In a word: light. That’s what distinguishes this U.S. Catholic landmark now. The last time my (now-) wife and I visited the Baltimore Basilica — officially, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary — we were greeted by a building in major need of renovation. Gray interior walls and faded stained-glass windows made for a dark and somber worship space. That was in 2004.
We came for another look this past November, two weeks after its rededication. What a difference two years and $32 million make. The space hasn’t been so much renovated as restored to the grandeur of its glory days in the 1800s.
This is the oldest Catholic cathedral in the
Concerned about the anti-Catholic sentiments of the
day, Archbishop Carroll decided on a neoclassical design. This would be
consistent with the other important buildings that were going up in the
The cornerstone was laid on the city’s tallest point in 1806. Construction would not be finished until 1921, six years after Archbishop Carroll’s passing (and a year after Latrobe’s).
Two plaques provide visitors with a glimpse of how
this church’s growth paralleled the growth of the Catholic Church in the
Actions taken during these gatherings include
issuance of a pastoral letter on discrimination of Catholics (1837), the
declaration of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Patroness of the
The other marker lists the names of the 30-plus bishops who were consecrated within the basilica’s walls.
As with all man-made landmarks, the years took their
toll on the basilica. In the 1940s, the original clear windows were replaced
with stained-glass panels. These significantly reduced the flow of light into
the building. The following decade, the basilica would lose its position as
Cathedral of the Archdiocese after the much larger Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
was dedicated in
Though the restoration work did not get under way
until 2004, planning for the 2½-year effort began in 1999. The idea was to
The pews were crafted in
Along the way, some lost treasures were uncovered
right here in
Within 15 years, however, the panels would be covered with wood and plaster for a flat look. This would hide the artwork for almost 130 years, until a restorer working on the pillars heard a hollow sound when digging and discovered the lost paintings.
Also uncovered was an upper balcony in the rear of the basilica; this was reserved for black worshippers prior to the Civil War.
And two Rafael Angels returned to their prominent places flanking the altar. Carved by German craftsmen in 1821, these were sent to the basilica’s undercroft for storage in 1947.
Upon entering the basilica, visitors bask in the
light beaming through the 24 dome lights and restored clear windows. (The
former stained-glass windows have been restored and installed in a new church
An upward gaze finds a painting of the Assumption in the “west saucer.”
Occupying the similar space directly above the altar is a painting of the Ascension. In the center of this dome is the white dove representing the Holy Spirit. It’s illuminated by the light cascading in through the 24 skylights.
Just past the wooden Communion railing stands the archbishop’s cathedra (seat), capped with a wood dome and draped in bright red. Across from the cathedra rises the pulpit.
The marble altar — adorned with a gold cross and six
candlesticks — was a gift to the third archbishop of Baltimore, Ambrose Marechal, from seminarians who studied under him in
Raised to the rank of minor basilica by Pope Pius XI in 1937, the basilica has the right to display at age 86 the papal tintinnabulum (bell) and bright red and yellow papal conopoeum (umbrella) on its altar.
Next to the tintinnabulum hangs upside down the tasseled maroon hat of Cardinal James Gibbons, who shepherded the archdiocese for 44 years before dying in 1921.
As in other cathedrals, the hat will hang upside down until its disintegration in his memory.
Beneath the altar lies the crypt containing the
remains of eight archbishops of
The small museum in the undercroft contains a number of artifacts, including the wooden tabernacle of Archbishop John Carroll. His cousin, Charles Carroll, was the only Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence.
Also here is the letter from Latrobe to Archbishop Carroll volunteering his design services for the basilica, and fundraising letters issued by the archbishop in the early 1800s seeking funds to build the basilica.
While there is no record of Thomas Jefferson having ever visited the basilica, plenty of dignitaries did, including the Marquis de Lafayette, Vice President John C. Calhoun (as President Andrew Jackson’s representative to the funeral Mass of Charles Carroll) and at least 16 saints or potential saints including St. John Neumann, Pope John Paul II and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Now fully restored, the Baltimore Basilica stands ready to greet future generations of pilgrims, leaders and saints-to-be.
Nick Manetto is based in
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption
Planning Your Visit
The Rosary is prayed Monday-Friday at 7 a. m., and Saturday at 5 p.m. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is held Friday following the 12:10 Mass; Benediction follows at 3:45 p.m.