By its very origin, the Baltimore Basilica — officially known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary — serves as a reminder of both the celebration of religious liberty and the chill left in its absence.
Once the Declaration of Independence became known as signed, the not-yet bishop of Baltimore, John Carroll, sought the aid of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the father of American architecture and Thomas Jefferson’s architect of the U.S. Capitol, to design a Catholic church distinct from those of Europe.
The choice of a more Neoclassical look was a deliberate attempt to show to all who came to the very busy port of Baltimore the reality of religious liberty and to celebrate the freedom to worship Catholicism openly.
In the years leading up to the American Revolution, Catholics even in the colony of Maryland, where many of the early Catholic population lived, were subject to “anti-papist” policies that included the prohibition of holding public office or a military commission, double taxation and the prohibition of the open celebration of the Mass. Catholics in some of the pre-U.S. colonies could not openly construct buildings that “looked” like Catholic churches without fear of having said buildings burnt to the ground. Being central and highly visible, religious and yet not overtly identifiable as Catholic, the basilica reflected the attempt by the planners to reconcile the value of religious liberty with the American goal of “fitting in,” while carving out a sacred place welcoming to all, as I learned from the basilica website, the tour guide and my own research.
Since it opened in 1821, the Baltimore Basilica has undergone multiple renovations reflecting the styles, sensibilities and needs of the times, such that, by 2004, the church resembled more of the Old World than the new, with dark-green marble, stained glass and much of the original design obscured.
Beginning in 2004, the church spent two years undergoing a meticulous 30-month restoration to render the original design as intended by Latrobe and Carroll. The resulting reopening in 2006 of the National Shrine reveals just how truly modern, light, majestic and powerful the original vision was.
It’s light, it’s airy, it draws you to the altar with clean bright lines, and yet there is nothing about this church that does not say strong, faithful, worship-inspiring and obedient.
It, like its namesake, the Blessed Mother, has a loveliness born of simplicity.
Ask the guides about the battles that went on between Latrobe and those constructing his design to get a sense of how difficult it was to build this edifice. They’ll point out the upside-down arches, tell you the mistaken historical legends about why these structural supports exist and show you where to spot the signatures of various laborers etched in mortar on the insides of various structural walls.
There’s also a small museum housing artifacts that detail the history of this basilica, including vestments, letters, pictures from the visits of Pope St. John Paul the Great and Blessed Mother Teresa with her Missionaries of Charity and historic sacred vessels used for Mass. The collection is more extensive than the current room allows to be showcased.
The most notable sight in the basilica is the rotunda, with multiple portals that allow for indirect but very natural lighting of the nave, reflecting a beautiful relief of the Holy Spirit and flooding the whole cavernous interior with light.
Other high points of the tour of this architectural jewel of 19th-century design include the three dimensional rosettes that accent the high domes of the ceiling, the restored, original bishop’s chair and the original angels that face the tabernacle. They appear to be made of stone but were carved by mast makers from scrap wood and painted.
Don’t miss the two artifacts that designate to all who enter that this church is a basilica: the tintinnabulum (papal bell) and the conopaeum (canopy) on opposite sides of the main altar. The crypt below also allows pilgrims to engage in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and there are multiple altars for private devotions throughout.
Walking below the church wasn’t possible prior to the restoration, but to not visit the crypt is to miss part of the history and importance of this church. Touching the walls that have been here since the birth of our nation gives one a sense of the amount of hope everyday Americans then held in a future of practicing their faith openly with every brick they placed.
While there are older churches, missions, chapels and shrines in the United States, this basilica dubs itself “America’s First Cathedral.” It has good cause: This church birthed the Baltimore Catechism and held seven provincial councils and three plenary ones that helped set Church policy in the United States and make American Catholic schools, both secondary and elementary, a reality.
Pilgrims to this oldest diocese, now archdiocese, in the United States — celebrating 225 years this year — will find much American history, architecture and beauty while visiting, as well as plenty of reminders of the importance of religious liberty. They might also be reminded of the challenge to Catholics: that we are not called to segregate our Catholicism from the rest of our lives, but to integrate the rest of our lives into our faith.
The basilica holds our American Catholic faith history in its bricks, but it is not resting its future on past accomplishments. When I visited at the start of July, a banner on the outside gate reminded onlookers about the 2014 “Fortnight for Freedom” and the ongoing national debate about what constitutes the proper role of religion in the public square and how best to safeguard the capacity of all to fully practice their faith in the course of normal human events, public and private.
The Church as an organization and to an individual is still seeking to address the same question it sought to answer with its creation: how to be a light to the world while serving this one — how to be both a papist and a patriot.
Going to the Baltimore Basilica to pray for our nation and our calling as Catholics is a good starting point for furthering the discussion, especially in honor of Our Lady’s assumption on Aug. 15.
Sherry Antonetti writes from the Washington metro area.
409 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Image of the Holy Spirit dome courtesy of the Basilica Historic Trust; this story has been updated since it went to press.