A Visit to ‘America's Church’ — the National Shrine in Washington, DC

Six Masses or more are celebrated daily at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and confessions are heard five hours daily.

(photo: Photos by Jim Graves)

I recently visited the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Located alongside the Catholic University of America, it is easily accessible either by car or the City’s Metro train. I came during a lunchtime EWTN-televised Easter Sunday Mass, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, was celebrant.

A couple of quick reactions: it was a huge visitor-friendly Catholic church, with a wide range of art, and had many interesting features that one could easily devote a day to exploring.

Here are some basic facts. The Shrine is the largest Catholic church in North America, and one of the 10 largest in the world. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has designated the Shrine as a “National Sanctuary of Prayer and Pilgrimage.” Although located in the Archdiocese of Washington, it is neither a cathedral nor a parish church.

In 1913, Pope St. Pius X approved the plans for the Shrine, and made a $400 donation towards its construction. The cornerstone was laid in 1920, and the first Mass held on Easter Sunday 1924. Its lower crypt level, which contains numerous chapels and sections which honor particular saints, was completed in 1931. The huge upper church, where Cardinal Wuerl celebrated Easter Sunday Mass, was completed in 1959.

After attending Mass at the Shrine, I spoke with Jacquelyn Hayes, Director of Communications for the Shrine, who encouraged Catholics to visit and consider making a donation in support of the Shrine’s Trinity Dome project.


Please give me an overview of the Shrine and some highlights visitors should not miss.

The Shrine is our nation’s preeminent Marian shrine and patronal church dedicated to the patroness of the United States, the Blessed Virgin Mary, under her title of the Immaculate Conception. It is often referred to as Mary’s Shrine and America’s Catholic Church. Over 80 chapels and oratories have been added to the National Shrine, dedicated by various ethnic groups and religious communities. From the beginning, the Shrine was envisioned as a gift from all American Catholics to represent the devotion to Mary of many kinds of peoples, cultures, traditions and ethnic backgrounds. 

The various chapels and oratories are filial in that they relate to the mother shrine in the country of origin or the particular religious community to which they are affiliated. Offering the same graces and indulgences, individuals and groups can make a pilgrimage to many of the great Marian Shrines of the world at the Shrine. Among its many chapels and oratories are Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Lourdes, Mary, Queen of Ireland, Our Lady of Czetochowa (Poland), Our Lady of China, Our Mother of Africa, Our Lady of LaVang (Vietnam), Our Lady of Vailankanni (India) and Our Lady of Altötting (Bavaria/Germany).


What is the best way to get the most out of a tour of the Shrine? 

Open 365 days a year, the Shrine receives one million visitors annually. Six Masses or more are celebrated daily, and confessions are heard five hours daily. The Basilica is host to diocesan, ethnic and group pilgrimages bringing pilgrims in from around the country and around the world.

The Shrine offers daily guided tours and operates a Catholic Gift Shop, a Catholic Book Store, and a cafeteria to accommodate its visitors. The Shrine offers free one-hour guided tours by docents Monday through Saturday at 9:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. On Sundays, guided tours are available in the afternoon at 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Audio tours are also available at any time from the information desk. Groups of 15 or more may schedule a group tour of the Shrine. 


I saw construction was going on related to the ceiling. What work is being done and when is it expected to be completed?

Nearly a century in the making, the Shrine has been a work in progress since the laying of its foundation stone in 1920. This great Marian shrine, dedicated to the patroness of the United States, is a testament to the faith and generosity of generations of American Catholics. Now, as the 100th anniversary approaches, a monumental effort is underway to complete America’s Catholic Church, according to its original plan, with the ornamentation of what will be the crowning jewel of Mary’s Shrine, the Trinity Dome. 

According to the original iconographic scheme, the Trinity Dome will be adorned in mosaic and depict the Most Holy Trinity, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a procession of saints The Nicene Creed will encircle the dome, while the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, will be featured in the Dome’s pendentives. To assist in this project, the bishops of the United States have approved a one-time second collection to be taken up in parishes across the nation on Mother’s Day 2017.

Additionally, the Shrine reaches out to individual Catholics, asking for prayers and financial support. Individuals and families are invited to continue the legacy of their ancestors, not only by entrusting themselves to the Mother of God, but by also supporting this great endeavor to bestow the crowning jewel of the Trinity Dome upon Mary’s Shrine.

For more information on the Trinity Dome and how you can help, please visit www.trinitydome.org. We hope to dedicate the Trinity Dome on December 8, 2017, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the patronal feast day of the United States and the National Shrine.


What are some of the big annual events at the Shrine open to visitors?

The Shrine’s largest events include Masses for Christmas, Easter and Holy Days, as well as the Opening Mass of the National Prayer Vigil for Life.


What notable visitors have come to the Shrine?

Pope Francis, Pope Benedict, Pope St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Calcutta are among the millions who have visited. We invite your readers to visit, too!