Keys and Sword honorees

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ST. THOMAS - The renovation of Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral is in the final stages, with new statues and religious relics coming in on an almost weekly basis.

The Catholic Diocese of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands has spent 14 years raising about $2 million needed to renovate and restore the almost 170-year-old church to its former glory.

Ss. Peter and Paul is the territory's only cathedral.

Tonight is the fifth annual Keys and Sword benefit, the largest fundraising event for the cathedral restoration project.

The event is named after the symbols of St. Peter, who was given the keys to the kingdom, and St. Paul, who was martyred by having his head cut off with a sword.

Jean Dragin and Addie Ottley will be honored with the Keys and Sword Award tonight at the white-tie function at Marriott's Frenchman's Reef.

The restoration of Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral first began under the guidance of Bishop George Murray, who raised enough funds for an architectural plan, which was completed just before he was transferred several years ago.

Bishop Herbert Bevard was appointed to take Murray's place and has made the project a priority.

During the last few years, major structural renovations have been completed with more than $1 million raised by the local community.

"Really, the heavy lifting has been done," Bevard said.

A new roof, earthquake resistant columns and supports and a metal framework was embedded into the walls of the building to provide structural support. Problems with water damage and flooding have been resolved by installing catchment areas around the building to divert the water away from the building.

New brightly colored stained glass windows depicting saints also were installed.

"Now we're more into the cosmetic and the liturgical," Bevard said.

The project is now in the third and fourth phases.

The front entrance to the cathedral now looks completely different, with a vestibule, stairs going up to the choir loft and new confessionals. The confessionals are beautifully carved oak, built around the same time as the cathedral. Bevard had them shipped to the territory from France last year.

A new pulpit, as well as the bishop's chair - or cathedra - and two deacon chairs are now in use during mass. They all are ornately carved, dark-stained wood from Belgium and date to the same time period as the cathedral's construction.

All new electrical wiring, to include a new audio and video recording system, should be complete in a few weeks, Bevard said.

The hanging lights will be removed and a new recessed lighting system will be installed to showcase the painted ceiling and artworks throughout the cathedral.

"It will certainly be beautiful to see the ceiling lit," Bevard said.

The high, vaulted ceiling's murals depict 12 major scenes and numerous smaller works and were painted by two Redemptorist priests, Fr. Leo Servais and Brother Ildephonsus. The job took two-and-a-half years to complete, from Feb. 4, 1899, to Sept. 21, 1901.

The side altars have been replaced and the artwork and statuary is being repaired, restored and obtained. When everything is in place, the right altar will depict the Sacred Heart of Mary, with St. Theresa and St. Anne on either side. The left hand altar will depict the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with St. Joseph and St. Martin de Porres on either side.

On one of the central columns in the church, a carved wooden crucifix - made in France about the time the cathedral was built - has been hung. Bevard said underneath the crucifix will soon be a shard of the original cross upon which Jesus was crucified.

"I was able to get a relic of the true cross," Bevard said.

Waist-high columns have been placed around the outside edge of the cathedral, ready and waiting for statues of saints.

Bevard said he is planning to display saints who are important to the various ethnic groups who attend the church.

"We're trying to have things in the cathedral that are dear to the people of the diocese," Bevard said.

St. Rose of Lima, Peru, is important to Hispanic Catholics, while St. Pierre Toussaint is important to many Haitians. St. Josephine Bakhita, born in Sudan in 1869, is very inspiring to people with African slave ancestry.

In recent years, the Filipino community has grown in the Virgin Islands, bringing dozens of Catholics to the territory's churches.

Bevard has obtained a special statue to help the Filipinos living in the Virgin Islands feel at home - the infant of Cebu. The 12-inch, child Jesus, draped in red and gold vestments, is said to be the oldest religious image in the Philippines, and replicas are all over the country.

"Also, we have coming a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Montserrat," Bevard said. "It's a beautiful statue of a black Madonna." Bevard is also working to get an icon of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, which is from Poland but very popular with Haitians.

He said the goal is: "To make it as inclusive as possible."

At this point in the renovation, people can see improvements on a regular basis.

"Every Sunday when the people come to mass, there's something new in their church," Bevard said.

Msgr. Jerôme Feudjio said the renovations began in earnest in 2000 after a block of marble fell off a wall and almost killed him in the middle of mass.

"We're looking forward to the completion because it will be a sight that everyone visiting St. Thomas will want to see," he said.

Feudjio said he hopes when the work is done, students at the Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral School will work as tour guides, pointing out the history and artwork of the cathedral while giving them valuable skills that could be used in the tourism industry.

In the coming year, continued renovations at the cathedral will include refinishing the wooden pews, repainting the walls and installing 14 new French cameos depicting the stations of the cross around the cathedral.

The large, fake, stained-glass depictions of St. Peter and St. Paul that currently are hanging above the main altar at the front and center of the cathedral actually are covering niches built into the wall that formerly held statues of the two saints.

Bevard said he is looking for replacement statues for the niches.

Looking at old photographs of the cathedral, Bevard said he can get a sense of how it used to look, and wants to bring the cathedral back to that. In one of the photographs, a large sunburst hangs above the main alter at the front of the church. He said he cannot make out what is in the center of the sunburst, but he plans to recreate the image and place an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the center.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email

Addie Ottley

President, Ottley Communications

Ottley is the owner and manager of WSTA Radio, where he is the host of "The Morning Show." He also is the host of "Face to Face" on public television.

He graduated from Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral School and attended RCA Institute of Technology and Indiana Institute of Technology.

He is a former V.I. senator, lt. governor and two-time president of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce.

Ottley has been a committed Catholic and parishioner of Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral and has been dedicated to its restoration efforts.

Jean Dragin

President, Jean Dragin Enterprise

Dragin first came to St. Thomas in 1965 at the age of 26 and began his service within the Catholic Diocese of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.

A devout Catholic, he was born in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, but made the permanent move to St. Thomas in 1968.

His skill and talent in engineering, construction and maintenance became well-known within the diocese and the larger Virgin Islands community.

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