17 April 2014, Thursday
Today's Zaman

St. Esprit: a humble cathedral on a busy İstanbul street

7 June 2008, Saturday /BÜŞRA İPEKÇİ
Just off a busy İstanbul street is located a humble, 19th century cathedral, hidden behind the walls of the French Notre Dame de Sion high school.

While walking from Taksim toward Harbiye, some of you may have noticed a door with metal bars leading to the school's courtyard, beyond which is a statue. Past the door stands the St. Esprit Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit.

St. Esprit, second in size only to St. Anthony of Padua Cathedral on famous İstiklal Street, is one of the main Roman Catholic cathedrals in İstanbul. It was built by famous architect Gaspare Fossati under the direction of his colleague Julien Hillereau, another Italian architect. The site where the cathedral stands was chosen because the Vatican had decided to establish its "unofficial" office in İstanbul on the same street. This office today serves in an official capacity as Turkey and the Vatican agreed to establish mutual diplomatic representative offices in 1960.

Construction took one year, and the cathedral was completed in 1846. Financial difficulties led to poorer quality construction materials and, following an earthquake in 1865, the cathedral was badly damaged. Restoration began in June of the same year and the church was reopened for service a few months later, in December.

Architect Pierre Vitalis, with the help of another architect, was supposed to rebuild St. Esprit following the earthquake, but nothing came of this as Vitalis went into retirement. As a result, the cathedral's rebuilding was led by Father Antoine Giorgiovitch, church sources say. According to historical sources, the church was designated a cathedral in 1876. It has undergone several restorations so far, receiving three new bells hammered in Fermo, Italy, in 1922 and having all its paintings restored by the late Bishop Antoine Marovitch in 1980. Following the construction of the cathedral, the Christian community began settling nearby, according to historical sources. In other words, St. Esprit played a leading role in the Christian community moving beyond the Beyoğlu (formerly known as Pera) and Galata areas, predominantly non-Muslim at the time. The cathedral's administrative rights were given to Italian monks in 1989.

The architecture of the cathedral, which has a basilica plan with three naves, represents the Baroque style. Some art historians define the cathedral's architecture as the revival of the early Christian basilica type. The main apse and the side apses have a square shape. The gallery rests upon columns separating the naves that line the two sides of the cathedral in rows. The interior of the cathedral is beautifully decorated with frescoes. The richly decorated ceiling runs until the altar, situated just across the main door. The bell tower, at one of St. Esprit's corners, overlooks Ölçek Sokak, which also goes by the name Papa Rocalli Street.

The rear of the cathedral has a second door, opening up to Papa Rocalli Street No: 82. This door leads to a staircase that takes you to various rooms in the cathedral as well as the main hall. Access through this door may be restricted, though there is a sign by the main outer door that reads "If you need to enter the cathedral, contact attendant at Ölçek Sokak, No: 82." If you find yourself walking by St. Esprit, take some time to step inside this humble cathedral -- even if you're there outside of service times. Don't forget to ring the bell, as the back door is normally closed.

St. Esprit's courtyard houses a bronze statue of Pope Benedict XV (1854-1922), built by the Turkish state in 1922 in remembrance of his support for Turkish soldiers. The statue rests upon a stone pedestal with a plaque that reads: "Benefactor of all people, regardless of nationality or religion." Pope Benedict XV presided over the Catholic Church between 1914 and 1922 and is known for his efforts to stop World War I. He also contributed to the establishment of a hospital on the Turkish-Syrian border where wounded Turkish soldiers were treated. The statue was cleaned by the İstanbul Greater Municipality in 2006 shortly before Pope Benedict XVI's visit to İstanbul. Sultan Mehmet VI is believed to have contributed to the fund collected for the erection of the statue.

The cathedral's burial vaults are said to be very imposing, although I did not have a chance to see them as they are not open to visitors. These vaults, designed with the construction of the cathedral and reached via corridors, house the remains of various members of the Catholic community of İstanbul, including nuns from Notre Dame de Sion and architect Hillereau himself.

Giuseppe Donizetti, the royal musician during the reign of Sultan Mahmut II, who invited him to İstanbul in the first place, is also buried in the vaults beneath the cathedral. He is known for the two military marches he composed for Sultans Mahmut II and Abdülmecit I: the "Mahmudiye March" and the "Mecidiye March." Today, what remains of the Donizetti family's archives, discovered in the 1970s, is preserved at the Topkapı Palace Museum library. Burials in the vaults of St. Esprit continued until the 1920s. Mass is held at 4 p.m. on weekdays and at 9 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. (in French) and at 10 a.m. (in English) on Sundays. The cathedral is open to visitors during Mass.

Who is Gaspare Fossati?

Gaspare Fossati was a Swiss-Italian architect working in İstanbul in the 19th century. He is known as the second European architect to come to İstanbul to work when Western-style buildings began to be popular and thus widespread across the city. He built many famous 19th century buildings, including the Russian Embassy, the Consulate of the Netherlands and St. Paolo di Pietro Church, located in Galata. Fossati also worked on the restoration of Ayasofya along with his brother Giuseppe Fossati.

Address: Cumhuriyet Caddesi, No: 205/B Harbiye İstanbul. Tel: (212) 248 09 10. Located across from Radyoevi.