Washington basilica is no small secret -- it's huge

"It's beautiful. I've never seen anything like it," said a Catholic priest from India.

"Very impressive," declared the father of a family of four from New York. "We've been to St. Patrick's in Manhattan, but it can't compare. This shrine is almost perfect."


They were describing the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. While it doesn't draw the large number of tourists that other Washington sites do, it's no small secret: It's the largest Roman Catholic Church in the United States and draws nearly 100,000 visitors a year.

Truly massive, the non-parish church for prayer and pilgrimage covers 7,500 square feet of the grounds of Catholic University, making it the seventh-largest church in the world.


Visitors marvel at its largely Byzantine-style architecture and its Great Dome, a multicolored mixture of religious symbols topped by a 14-foot gold cross.

Near the front entrance stands the Knight's Tower, which contains 56 bronze bells and is the highest structure in the city after the Washington Monument.

The Great Upper Church, a cathedral-size room that seats more than 2,000 and holds several high school and college graduations, is framed with ornately carved marble arches and columns. They support five domes, each of which has a different religious event painted on hundreds of small tiles. On the back wall is "Christ in Majesty," the largest Byzantine mosaic of Christ in the world.

Directly off the upper church are several small chapels, each with a mural depicting some part of a nationality's Catholic heritage. The Polish Catholic Chapel, for example, has a painting showing the beginning of Christianity in the 10th century in Poland as well as several prayers in Polish.

The most elaborate of the smaller chapels is devoted to Irish Catholics. On a marble wall -- green, of course -- gold stars on a map of Ireland mark important sites in Irish history, and a marble statue of the Virgin Mary sits atop a fountain. Plans include chapels devoted to France and African-American Catholics.

On the lower level, Memorial Hall contains pillars with the names of various individuals and families who donated money to the shrine's construction, including baseball Hall of Famer Babe Ruth and Notre Dame's legendary football coach Knute Rockne. On display directly off the hall is the elaborate gold coronation tiara worn by Pope Paul VI in 1963, a gift from the Vatican.

Along with several small, catacomb-like chapels -- including one containing the body of Father Thomas Shahan, the original driving force behind the shrine's construction -- the lower level also contains the Crypt Church. Built nearly 30 years before the rest of the shrine, it can hold up to 400 worshipers. If communicants at its Mary Memorial Altar look up, they can see a ceramic-tiled ceiling with the medallion "Mary with Her Child."

The basilica's cornerstone was laid in 1920 by the archbishop of Baltimore, and the first Mass was celebrated in the Crypt Church on Easter 1924. But because of the Great Depression, patron contributions dropped dramatically, halting further construction; it did not resume until 1954, after enough money was raised to complete the Great Upper Church. Cardinal Francis Spellman, archbishop of New York, dedicated it Nov. 20, 1959.


The only pontiff to visit the shrine was Pope John Paul II, who came in 1979 and declared, "This shrine speaks to us with the voice of all America." In 1990, he declared it a basilica, the highest title of distinction for a Catholic church, and appointed a papal nunzio, or personal representative.

IF YOU GO . . .

The basilica, about two miles north of the Capitol, offers free tours every half hour from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. It is less than a five-minute walk west of the Brookland station on Washington's Metrorail system.