From the late 1980s until a couple of years ago, the physical heart of the church at the heart of downtown Charleston’s Catholic complex was made of mahogany.
At what is now the Basilica of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, that fine wood made up the ambo (or pulpit) from which Monsignor Edward Sadie read the gospel, and the altar from which he gave Mass.
The bishop’s chair, called the cathedra, in which Sadie could not sit, also was mahogany. The cathedral, in which that chair sits, is technically the bishop’s church.
So, until he left his post last year, the chair belonged to Michael Bransfield, bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. So did the church.
And Bransfield, now notorious for spending Diocese money on personal luxuries, wanted a marble chair, a marble ambo and a marble altar.
The Bishop’s Fund — the nonprofit that, as reported by The Washington Post, Bransfield created and then funded entirely through Wheeling Hospital money — paid for about $2.3 million worth of renovations to Sacred Heart in 2017.
These renovations, done within the past few years, replaced the mahogany with marble. The renovations covered the floor with marble, too.
The mahogany altar now is at the St. John XXIII Pastoral Center, off Corridor G.
The Post reported on a confidential Catholic investigation into Bransfield. Investigators “found no evidence that the Board of the Hospital was consulted or approved the establishment and funding of The Bishop’s Fund,” the Post reported.
A man who identified himself as Bransfield told the Gazette-Mail the spending was legitimate. He would not talk further, saying whatever he says is misconstrued by newspapers.
“Nobody has any time for me,” he said before hanging up.
Sadie told the Gazette-Mail he objected to the expensive Sacred Heart renovations, as did Tom Lane, longtime Charleston City Council president and Sacred Heart parishioner.
Sadie said he ended his 35 years as head of the parish over it.
“The renovation was the Diocese’s idea,” Sadie said. “The people were not involved at all, it was from the top down, the decision was made in Wheeling and it was implemented in Wheeling and the laity of the parish or the local leadership had very little to say about it.
“Rather than getting into a skunk fight, I retired,” Sadie said. “With me not there, they could do what they wanted.”
Lane said he temporarily attended a different Catholic church because he felt so strongly about the renovations.
“I wrote letters to parish members expressing objection to the expenditure of an incredible amount of money for marble statues and glitter that were only to appease the bishop’s ego,” Lane said.
The Post reported that the Bishop’s Fund “spent $400,000 on a custom-made Italian altar set that was rejected last fall by parishioners at a church in Wheeling who objected to Bransfield’s lavish spending.” That altar is now in storage, a diocese spokesman told the Post.
Father Donald Higgs, who replaced Sadie as head of the Charleston parish, previously told the Gazette-Mail that Sacred Heart’s recent work originated in Italy. Higgs didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Diocese officials didn’t make anyone available to discuss the thinking behind the renovations, or exactly how much of the $2.3 million was for the marble features and how much was for other work.
Sadie said Bransfield was, spending aside, very supportive of the church providing charity to the poor.
“I did not register any strong reservations or disagreements,” Sadie said of the renovations. “I just did not support it, and, therefore, I retired.”
The monsignor said he raised the issue with others, and directly with Bransfield once, before a Mass. Sadie said he told the bishop that he was concerned about the “Francis Effect” — that is, the spending seemed to go against Pope Francis’ instructions to clergy to live humbly.
In more than three decades leading Sacred Heart and downtown Charleston Catholic schools, Sadie engineered significant spending to expand the parish’s real estate footprint and upgrade its buildings and services.
But he said the spending on the recent renovation was too much for too little need.
“I’m not at all crazy about what they did,” Sadie said. “I’m not opposed to it, but I’m not ecstatic about it, and many others are not. We had a very beautiful cathedral before.”
In a February 2017 letter to Bransfield that Lane provided, Lane wrote that, “over many years, the parishioners at Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral have contributed generously for the many improvements that make Sacred Heart one of the most attractive, inviting and vibrant places in the region.
“These include the additions to the church, expansion of our schools, and the enlargement of the footprint of Sacred Heart in Charleston,” Lane wrote. “At the heart of all of these is the sanctuary. Here, the church commissioned a local craftsman to build the tasteful and warm altar, pulpit and chair and the interior has been restored to pristine condition.
“I speak for many when I say, we seriously regret to hear that you might remove these fine altar pieces, and, are saddened that they might be replaced with cold and impersonal marble that has no connection to our parish history,” Lane wrote. “The mosaic floor, installed when the Church was first built, is beautiful, has withstood the test of more than a century, and lends to the historic significance of the building.”
Lane concluded that, “at a time when too many West Virginians, particularly in the southern part of the state, served by Sacred Heart, are caught up in a depressed economy, it seems inappropriate that consideration would be given to replacing our beautiful altar pieces, that many of us cherish, with the coldness and opulence of marble or other stone and to replacing the historic floor, both expensive replacements that will serve no new purpose.”
Bransfield replied in March 2017, according to a letter Lane also provided.
“Like you, I love this Church and am very happy to have it as my Co-Cathedral,” Bransfield wrote. “It was for this reason that I worked to have it named a Minor Basilica.”
Bransfield wrote that, “In recent years, several of our priests have approached me about providing a new, stone altar for the Basilica Co-Cathedral and a matching ambo. Because this is our diocesan Co-Cathedral, I became determined to carry out this work without cost to the Parish itself, though I am certainly willing to receive donations. I do understand that not everyone will be pleased with this renovation, but my desire is to create an ever more beautiful space in which our people may gather for praise and sacrifice.”
“The church was in excellent condition to start with,” Lane said. “It just didn’t need anything. I mean, we had a relatively new floor in the altar area to start with, the flooring in the rest of the church was original, but it was a tile floor that, if you will, had the patina of time on it and was perfectly fine.
“We had a custom-made beautiful wooden altar and a pulpit, and in a state and city that, I think for a long time now, we’ve seen a downturn in our economy, and to spend lavishly as he spent money in that church was just inappropriate,” he said.