After two years of extensive renovations, Boston’s largest Catholic church, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, reopened just ahead of Holy Week and the Boston Marathon.

The sanctuary, which seats 2,000, was packed for Palm Sunday Mass. Hundreds of yellow-green palm fronds folded into crosses could be seen clenched in children’s fists and poking out of women’s purses to commemorate Jesus Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem.

This was the first service in the 150-year-old South End church since renovations began in May 2017.

The $26 million revamping included new seating, restored oak pews, cleaned stained glass, a new altar and gray marble flooring. For the last two years while parts of the building were under construction, regular Holy Cross church-goers attended services in a small chapel in the basement.

“It felt awkward, but God was there.” said Louis Ayala, who attends church every week with his family. He has been looking forward to seeing the improvements. “As soon as we got in here, the first day upstairs, it's like, 'Wow, it was worth the waiting.'"

The Archdiocese says all Holy Week and Easter services will be held in the main sanctuary.

“Today, it stands not only as a monument to the Church’s historical vibrancy in Boston, but as a tangible symbol of the modern Archdiocese of Boston, and a thriving urban parish,” said Rev. Kevin O’Leary, rector of the cathedral, in a statement. The cathedral was dedicated in 1875 and has gone through numerous renovations over the years.

At the end of Sunday’s service, Boston's Archbishop Cardinal Seán O'Malley called several dozen marathon runners up to the altar and said a special prayer for them.

“We ask you to bless these runners who’ve gathered here today for the Boston Marathon,” he said. “Bless them and keep them safe from injury and harm, instill in them respect for each other and reward them for their perseverance.”

The blessing was appreciated by Catholic runners from around the country who attended the Mass on the day before the big race, like 26-year-old Mary Craig from Birmingham, Ala. A life-long Catholic, she said she was touched by O’Malley’s words.

“It made me a little tearful,” she said. “It makes you really excited and grateful to be able to do this.”

The cathedral became a symbol of healing after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing when then President Barack Obama spoke passionately at a special interfaith service in the week following the attacks.

“You will run again,” Obama famously said to a room of tears and applause.

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Boston Archbishop Cardinal Sean O'Malley meets a line of worshipers after mass. He ended Sunday's service with a special prayer for Boston Marathon runners.
Anna Kusmer WGBH News