After a rousing game of golf (mini that is) we headed over to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, located next door to The Catholic University of America. It is the largest Roman Catholic Church in North America, and one of the 10 largest churches in the world. To get a sense of its size, it is over 1-1/2 football fields in length and nearly a football field wide.
It’s “blend” of Romanesque and Byzantine style architecture, and contempary collection of Byzantine mosaics and marble ecclesiastical art contained within two floors, seven domes and over 80 chapels and oratories is breathtaking. The fact that there are NO structural beams, columns or framework that hold this massive structure up (and together), is a marvel of engineering and craftsmanship.
The limestone and granite used in its construction all hale from the good old U.S. of A. The Basilica’s Bell Tower (or Knights Tower), makes the Basilica the 2nd tallest building in DC, after the U.S. Monument (555 Ft.), standing at 529 ft above sea level (the tower is 329′, but the “hill” upon which the Basilica is built is at 200′ above sea level).
In 1847, in answer to the 1846 petition from the American (Catholic) Bishops at the Sixth Council of Baltimore, Pope Pius IX officially named the Blessed Virgin Mary (also referred to as the Immaculate Conception) the offical Patroness of the United States.
The designation would lay a foundation for the building of a great shrine that includes many a Marian Chapel from all ethnicities and cultures that make up the United States, to honor Mary. In 1910, the rector of The Catholic Univestity of America, Monsignor Thomas J Shahan (later made Bishop, and the only priest laid to rest in the Cathedral) requested of Pope Pius X, permission to build a great cathedral (this Cathedral), to honor Mary, the United State’s Patroness.
Shahan envisioned the Cathedral to be on par with the great cathedrals of Europe. He was granted permission in 1913 to build such a Cathedral. And thus began the nationwide fundraising for its construction. Seven years later, on May 16, 1920 the land upon which this amazing Cathedral is built, was blessed, and September 23, the cornerstone laid. It was to have two levels. First to be built was the Crypt level (lower level). At the Crypt level is: the Crypt Church (that seats 4,000); the Hall of American Saints; a Papal exhibit; Memorial Hall (here the names of donors, are etched into 14,400 marble and granite tablets);
33 Chapels (Interesting note is that within the Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel is a replica of the grotto of Lourdes, (where Mary appeared to Bernadette Subirous, a peasant girl, in 1858) a stone, from the prison that held Joan of Arc, was used to build this chapel; 7 oratories. The first public Mass was held on Easter Sunday April 20, 1924 in the Crypt Chapel (of which I have no pictures as daily Mass was in progress). By 1931, the Crypt level was completed, but it wasn’t till November 20, 1959 with the second level having been built, that it was dedicated as a National Shrine. Interuptions due to the Great Depression and WWII were significant factors in its lengthy build progress. Interestingly enough, the entirety of project would still not be fully complete until Nov 20, 2017, whereupon the largest of the Basilica’s five domes, the Great Dome, or rather, the magnificant Trinity Dome mosaic was finished.
24 tons of Venitian glass brilliantly conveys the great Mystery of the Catholic faith, with the Holy Trinity, the Blessed Virgin Mary, angels and mainly U.S. saints, (or saints significantly associated with the National Shrine…ie Mother Teresa, as an example) are encircled by the text of the Nicene Creed in an 89 ft diameter 159 ft tall dome. The largest mosaic of its kind, in the world. It was everything I could do to not lay upon the marble floor and marvel at its enormity, craftsmanship, pure beauty and bask in its resounding message. The Upper Level, along with the Church (that seats 6,000) are 30 additonal chapels.
Fun Fact: Within this Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe not only will you find a stunning mosaic, but also the Basilica’s first altar that was used during the first Mass conducted in the Crypt Church on April 20, 1924.
The Byzantine style art, intricate mosaics and stained-glass windows, polished stone carvings, and marble veining throughout its interior that form symetrical patterns is truly captivating.
Having been to Lourdes (France), Portugal (Our Lady of Fatima), and having walked the entire Camino de Santiago (Frances route), Bishop Shahan’s dream, as he stated in his fundraising newsletters, the Shrine would be a
“monument of love and gratitude, a great hymn in stone as perfect as the art of man can make it and as holy as the intentions of its builders could wish it to be.”
has been fullfilled, as this Cathedral truly is magnificent and certainly ranks with the great cathedrals of europe.
*As side note, there was so much to take in, we found that a one hour tour is not merely enough (whether you are Catholic or not). Having gone back for a second “quick” tour, we found that each docent has different knowledge, or particular interests with regard to the history, significance and reason (and story behind) the art and chapels that grace this Cathedral. Still, two tours (hours) was NOT enough…for us (even Paul wanted to stay longer to take it all in). I think ideally, if one made a 1/2 day of it, you would also be able to tour the exterior as well, to include the garden. And besides, you never know, you just might get a photo op with the Pope.