A U.S. religious landmark is renewed in Baltimore

The Baltimore Sun

.. High above the city, the church loomed. So it was for the great cathedrals of Europe - of Chartres and Notre Dame and Salisbury and Orvieto. And so it was for the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore.

For much of the 19th century, the neo-classical cathedral, built on a hill north of what was then the city center, was the most prominent feature of Baltimore's skyline.

Skyscrapers have since grown to overshadow the cathedral and its primacy in the birth of the Catholic church in America has been forgotten by many.

But now there is hope that the cathedral - reopening Saturday after a two-year, $32 million restoration - will reassert its importance in the history of the church, of the city and the country, giving it the appeal great European cathedrals have to both the religious and the curious.

Mark J. Potter, executive director of the Basilica Historic Trust, points out that unlike European cities, trips to an American metropolis rarely include a stop at a cathedral. "I think we have the opportunity here in America to change that," he said.

The life story of the cathedral, now known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is rich enough to have such an appeal.

Construction began exactly 200 years ago on what was the first cathedral constructed in the United States after the American Revolution. It is in the first diocese established in the country, in the most prominent city of the state that fought the hardest for the rights of Roman Catholics and other religious minorities in the colonies and the new country.

It was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, one of the nascent nation's most prominent architects - responsible for the U.S. Capitol and other iconic structures - to make a statement about the religion and the nation.

"What the basilica rededication helps us to do is emphasize for our own people the important role that Baltimore had in the early days of the church in the United States," said Cardinal William H. Keeler in an interview at Baltimore's Catholic Center last week.

Keeler has spent nearly two decades as Baltimore's archbishop and the basilica restoration is seen by many as a key part of his legacy.

"This church can now tell a story," said Potter.

That story is the story of the Catholic church in America. The roots of even such large dioceses as New York and Boston can be to traced back to Baltimore. Bishops met within the basilica to make decisions that established and furthered Catholicism in this country.

"So many people today only think of the Catholic Church as it is today, 60 million Catholics and all these dioceses and parishes," Potter said. "They're so unaware of the modest beginnings of the church in this country."

It is also the story of a new nation trying to establish itself in all ways, including architecturally.

American Catholic leaders decided Baltimore's cathedral should break from the heavily ornamented style of Europe. Historians say the building's structure reflects the era in which it, and the new nation, was born.

John Carroll, the Baltimore diocese's first bishop, "built a church that was in its style and everything very American," said Jay P. Dolan, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of In Search of an American Catholicism: a History of Religion and Culture in Tension.

"When Carroll and the cathedral trustees sought an architect, they didn't go to Europe. They looked to the nation's capital," Dolan said. "They wanted a cathedral that would fit with the times, a style compatible with the ideals of the Enlightenment - order, harmony, quiet, dignity."

Latrobe volunteered his services and designed a house of worship in the neoclassical style favored by Thomas Jefferson, said state archivist Edward C. Papenfuse. Construction began in 1806.

The earliest Baltimore guidebooks mention the basilica. "It is an extraordinary example of American architecture and needs to be seen in that light," Papenfuse said. "Whether you were Catholic or not, you would come and see this remarkable structure."

Beyond its architectural style, the church made a statement about American ideals, embodying Carroll and his family's belief in religious freedom. "I believe it is a monument to the Catholic experience in Maryland, which was persistently an effort to establish a place in America where they could practice freely," Papenfuse said.

The nation's first Catholic bishop grew up in a time when members of his faith were widely persecuted. He and Charles Carroll of Carrollton - his cousin and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence - were ardent proponents of religious freedom who worked within Maryland to establish rules by which different faiths could live together peacefully in a predominantly Protestant America. The style and prominence of the cathedral gave powerful affirmation of that goal.

They influenced what became "our concept of what should be the right of every citizen in America," Papenfuse said.

But the long history that gives the basilica such importance also took its toll. The just-completed renovation upgraded the building's aging infrastructure, providing modern sound and heating and ventilation systems and improved accessibility with ramps and an elevator. There was also basic maintenance - the basilica was last painted 60 years ago; its 130-year-old roof was replaced.

Parts of the restoration sought to re-establish elements of Latrobe's vision that had been altered over time. Skylights that once permitted natural light to filter through the dome were replaced. Other improvements, such as the creation of the new Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Chapel in the undercroft, were included in Latrobe's original design but never executed.

More controversial alterations removed features added over the years. The replacement of stained-glass windows installed in the 1940s with clear ones was widely protested.

The project yielded some surprises, pleasant and unpleasant. Workers uncovered murals in the dome of the four evangelists, or authors of the Gospels. Hidden in the undercroft was the original bishop's chair. But, they also had to dig through unexpected masonry to install the heating and ventilation system.

The historical significance of the building did not stop with its construction. The cathedral - given special ceremonial privileges when its status was raised to a minor basilica in 1937 - was also the setting for such important 19th-century bishops' decisions such as the establishment of the Catholic school system and the Catholic University of America, and the formation of a guide to Catholic doctrine that became known as the Baltimore Catechism.

These gatherings, particularly the Third Plenary Council of 1884, helped establish "a growing sense of a national consciousness as a church," said R. Scott Appleby, a Catholic historian at Notre Dame.

Artifacts from the basilica will be featured in a new museum that will display "lots of stuff that's been in closets," Potter said, such as letters between Thomas Jefferson and the third archbishop, Ambrose Marechal. who served from 1817 to 1828 and presided at the basilica's opening in 1821.

The trust estimates that between 80,000 and 90,000 people visit the basilica annually; they anticipate that the number will jump to "hundreds of thousands" in the first year. "The responsibility is really on us to make sure that that continues," Potter said.

The trust has invited Catholic parishes and schools from as far as northern New Jersey, New York City and Richmond, Va., to visit the basilica and learn about Catholic history, Potter said. The groups could dovetail the trip with visits to the original chapel of St. Mary's Seminary, the country's first Catholic seminary, as well as the nearby home of St. Elizabeth Seton, the first American-born saint. Travelers interested in religious history could drop in on the nation's first Methodist church, Lovely Lane, and the Lloyd Street Synagogue, the country's third-oldest Jewish house of worship.

The restoration, including architectural and other fees, has cost $32 million so far and could rise to $34 million, Potter said.

Some might question the millions spent on the basilica at a time of retrenchment for Baltimore City's Catholic schools and ever-present needs for social services. Keeler said funding for education and charities had always taken fund-raising priority over the cathedral project, which was funded by private gifts to the historic trust.

Keeler said he hopes American Catholics will recognize their connection to this "national shrine" and offer financial support. "I hope our people will gain a new pride in their historic roots here from it," he said.

Appleby, the Notre Dame historian, described the restoration effort as a fitting testament to Keeler's work as a cardinal. After his 75th birthday this year, he sent his required letter of retirement to the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI, who can permit Keeler to remain in his position until age 80, has not yet responded.

"Part of the genius behind this project is it's part of a plan to evangelize the next generation of Baltimorean Catholics," Appleby said. "It's a fitting legacy for Cardinal Keeler, who's interested in something much more than architectural reclamation."

"He was handed a torch and he's handing it on."

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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