Soul of the City: McDonald Electrical Corp. refurbishes Cathedral of the Holy Cross

McDonald Electrical Corp.
McDonald Electrical Corp.
Published On
Mar 15, 2021

Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross, consecrated in 1875, is the oldest and largest church in New England and has hosted historic gatherings.

In 1964, John F. Kennedy’s family members and dignitaries gathered there for a nationally televised memorial service.

In 1979, Pope John Paul II held a prayer service there for 2,000 priests on his first visit to the United States.

In 2013, after the Boston Marathon bombing, President Barack Obama addressed an interfaith service at the Cathedral.

It’s not your ordinary house of worship. Yet by 2019, the once magnificent structure designed by Irish-American architect Patrick Keely was not in good shape.

Shutterstock / James Kirkikis
The cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. | Shutterstock / James Kirkikis

“Renovation was essential, aside from aesthetics,” said Michael Kieloch, director of communications for the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. “The building was 145 years old and in need of updates, in terms of the hidden systems of the building. The wiring was part of the original in the 1920s. Over the decades, electricians had simply grafted on to that 1920s system. One of the contractors said it was the worst system he’d seen in his career. We were lucky nothing bad happened in those years with that deteriorating system.”

No one wanted anything bad to happen. Not the Archdiocese nor the locals. Not David Manfredi, CEO and founding principal of Elkus Manfredi Architects, and not John Fish, a former altar boy and CEO of Suffolk Construction—men from the two Boston-based companies that led the $25 million project.

cathedral

“History is such a part of the fabric of this city,” Fish said. “Beautiful buildings like the Cathedral of the Holy Cross have been so important to the community and have stood the test of time. They remind us of who we are today and who we hope to be tomorrow. That is why this renovation project means so much to everyone involved. Renovating this cathedral was about so much more than just a construction project. It was about preserving the soul of our city and will be a part of the legacy we leave to the next generation.”

While the Gothic Revival-style cathedral is the seat of the Archdiocese of Boston, it had not had a comprehensive interior renovation in decades and suffered from deferred maintenance and infrastructure problems.

“The hardest part of the whole job was keeping the original integrity of the building, which was constructed in the 1800s,” said Brian Goode, project manager, McDonald Electrical Corp., the electrical contractor headquartered in Hingham, Mass., that was responsible for the retrofit of the cathedral’s lighting to LED light fixtures as well as installation of systems to power lighting controls, security, audiovisual for CatholicTV, new video cameras and state-of-the-art digital sound.

Without access to the original architectural drawings, construction manager Suffolk Construction laser-scanned the entire interior of the cathedral to create a virtual design and construction model, allowing for the prefabrication of updated HVAC and mechanicals to fit the existing building. This eliminated the need for demolishing elements of the existing structure, which is 364 feet long, 90 feet wide and 120 feet high from the finished basement floor to the ridge of the nave attic. With expansion of the sanctuary, congregants can be closer to the altar.

Initially, scaffolding was brought in to fill the interior—one on the upper nave level and one on the lower.

Scaffolding crisscrossed the entire cathedral interior. | McDonald Electrical Corp.
Scaffolding crisscrossed the entire cathedral interior. | McDonald Electrical Corp.

“At any given point, our crew of eight electricians and four telecommunications technicians worked off the scaffolding 60 to 90 feet in the air and off rolling scaffolding that allowed us to get up into the peaks of the church, up to 120 feet to reach the vaulted ceiling,” said Mike Norton, foreman, McDonald Electrical. “The idea was to demolish as little as possible of the existing finish during restoration. We used the old bell tower access and set up a hoist at the top to get our lifted materials up, but we had to physically walk up the stairs to get to all the different levels.”

Since all the original electrical panels were in the attic, McDonald Electrical drilled out metal plates at the bottom of the columns that flank the church to access the inside of the columns’ hollow parts. Then they used snakes and fish tape to remove the old lighting.

“It was a typical demolition,” Norton said. “It was jacketed cable, so it was not that we were pulling out regular connectors through conduits. We didn’t use the old wiring to pull in the new wiring. When we removed the old wiring, we were able choose different pathways, some that went underneath the pull joist and above the ceiling below, and we were able to pull from point A to point B. We did have multiple electricians. At each point of the wire pulling, we had an electrician to make each pull as efficiently as possible.”

To install the new wiring, McDonald used the same paths—the columns—but came up with the idea of putting the new electrical panels in the basement instead of in the attic.

“Once able to access the path, we had one guy on one end and one guy on the other end and just tried to connect, to get one clean pathway all the way through, pushing the wiring through until it came to the other end, where we tied a wire on and pulled it back to where we were going,” Goode said. “All the guys were fishing wires and figuring clever ways to get the wiring down into the basement.”

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For example, to get from column to column, the crew framed out and matched existing trim boards so that it looked like they had been there all along.

“The real highlight of the project was the lighting, how all-LED lighting fixtures introduced more light into the interiors, and how it accented the restored features of the church, for example, on the refurbished oil-painted Stations of the Cross and murals in the apse ceiling,” Norton said. “It also will be in line with future lighting requirements for broadcasts from the cathedral.”

Stained-glass windows from the 19th century flank both sides of the cathedral, but people walking or driving by at night couldn’t see them due to a lack of illumination.

“To address that issue, we put LEDs in the north and south towers to backlight the glass,” Goode said. “It was challenging, since we had to access the towers via a narrow spiral staircase from ground level all the way to the top of the bell tower that was built for people back in the 1800s when the average height was 5'7". Some of our crew are 6'4", and it was so tight for them and difficult. Even though there were platforms to store equipment on the way up, because of the nature of climbing 100 feet on a spiral staircase carrying tools and equipment, it was very difficult to work off those stairs and get material up to and down from the bell tower,” he said.

Men at work in the interior of the cathedral

The physical challenges were shared by other crews.

“We worked collectively with McDonald’s crew,” said Bob Collins, project manager at P.J. Kennedy & Sons, the Boston-based mechanical contractor that has been servicing and maintaining the cathedral for the past 40 years. “It was a 150-year-old building, so we were anticipating lots of unforeseen conditions. We installed the new heating and air conditioning systems for which McDonald Electrical did all of the power wiring to our new equipment.”

The existing pendant lights were cleaned, completely rewired and fitted with new lights. | McDonald Electrical Corp.
The existing pendant lights were cleaned, completely rewired and fitted with new lights. | McDonald Electrical Corp.

“Prior to the renovation, the cathedral had steam heat. During the project, we removed the old steam radiators and piping and installed a two-pipe hydronic system with a high-end fan coil system, fresh air units, chiller, air condenser and pumps. As we mounted all of the 9-inch-wide concealed fan coil units around the perimeter of the main church, we had to coordinate enough space for the required HVAC preventive maintenance, and enough space for the electrical service access.

“We took great pride in our role on the project. Our crew really didn’t want this very special project to end,” Collins said.

That was a sentiment echoed by McDonald’s and other crews. It was a high-profile project, but—through teamwork—all the contractors came together and got it done.

“It was very nice to help the community get its center-point back. It was one of the most interesting projects I’ve ever done or will probably ever do,” Norton said.

The crews had to complete the project so that the public could celebrate Palm Sunday mass in 2019. In fact, the very first mass actually took place on the Saturday before, held especially for those who made the renovation happen—the construction companies, crews, architects and their families, an unusual and well-earned acknowledgment of the work of the construction team.

“Since the renovation, if you’re actually in the church, it’s breathtaking,” Goode said.

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