There has been a Catholic presence in Nevada since its earliest days. The first Catholic church was built by Rev. Father Hugh P. Gallagher in Virginia City in 1860, during the heyday of the Comstock Lode. Other churches followed as mining boomtowns blossomed. Although Reno was established by the railroad in 1868, the town did not get its first permanent Catholic church, Saint Mary’s, until 1871, and fire would be a repeated visitor. The wood-framed church building burned in the fire of 1879 and was replaced, in another location, with a stone and brick building with Gothic architectural elements.
By 1904, Reno was coming into its own as a small yet prosperous metropolis and its Catholic population had outgrown its house of worship. The congregation wanted a larger building at the center of town, so the current priest, Father Thomas Tubman, proposed a magnificent new edifice that would cost $60,000—a lofty goal for any community. Before the building program could begin, fire struck again, destroying the little Gothic church. Fundraising for the new building began with the $5,000 insurance settlement, boosted by donations from the likes of Patrick L. Flanigan, Senator Francis Newlands, Senator George Nixon, Charles Gulling, and John Mackay’s wife and son, Marie Louise and Clarence.
The first step to the new church was to acquire property in the desired neighborhood. In May 1906, Father Tubman purchased a double lot at the southwest corner of Second and Chestnut streets (now Arlington Avenue) in a beautiful and established part of town. Plans for the new church of brick, stone, and steel were drawn by the Northwestern Construction Company of Whapeton, North Dakota. The plans depicted an elegant melding of Classical, Baroque, and Renaissance architectural styles. Construction began in 1907, and when it was completed in 1908, the new church was named St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church.
History was to repeat itself again, however, and in December 1909, embers from a fire at a wood-framed house next door to the church set the church’s roof ablaze. Thanks to the new church’s sturdy construction, not all was lost. Father Tubman immediately began raising money to reconstruct the building, but this time, with a metal roof coated with Bedford slate-colored granite that, in fact, would last a century. When the bishop re-dedicated St. Thomas Aquinas on November 20, 1910, the few remaining soot stains on the east gable were the only reminders of the near disaster.
In August 1931, Reno was designated a separate diocese with the Most Reverend Thomas K. Gorman as the first bishop. With this action, St. Thomas Aquinas was elevated to the status of cathedral. The cathedral recently underwent a seismic retrofit and general restoration, during which the burned beams of the bell towers were uncovered.