It was envisioned by America’s first bishop and built by one of its finest architects. It has welcomed popes and presidents, senators and saints. It hosted councils at which Roman Catholic Church leaders mapped out the contours of their faith for a new and growing country.
The Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary — better known as the Baltimore Basilica — turns 200 years old Monday, and the 16th leader of the archdiocese it serves says he’s honored to be the celebrant for the commemorative Mass that day.
“There are larger and grander cathedrals around the country, but the basilica has stood as a symbol of religious liberty for lo, these many years, and it’s truly home base for America’s Catholics,” said William E. Lori, now in his ninth year as archbishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. “It’s the mother church for the Church in this country.”
As part of the 2 p.m. Mass, Lori will speak of the building’s history as “the nation’s first cathedral,” discuss the ongoing life and prospects of its parish, and bless a chapel recently set aside as a sanctuary for perpetual adoration.
In that practice, a Blessed Sacrament — the consecrated bread and wine Catholics believe contain the body and blood of Christ — is made available for viewing and at least one member of the faithful is present to pray before it 24 hours a day.
It will be the first perpetual adoration chapel in city history.
“We believe the Lord always wants to be with us, and with this chapel, he’ll be with the city of Baltimore at all hours of the day and night,” said the Rev. James E. Boric, the basilica’s rector. “It will be an oasis of peace. I think it will have a significant impact, and not just for Catholics.”
Catholic churches of any kind were few and far between on American shores at the time the basilica was built, and as the first cathedral in the newly minted country, Baltimore’s is a landmark.
It was John Carroll, the first man to be consecrated a Catholic bishop in the new United States, who guided the design and construction of the building, originally known as the Baltimore Cathedral. He was a cousin of the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, and a brother of Daniel Carroll, a signer of the Constitution.
But those aren’t the building’s only ties to the nation’s founding.
When Benjamin Henry Latrobe, designer of the U.S. Capitol, heard of Carroll’s project, he volunteered his services. After considerable debate, the pair chose design elements meant to reflect the hopes of the new nation.
They opted for a sweeping, light-filled neoclassical style, rather than the darker Gothic style then in vogue in Europe. Latrobe improvised a technique — inverted arches that distributed the weight of the cathedral’s dome into the building’s foundation — that allowed him to include 24 skylights. The effect amazed early visitors.
“There are accounts of how the light coming into the rotunda struck people as almost magical in character, and some said, ‘Things like that have never been seen in this country before, and we doubt they have in Europe,’” said John G. Waite, principal architect of John G. Waite Associates, the New York firm that restored the basilica between 2004 and 2006. “In religious and architectural terms, the building is of the highest importance.”
It also carried symbolic weight in a country in which Catholics were an often-persecuted minority.
“Buildings like the basilica, which articulate so much artistic authority, were a sign that said, “We’re here, we’re big, and we’re going to stay,’” said William D. Dinges, a professor of religion and culture at the Catholic University of America in Washington.
The cathedral’s cornerstone was laid in 1806, but the building did not officially open until 1821. (It would not be completed for an additional 42 years.) The Baltimore archdiocese’s third archbishop, Ambrose Marechal, celebrated the dedication Mass on May 31, 1821.
The cathedral hosted several major gatherings over the years at which Catholic leaders gave shape to the American church. They asserted the need for Catholic schools in 1829 and commissioned the Baltimore Catechism, a set of religious principles that children would be taught for nearly a century, in 1884.
The site itself, meanwhile, gained steady recognition: Pope Pius XI raised it to the rank of Minor Basilica in 1937, it was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, and the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops designated it a National Shrine in 1993.
In the early 2000s, Cardinal William H. Keeler, the diocese’s 14th archbishop, started a $34 million campaign to realign the aging building with its original vision. Waite said renovations over the years had made the basilica look more and more like the parish churches of the moment, covering up art, adding stained glass and generally darkening the place.
Between 2004 and 2006, Waite’s team reopened skylights, restored transparent windows, unearthed and restored an undercroft that had never been completed and more, restoring the building to Latrobe’s vision just before the bicentennial of the cornerstone ceremony.
“What Cardinal Keeler did was restore the basilica to what it was intended to be, a building filled with light that speaks of hope,” Lori said.
The building has welcomed millions of visitors, among them presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa.
Still, Lori and Boric say, it remains the centerpiece of a small but thriving parish, one that skews young and reaches out to the community around it. An initiative called Source of All Hope, for example, works with young missionaries who befriend people who are homeless in Baltimore.
For Lori and the priests who will celebrate Monday, there’s plenty to extol at the Mass, which is free and open to the public and just the first of several commemorative events to be held this year. The archdiocese asks only that guests maintain social distancing and wear masks in accordance with public health guidelines. It also will livestream the event on its website.
“We are excited to welcome parishioners and the public to celebrate this significant milestone — not just for our city,” Lori said, “but for Catholics across the country.”