DURING HIS TRIP TO Baltimore, Pope John Paul II will visit "North America's most beautiful church."
That's what architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner called Baltimore's famous downtown cathedral, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on Cathedral at Mulberry streets.
In his visit Sunday, the pope will receive a private tour of the building, the "mother church" of Catholicism in the nation.
Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe and constructed beginning in 1806, the basilica was the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States.
It was designated a Minor Basilica in 1937 by Pope Pius XI - one of only about 30 religious buildings in North America to have that distinction - and declared a national shrine in 1993. In canon law, the term "basilica" denotes a distinguished church upon which either ancient custom or papal decree has bestowed the name as a title of honor. There are four Major Basilicas, all in Rome.
The only other basilica in Maryland is the Basilica of the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg.
Many students of architecture consider Baltimore's basilica to be the single most significant building in Baltimore. Latrobe, who also was chief architect of the U.S. Capitol, was one of America's first great architects.
"The Baltimore Cathedral is Latrobe's masterpiece," wrote Wilbur Harvey Hunter, former director of Baltimore's Peale Museum. "The design is a precise and powerful arrangement of form, space and mass in a manner reminiscent of the best classical architecture, but entirely original as an ensemble."
An architectural statement
The basilica's significance is closely tied to Baltimore's role as the first Catholic diocese in America, established by decree of Pope Pius VI on Nov. 6, 1789.
That same decree directed the first Bishop of Baltimore, John Carroll, to erect a church "in the form of a cathedral" to serve the Prematial See of the Catholic Church in America. Carroll turned in 1805 to Latrobe, an English-born architect who was emerging as one of America's leading designers.
The commission represented a significant departure from previous church design and worship practices for Catholics in America, who had not always been allowed to worship freely, said Robert J. Lancelotta Jr., executive director of the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust.
In hiring Latrobe, Carroll sought to show that Catholics were "going to be very open about worshiping in public" from then on, Mr. Lancelotta said. "He wanted the building to reflect the new freedom of religion that Catholics enjoyed."
Lengthy construction period
The highest point in the area was chosen as the site for the cathedral - a parcel owned by Revolutionary War hero John Eager Howard. Construction began in 1806, and most of the church was completed by 1820. It was dedicated in 1821, one year after Latrobe's death.
In the past few years, the basilica has received a series of repairs, including construction of a ramp for people using wheelchairs, a new surface for the onion domes, and new lighting and landscaping for the grounds.
Mr. Lancelotta said the recent repairs were in the planning stage long before the pope's visit was scheduled and won't end when the pope leaves.