America's Oldest Basilica

Like a fortress doing sentry duty for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Archdiocese, the Basilica of St. Mary has an entire city block all to itself.

Topped by a copper dome bearing a 13-foot cross 280 feet above street level, the colossal structure dominates Hennepin Avenue, the main thoroughfare through downtown Minneapolis. A bronze Father Louis Hennepin, the Belgian missionary of the late 1600s who helped settle the Great Lakes region, stands 50 feet in front of the main entrance. He's elevated on a block of concrete, raising a cross.

I marveled over the magnificence of the basilica's exterior on a recent visit. The pause helped prepare me to reflect on the glories of the Blessed Mother as I approached the front doors. (Many others will no doubt do the same this Feb. 2, feast of the Presentation of the Lord, when the Church recalls what must have been one of the happiest moments in Mary's motherhood.)

The basilica dates to 1904, when Archbishop John Ireland met French architect Emmanuel Masquery at the St. Louis World's Fair, which Masquery had designed. The archbishop was so impressed with the architect's work that, in 1907, he commissioned Masquery, a graduate of the famed Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, to design a procathedral for the archdiocese. He anticipated that Minneapolis and St. Paul would eventually split into two separate dioceses, and he wanted to be sure Minneapolis would be prepared with a cathedral.

The church was completed in 1914; its first Mass was celebrated on May 1 of that year. At that time, the local public first experienced the beauty of Beaux-Arts architecture. This is known for its eclectic, neoclassical grandeur: buildings that make big, bold statements. Here Beaux-Arts is seen in the lavish ornamentations, Corinthian columns and carved details throughout, along with the long, narrow nave and circular apse in front. St. Mary's is considered one of the finest examples of Beaux-Arts in the nation, right up there with New York's Grand Central Station and the Boston Public Library.

As it turned out, Minneapolis was never declared a seperate archdiocese independent of St. Paul. But, because the Catholic Church still desired special recognition for the holy sanctuary, St. Mary's was elevated to the canonical status of minor basilica — and it attained the historical status of America's first basilica — on Feb. 1, 1926. Thank you, Pope Pius XI.

While kneeling in the pew during my prayer time, I noticed a steady stream of visitors making their way toward the front. Yet I found it quite easy not to let the din disturb me. As the altar area is lit while the pews are darkened, my attention was naturally drawn to, and held by, the Real Presence of Christ in the tabernacle.

As I rose to walk around the interior, I was struck by the stained-glass windows. They were crafted in the 1920s by a local glassmaker, Thomas Gaytee, who studied the art under Louis Comfort Tiffany, the founder of Tiffany & Co. The windows were designed to appear as pictures in glass, better looked at than looked through — a Tiffany trademark.

Two rows of the windows line each side of the nave. On the top row is the much-larger series, depicting events from Mary's life. Her story begins high above the altar in a beautiful, Gothic rose window depicting the Immaculate Conception. Then, proceeding to the rear, her experiences before, during and after her divine Son's earthly ministry unfold. The story culminates in a rose window to the left, above the altar, depicting her coronation as Queen of Heaven.

Below these, at eye level, a second row of smaller windows depicts Old Testament figures with corresponding Scripture passages beneath. The scenes were selected to show the ancient prophecies and prefigurings of the events depicted in the large, Marian windows above. Given the remarkable accuracy of the Old Testament insights, I found the juxtaposition of the two sets of windows an inspiring and memorable teaching tool.

Indispensable Mother

After making my way up to the front, I took in the details of the main altar. It sits beneath a 40-foot marble canopy, upon which a 9-foot statue of Mary stands. She's looking down on her children with her hands outstretched. Surrounding three sides of the altar and elevated on marble banisters are the Twelve Apostles, half-size replicas of the statues that adorn the top of St. John Lateran — St. Mary's sister church — in Rome.

Seeing the apostles gathered around Mary reminded me of the upper room at Pentecost, when the Twelve received the gift of the Holy Spirit in her presence.

Mary, I recalled, is truly our mother. Some even refer to her as the neck of the body of Christ: We are the body, Christ is the head and Mary connects us with Christ. Without her, would there have been a salvation history?

May's Yes to the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation, her obedience and trust in God during the quiet years — including at the Presentation of the Lord — and her cooperation and support during Jesus’ final years is a witness and model to us, the Church. After all, we hope to one day be fully incorporated in the Body of Christ for all eternity. And that's where she reigns as Queen of Heaven.

Minneapolis’ Basilica of St. Mary is just the place to reflect upon our lives and consider how closely they're connected to Mary's — just as surely as the Old Testament is closely connected to the New. It's a wonderful place to ask the Blessed Mother's heavenly intercession while we continue our pilgrim journey on earth.

Joy Wambeke writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.