Park Places

When is a cathedral not a church?

When I hear the term cathedral, it draws my mind to the image of a large building, often with impressive spires, gothic arches, and windows letting in a spectral light. Upon entry, the presentation is designed to inspire awe; perhaps a spiritual feeling, perhaps a grandeur that suggests we are but a small part of a larger scheme of life. Icons fill the spaces, and a call for reverence is implied.

But is it necessary for such a structure to be a formal church?

A few weeks ago we had a rare break from our winter rains.  We didn’t waste such a day; we filled the afternoon with a jaunt to a couple neighborhood parks.  The first is named Cathedral Park.


Huge gothic arches are the dominating feature of the park,  where the central archway feels like the nave of a basilica.

But these monolithic arches are not only for show; to awe, to inspire. They also offer a more prosaic use: they’re the footings for the St. Johns Bridge in North Portland.


The bridge spans the Willamette river and was built between 1929 and 1931. At the time of its construction it held the following claims:

  • the highest clearance in the nation at 205 feet (62 m)
  • the longest prefabricated steel cable rope strands
  • the tallest steel frame piers of reinforced concrete
  • the first application of aviation clearance lights to the towers
  • longest suspension span west of Detroit, Michigan.

The bridge has two 408 feet (124 m) tall Gothic towers, a 1,207 feet (368 m) center span and a total length of 2,067 feet (630 m).


Sharp spires accent the crown of the two main towers, making the bridge the most distinctive in Portland.

The park is popular for walking the paths – taking in the various views of the bridge with its arches and its spires, picnicking, and the occasional concert.  And for some, a whole different sort of religion.


Before we went to Cathedral Park, we made a stop at Columbia Park.  I’d been driving past it for years but had never stopped to check it out – it was time.

The thing you notice about Columbia Park as you drive past is the tall trees.  This seemed like a good place to start – one doesn’t simply emerge from a cavern of extended gray skies and rain into the breaking sunshine without taking precautions. The shade from all those trees gave us a chance to acclimate gradually.


Here comes the sun…


Lighting the moss on the roof of the shelter.


But leaving the monochrome tones to their usual moods.


A light pole shows the scale of the average tree.


And after we wandered among the sylvan paths we came upon nature’s own tower.


For some, a cathedral can only be a church, an impressive building that stands as the seat of a Christian organization. But it doesn’t take much imagination to look around and see the world is full of cathedrals, natural or otherwise; inspiring awe, perhaps a spiritual feeling, and perhaps showing a grandeur that suggests we are but a part of the larger scheme of the universe.

28 thoughts on “Park Places

      1. I commend your honesty! But no need to be so modest. Yours was still a choice photo. I’m about to travel again and have been playing with my new Baby Pan (Panasonic Lumix). So called to distinguish it from my Big Pan. Big Pan is over 10 years old, takes great pics, but is too large/heavy for lightweight travel.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Good point! My understanding is that the early origins of the word ‘cathedral’ are very much in line with your interpretation and its use on a bridge: Greeks used ‘kathedra’ to refer to a seat or a foundation. -Verne

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep, “cathedra” means a seat, and where there’s a seat there’s a bishop. If you’re an RC, no problem. If you’re Protestant, then “episcopalian” (Sp?) means “relating to a bishop”. Which is why you difficult Yanks call Episcopalians what most of us other former colonials call Anglicans.

        If you’re a Protestant who thinks Anglicanism/English Catholicism/Episcopalian is far too close to Roman Catholicism, then there’s other forms of Protestantism for you.

        As for me? I’m sorry that the world spends so much time shedding blood in the name of religions whose key messages are all pretty much the same.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I had an odd thought when I first read that a term we tend to think of as an impressive religious building really means “seat”. I wondered why we don’t call them pews.

        As for the terminology, check my response to Dave Kingsbury above.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree that the world is full of cathedrals. But I also have to admit that the first photo really did look like a church…and I like the way that just illustrated the point of your post. Terrific photos by the way!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As you show so well here, Dave, language is infinitely flexible and can’t be colonised by any one point of view. A creative democracy, if you like … my favourite poem on the subject is Philip Larkin’s ‘Churchgoing’ which I take the liberty of linking here:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s that flexibility that gets us in trouble. Some are so convinced that a concept they believe in can only be expressed using a specific set of terms, when really they believe the same things others do – just using a different symbology. And in time, the tribalism of terms becomes more important than the actual meaning of what the terms describe.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, the St. John’s bridge is pretty unique – most of the other bridges in town are ordinary. It seems to me you have a whole range of cathedrals in your backyard, who’s slopes you ascend on a regular basis.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That it is.

      I’m beginning to wonder if folks even noticed the second set of pictures, the ones with all the trees were actually at a different park (Columbia). Those spires of nature are pretty impressive too.


  4. St. John’s is my favorite local bridge. Have you ever hiked in Forest Park around that area? There are a couple of spots that offer amazing vistas. I think we’re about due for a return trip to Cathedral park ourselves!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As a kid, I always thought a cathedral was a ‘big’ church and a chapel — a smaller one! 🙂 I really liked the way you built the post around the word ‘cathedral’ and took the reader from part to whole. The pictures are stunning, especially the one of the bridge with the blue sky above.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Unabridged Bridge – Plying Through Life

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