Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

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The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is a prominent Latin Rite Catholic basilica located in Washington, D.C., honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary as Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the Patroness of the United States. It is the largest Catholic church in the United States, the eighth largest religious structure in the world, and the tallest building in Washington, D.C. An estimated one million pilgrims from around the country and the world visit the basilica each year. The basilica is located on Michigan Avenue in the northeast quadrant of Washington, on land donated by The Catholic University of America. Nearby is the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center. Construction of this church, notable for its Neo-Byzantine architecture, began in 1920 under Philadelphia contractor John McShain and opened unfinished in 1959. The Basilica is the Patronal Catholic Church of the United States, honoring Mary, Mother of God, under the title Immaculate Conception. It is not the cathedral church of the Archdiocese of Washington; the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle serves as church of the Archdiocese. The Basilica is sometimes confused with the Washington National Cathedral, also a National Historic Landmark, which is an Episcopal church chartered by Congress as the National House of Prayer.

The Basilica does not have its own parish community, but it serves the adjacent University, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (located down the street), and hosts numerous Masses for organizations of the Church from across the United States. It houses 70 chapels honoring Mary and reflecting the origins of the Catholic immigrants and religious orders whose generosity erected them. Its Greek-styled interior is crowned with numerous domes decorated in mosaics, similar to the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, Italy, but much larger. The mosaics feature American renditions of traditional Catholic images. Artist Jan Henryk De Rosen, who presided over the shrine's iconography committee was also responsible for much of its decor, including composing the large mosaic over the northern apse. The exterior of the Basilica is 459 ft (140 m) long, 240 ft (73 m) wide, and 237 ft (72 m) tall to the top of the cross on the dome. The diameter of the main (Trinity) dome of the Basilica is only 7 feet (2.1 m) smaller than that of the dome of the United States Capitol. Among the many works of art, Pewabic Pottery was installed consisting of arches outlined with iridescent Pewabic tile, huge ceramic medallions set in the ceiling, and fourteen Stations of the Cross for the crypt.

In 1792, John Carroll, the bishop of Baltimore and America's first Roman Catholic bishop, consecrated the newly-created United States under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of The Immaculate Conception. In 1847, Pope Pius IX formalized Carroll's acclamation, proclaiming the Immaculate Conception as the Patroness of the United States. In subsequent years, priests imagined an elaborate shrine in honor of their country's patroness. Bishop Thomas Joseph Shahan, the fourth rector of the Catholic University of America proposed the construction of a national shrine to commemorate the Immaculate Conception in the country's capital. Bishop Shahan took his appeal to Pope Pius X on August 15, 1913. Shahan received the pope's enthusiastic support and his personal contribution of $400. Shahan returned to the United States and persuaded the Board of Trustees of the Catholic University of America to donate land at the southwest corner of the campus for his shrine. In January 1914, Shahan published the first issue of Salve Regina, a newsletter meant to stir enthusiasm for his project. He wrote that 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." His newsletter was circulated to dioceses throughout the country and financial donations began to pour into Washington. In 1915, Father Bernard McKenna of Philadelphia was appointed by Shahan as first director of the national shrine, bringing the bishop's dream one step closer to reality. Shahan oversaw the construction of the shrine until his death on March 9, 1932. His body is the only one interred at the national shrine. By 1919, architectural drawings were chosen by Shahan and McKenna for the construction of the national shrine by the Boston firm of Maginnis & Walsh. At first a traditional Gothic architectural style was considered. Bishop Shahan wanted his shrine to be bold and glorious and opted instead for a Byzantine- Romanesque design. Cardinal James Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore, blessed the foundation stone on September 23, 1920. More than 10,000 people attended the mass, including foreign ambassadors, United States government officials, military officers, and other dignitaries. In 1929, the Great Depression halted the construction above the crypt level. The beginning of American involvement in World War II stalled plans even further. After the war, in 1953, American bishops under the leadership of John Noll, archbishop ad personam of Fort Wayne and Patrick O'Boyle, archbishop of Washington, pledged to raise the funds necessary to complete the upper church of the national shrine. On November 20, 1959, thousands of Catholics gathered with their bishops for the dedication of the Great Upper Church. The crypt has displayed the Papal Tiara of Pope Paul VI since 1968. In 1990, Pope John Paul II named the national shrine as the U.S.'s 36th minor basilica. In August 2006, work was completed on a mosaic covering the Redemption Dome in the Upper Church. This is the first new work to be done in many years and was part of the original architectural plans. Following its completion in the summer of 2007, the Incarnation Dome was blessed on November 17, 2007. In 2009, the Catholic University of America held a competition to design the mosaic for the Trinity Dome. The competition was won by three freshmen. Although their design will not be the exact mosaic implemented in the dome, the Artist chosen to create it will use the design as a guideline. Plans for the actual mosaic construction have not been announced. A small chapel on the crypt level was recently completed honoring Our Lady of La Vang (Vietnam). In 2008, during his apostolic pilgrimage to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI bestowed the Golden Rose upon the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Priests of the Basilica
  • The Reverend Monsignor Walter R. Rossi, Rector
  • The Reverend Vito A. Buonanno, Associate Rector & Director of Pilgrimages
  • The Reverend Michael D. Weston, Associate Rector & Director of Liturgy
  • The Reverend Raymond A. Lebrun, O.M.I., Spiritual Director


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