people’s reaction because there’s sort of this spooky idea of a crypt,” she said. “But it’s not like that at all.”
On the chapel’s Italian marble walls hang both hand-painted and photographed images of the bishops and archbishops who are buried beneath the floor.
Stained-glass windows line the back wall and are backlit by white lights, giving the space a feeling of being above-ground.
“That was the intention (of having the lighting),” Bragg said. “It isn’t meant to feel like a crypt, but a place of quiet and repose to honor those men who came before.”
The chapel was built in 1903 at the request of Dubuque’s first archbishop, John Hennessy, who died in 1900 before the project was completed. The chapel was renovated in 1958, with one of the additions being the lighting behind the stained-glass windows.
Seven men are buried in the chapel, including Bishop Mathias Loras, the founder and namesake of what is now Loras College in Dubuque.
Monsignor Thomas Toale, the pastor at St. Raphael’s, said when people come to tour the cathedral, they are surprised to learn Loras is buried there. He also said visiting the chapel is an opportunity to reflect on the history of Catholicism in Iowa and in Dubuque.
“(The chapel) is largely a place for those coming here to tour and visit,” he said. “These bishops reflect the history of the diocese. When you see that chapel, you are prompted to go back to the history of this diocese and reflect on its founding and the people who help make it what it is today.”
Over the years, Bragg has come to pray in the chapel on multiple occasions. For her, the chapel has both a historical and a spiritual significance.
“Every time I come here, it just makes me feel so grateful to reflect on the people that brought all of this about,” she said. “I think it’s very special that we’re able to have some of our own founding fathers, if you will, here together.”
Archbishops can choose whether to be buried in the chapel. The last burial took place in 1996 for Archbishop James Byrne.
Also buried in the chapel are Bishop Clement Smyth, Archbishop Hennessy, Archbishop Francis J.L. Beckman, Archbishop Henry P. Rohlman and Archbishop Raymond Etteldorf.
Toale said that only “basic maintenance” is required for the chapel because of the lack of foot traffic. But anyone can visit the chapel whenever the cathedral is open.
“We have people come through here all the time and see the sign to go down there,” he said. “But most probably wouldn’t think of asking, ‘What is that?’”