Four months after a visit by Pope John Paul II focused international attention on Baltimore and its religious history, local Catholics are exploring plans to create a national museum that would tell the story of American Catholicism and the key role Marylanders played in it.
The museum would be in or near the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in the United States and one of several sites the pope toured Oct. 8.
Supporters say there is no one place in America where visitors can learn about Catholicism and how it evolved in the United States. They say Baltimore is a logical location for a full-fledged museum because it was the setting of the first diocese in North America and home to the first American bishop, John Carroll.
They predict that the Basilica of the Assumption, designated a national shrine in 1993, could become much more of an attraction than it already is, drawing tens of thousands of visitors a year and triggering a new wave of "heritage tourism."
"The group that is working on this believes that this area could be a greater attraction than the Inner Harbor," said Wayne T. Ruth, a local contractor who is president of the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, a nonprofit organization formed to promote the cathedral, which is on Cathedral Street, between Franklin and Mulberry streets in downtown Baltimore.
"We think this could be the St. Peter's of North America," Mr. Ruth said.
Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the basilica has the potential to attract visitors interested in architectural, Maryland and Catholic history. he said.
"There really aren't a lot of buildings in the world that are equal to it," Mr. Ruth said. "We're dealing with a precious jewel."
The museum idea has the backing of Cardinal William H. Keeler, who was instrumental in getting the basilica designated a national shrine and in bringing the pope to Baltimore.
He said public interest in the building has risen dramatically since the papal visit, as seen in everything from attendance at daily Mass to requests for weddings, and that a museum would be a way to build on that interest.
Cardinal Keeler said he has invited members of each of the 161 parishes in the Archdiocese of Baltimore to come to the basilica and learn about its role in U.S. Catholicism. He also has tried to hold more events there, such as concerts and special services, and has arranged to make sure the basilica is open daily from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m.
"It's a dream" at this point, he said of the museum project. But, he said, "I am 100 percent in favor of it. A pilgrimage is leaving an ordinary setting to go to a place that is special, to draw strength from what's holy about the past and the present. We have people who go from here on pilgrimages to shrines in Europe. I'm hopeful that they would see this as a place where they can come, too."
Cardinal Keeler said the archdiocese has no timetable for creating a National Catholic Museum, no exact location in mind and no firm budget for it. He said the timetable will depend in large part on studies yet to be completed and the support shown by parishioners and others.
While he would like to see the museum project move ahead, he said he is reluctant to use money that would otherwise go to feed the hungry, keep schools open or meet other pressing needs of the archdiocese.
He said he hopes donors will support the museum project. It could also be a starting point for pilgrimages to such nearby Catholic landmarks as St. Alphonsus downtown and the Basilica of the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg.
"I have to tend to these real needs that flow out of the Gospel," he said. "But I also have a sense that there may be some people who will want to give support for something like this."
The Archdiocese of Baltimore has 470,000 parishioners in the city and nine surrounding counties.
Constructed starting in 1806, the basilica was the site of the first seven provincial and three plenary councils of the Catholic church in the United States. It is also the burial place for many of the first Catholic bishops and was used in the ordination of hundreds of priests.
James Cardinal Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore for 44 years, once summed up its significance when he said, "What Mecca is to the Mohammedan, what the Temple of Jerusalem is to the Israelite, what St. Peter's Basilica is to the faithful of the Church Universal, this cathedral is to the American Catholic."
Mr. Ruth said the trust last fall interviewed some leading preservation architects about how best to create a museum and complete building improvements.
He said that while experts supported the idea of a museum and visitors center, many of them said it can't be created in a vacuum. They said the archdiocese should look at the area around the basilica and figure out how to address issues from parking to safety.
As a result, he said, the trust decided not to hire anyone right away for architectural work. Instead, it will focus on raising funds to complete a marketing study that will gauge public support for the project.
If the study indicates the museum has a good chance of success, he said, the trust will hire architects and engineers to determine the best way to create it.
In the meantime, trust representatives have been briefing neighboring institutions, such as the Maryland Historical Society and the Walters Art Gallery.
"I think it would be wonderful," said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters. "Anything we can do to bring more people to the area would help."
Mr. Vikan said he sees great potential for collaborative exhibits between the Catholic Church and the Walters.
"What a treasure that is," he said of the basilica. "It's one of the great architectural monuments in this country. If it could be used to tell the story of Catholic history in America, it would be a natural."