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Restoring the Light in Baltimore’s Basilica

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A dream is coming true in Baltimore, one that is expected to stir Catholic sensibilities around the nation and impress every American who cares about religious liberty. It will happen on November 4 when the historic, 185-year-old Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary will reopen.

It has been restored over the past two and a half years to the original purity, grace and elegance envisioned by its architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe (who also designed the U.S. Capitol), and by Bishop John Carroll (who led the infant Roman Catholic Church in the United States from Baltimore).

On that Saturday—200 years after the basilica’s cornerstone was laid in 1806—the $32 million restoration project will be revealed to a public whose interest has been greatly heightened as more and more people begin to understand the basilica’s special place in U.S. Catholic history, not only as a symbol of religious liberty but also as an architectural gem.

Heavenly Light

When the completed building was dedicated in 1821, visitors were awestruck by the basilica’s bright grace and elegance, especially the dramatic way in which the 24 skylights around the great dome produced a mysterious, indirect light.

It was an almost otherworldly light said to have produced mystical experiences in some worshipers who knelt in the white, wooden pews, their eyes fixed on the gold crucifix above the high marble altar. The new cathedral was proclaimed one of the most architecturally original cathedrals in the world and heralded a new movement in cathedral building.

To Dr. Charles Brownell—an art history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who authored two works on Latrobe’s architectural drawings and who has been an advisor to the restoration planners—the basilica is “almost a lost masterpiece of American architecture.”

He said that President Thomas Jefferson’s love for skylights influenced Latrobe, who gave the basilica its unique double-dome design, with a skylight beneath the outer dome that allows diffused light into the nave.

“The idea, basically, is for there to be a glow hovering high over the head of the spectator. It’s way beyond where you can reach, and you don’t fully understand where it’s coming from,” Brownell says.

For Baltimore’s 14th archbishop, Cardinal William H. Keeler, the project he worked so hard to initiate and find support for is already a dream come true. It is a dream of bringing what has been called “America’s most beautiful church” back out of the shadows and into a place of prominence that its history and design deserve.

First of Its Kind

When it was dedicated May 31, 1821, about 15 years after the cornerstone was laid by Bishop Carroll on the high hill near what is now the corner of Mulberry and Cathedral streets, the first cathedral built in the United States represented not only one of the finest examples of neoclassical architecture in the world but, as Cardinal Keeler often emphasizes, a distinctive symbol of the nation’s newly won freedom of religion.

“The first place in the English-speaking world that had religious freedom by law was Maryland,” he says. “This is the most precious property of the Catholic Church in the United States.”

Baltimore’s basilica is considered Latrobe’s masterpiece, even more so than the Capitol building. Brownell calls it “one of the great buildings of Western architecture.”

But if Bishop Carroll and his architect Latrobe were to have visited their Baltimore cathedral just three years ago, they would most likely have been very disappointed, if not downright shocked. The years since the basilica’s completion, which neither man lived to see, brought many changes. The most dramatic of these was the removal in the early 1940s of the skylights that had lent charm and mystique to the building.

That same period also saw the plain, translucent glass windows, set in the Colonial manner, replaced by stained glass, reducing even further light to the north and south sides of the basilica. Once bright and welcoming, the old cathedral had turned dark and inward.

But light was to be brought from the shadows once more, thanks to the basilica’s restoration architects, John G. Waite Associates of Albany, New York, and Beyer Blinder Belle Architects of New York.

The former firm specializes in preserving works by Latrobe while the latter—experts in adapting modern technology into older structures without compromising historic integrity—is known for its brilliant restoration of New York City’s Grand Central Station.

To Douglas McR. McKean, a partner in Beyer Blinder Belle, the basilica is an architectural landmark. “Its role in Catholicism in the New World is nothing short of extraordinary,” he says.

The Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, Inc., was established as a nonprofit corporation in 1976 to maintain, preserve, protect, repair and restore the structure and site of the basilica.

The hope of the Historic Trust in terms of the restored basilica’s impact on visitors was that, when they entered the building, they would experience its 19th-century charm and elegance but at the same time find within it all the comforts of the 21st century.

Most of all, they would experience that bright, mystical light, streaming down on worshipers from the skylights in the dome, and the overall brightness of the church made possible by the windows which would have replaced the stained-glass ones.

The biggest task, however, was not so much the aesthetic restoration but the replacement of the old and worn-out infrastructure: the heating, air-conditioning, electrical wiring, plumbing and more.

“That’s what has used up most of the resources,” says Mark Potter, executive director of the Historic Trust.

Putting the ‘Fun’ in ‘Fund-raising’

The biggest challenge, though, has not been the actual restoration work itself, which has gone more smoothly than expected, but the fund-raising, says Potter, a native of Baltimore and former vice president for institutional advancement at Baltimore’s Archbishop Curley High School.

Part of the problem in trying to raise $32 million, he says, was a general lack of awareness around the country of the basilica’s historical significance, not to mention its fine architectural bloodlines.

Over the past year or so, though, the Historic Trust has been able to generate considerable publicity about the restoration project. As a result, donations increased, coming in from groups and individuals around the nation.

Catholic organizations and religious groups, all of whom have historical roots in or ties to Baltimore—the Sulpicians, Jesuits, Redemptorists, Franciscans and Christian Brothers, the Sisters of Bon Secours, the School Sisters of Notre Dame and the Sisters of Mercy— were major contributors.

Of all the groups, though, the Knights of Columbus have been the most generous, Potter says. For the Knights, the basilica is particularly significant because it was there that their founder, Father Michael J. McGivney, was ordained on December 22, 1877, by Cardinal James Gibbons.

In every way, says Potter, the basilica’s restoration has been a national project. Not only did money come in from every corner of the country but, he notes, “the marble comes from Colorado, via Georgia and Virginia; the pews are being made in Nebraska; the organ repaired in Massachusetts; artwork restored in New York; the bell clock restored in St. Louis, and so on.”

Importantly, it was the decision of Cardinal Keeler and the Historic Trust that not one dime toward the restoration costs would come from archdiocesan funds, to which the cardinal had brought financial stability.

“Even though he has done so much for this archdiocese, for the city’s Catholic schools and in raising so much money for Catholic Charities, I think that when all is said and done, the restoration of the basilica will be his legacy,” Potter says.

Cardinal Keeler tends to sidestep this accolade modestly. “What I see,” he says, “is that a number of people who know we had to build on the past are looking together at what we inherited from the past. We wanted to embellish the basilica and hold it up as a jewel.”

A Jewel for All to See

When Cardinal Keeler moved into the residence of the basilica in 1989 as the 14th archbishop of Baltimore, he found himself in the company of what he called “great ghosts”—the spirits of his illustrious predecessors like Archbishop Carroll and Cardinal Gibbons, both of whom are buried in the basilica crypt.

Cardinal Keeler steeped himself in the history of both the basilica and the archdiocese, the nation’s first Catholic see, and quickly gained a profound appreciation for the incredible richness of the basilica’s history as the first cathedral in the United States, not to mention its splendid architecture.

He was taken with the idea of restoring the basilica to the original vision of Archbishop Carroll and Latrobe, but there were more urgent problems he had to deal with in the archdiocese.

Once he had met those challenges successfully, Cardinal Keeler turned his attention to the basilica and its restoration so that it could be, as he put it, “a jewel for the whole United States, not just the Archdiocese of Baltimore.”

He formed a blue-ribbon committee to identify the very best historical architects in the country—one to be the primary architect of record, the other to adapt the historic structure to the use of modern technology and restore its infrastructure.

On September 9, 2001, two days before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Cardinal Keeler was in the nation’s capital, meeting with the administrative committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops were enthused about the restoration plans, the cardinal says, and agreed unanimously to hold the U.S. bishops’ annual meeting in November 2006 in Baltimore to coincide with the completion of the restoration.

Some five weeks later, on October 18, Cardinal Keeler and members of the Historic Trust met with the late Pope John Paul II, who warmly endorsed the restoration project, recalling his visit to Baltimore’s basilica in 1995.

A Walking Tour

The experience of visitors entering the basilica once the restoration is completed will be in stunning contrast to what they have long been used to. For first-time visitors, it should be a delightful surprise.

As visitors walk in from the front door on Cathedral Street, their eyes will immediately focus on the drum of the dome—the large area lighted by the skylights above. They will also get a sense of lightness from the church’s tall walls and columns—a mixture of pink, gray and white paint that replaced the drab, institutional gray. Instead of the dark, muddy green marble floor, there will be white marble and white pews, arranged along a widened center aisle.

As visitors approach the sanctuary, they will find—in place of the marble altar rail, which was a 1906 gift to the basilica—a simple but elegant mahogany rail, identical to the original.

Instead of the present altar table, visitors will discover the Italian marble table under the high altar moved forward to the edge of the light emanating from the great dome. The high altar itself, containing the tabernacle, has been moved closer to the congregation, leaving considerable but hidden space behind it.

They will notice that the pulpit has been shifted closer toward the center of the sanctuary and, like the cardinal’s chair and the altar, is on the edge of the light cascading down from the dome, facing it, as will all the celebrants and participants in the liturgy.

Using either the south or north side aisle, visitors will be able to walk up to and around the sanctuary area. Once they find themselves behind the high altar, they will be surprised to discover rounded staircases that lead down to the basilica’s crypt and to a small underground chapel and a basilica museum.

Important Role in History

No building is more redolent of the history of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States than Latrobe’s architectural masterpiece, which embodied the vision of the new nation’s first Catholic bishop.

In 1808, two years after the cornerstone for the basilica was laid, Baltimore, the nation’s first diocese, became the country’s first archdiocese when the Holy See created the new dioceses of Bardstown, Boston, New York and Philadelphia, and John Carroll was appointed the first archbishop.

As the nation’s first cathedral, completed 13 years later, the basilica was the site of major events of significant historical importance for the Church and its affairs in the United States.

It was, for example, the majestic setting in 1832 for the funeral Mass of the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence—Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a great patron of the Church. Most of the first bishops of the Church in the United States were consecrated at the basilica, and many important 19th- and 20th-century synods were held there.

They included the Third Plenary Council of 1884 which, under the direction of Baltimore Cardinal James Gibbons, called for a uniform catechism (popularly known as the Baltimore Catechism, this text remained in use until the 1970s); The Catholic University of America in Washington; and muchneeded aid for African-Americans. It was the largest meeting of Catholic bishops held outside Rome since the Council of Trent in 1545.

In an earlier archdiocesan synod held at Baltimore’s basilica in 1875, Archbishop James R. Bayley passed some 41 new statutes that included the requirements that priests wear the Roman collar, that parochial schools be established wherever possible and that a Society of Christian Doctrine be introduced. Another decision, much to the relief of the faithful, was an insistence that Church services start on time.

Cardinal Gibbons, whose statue graces the south lawn of the basilica, was particularly linked to the basilica that had been his cathedral for 44 years. He was baptized there, consecrated a bishop and made a cardinal. And it was he who, in 1906, celebrated the Pontifical Mass for the 100th anniversary of the laying of the basilica’s cornerstone.

Cardinal Gibbons and seven of Baltimore’s other archbishops, including Archbishop Carroll, are entombed in the basilica crypt. The first crypt was built in 1824 under the north pillar of the sanctuary, but at the turn of the century a more formal crypt was created below the newly extended sanctuary.

It was a fitting resting place for Cardinal Gibbons, who once said that the basilica was to American Catholics “what Mecca is to the Mohammedan, what the Temple of Jerusalem is to the Israelite.”

Acknowledging the cathedral’s great history, Pope Pius XI raised it to the rank of a minor basilica in 1937, giving it certain indulgences and a basilica’s distinctive emblem representing its rank. The bell and the canopy yellow- and red-striped umbrella) stands for the papal colors.

In 1959, the year the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in north Baltimore was consecrated, Pope John XXIII decreed the basilica a “co-cathedral” of the archdiocese. In 1972 it was declared a National Landmark.

In response to a request by Cardinal Keeler, the U.S. bishops designated the basilica a national shrine. By then the United States’ first Catholic cathedral had faded somewhat both in its physical appearance and in popular memory, yet its ability to mark Church history remained strong. And, of course, the basilica has always been a parish church as well, and will continue to serve its 400 members as such after the restoration is completed.

The basilica was an important stopping point for Pope John Paul during his 1995 trip to the United States and where he took some time out of his schedule to pray before the Blessed Sacrament and greet a small group of basilica communicants.

The following year, on May 29, Mother Teresa of Calcutta chose the basilica for a special liturgy for the renewal of vows for 35 of her Missionaries of Charity.

On October 23, 1997, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew—the worldwide leader of the Orthodox Christian community—visited the basilica for a service of prayer and praise during his history-making, month-long visit to the United States. His visit to the basilica marked the first time an Orthodox prelate prayed publicly in a Catholic church.

A New View

Now that the skylights in the basilica’s dome have been installed, it’s possible to get quite a view of Baltimore, yet not the open one of Bishop Carroll and Latrobe’s time. Then, Baltimore’s harbor and the sailing ships, entering and leaving, were clearly visible.

Today, high-rise buildings block the harbor view. But what occurs to Trust director Mark Potter is that what one can now see from the dome are sights that reveal the basilica as no longer being alone as a Catholic edifice.

“You can look down at Mercy Hospital, St. Frances Academy and the Institute of Notre Dame. You can see Our Daily Bread, the Samaritan Center and the steeples of our churches in west Baltimore, which are today oases in that community,” Potter says.

“You get a sense of the good that the Church has done,” he continues. “Looking out to the west, the view stops in a couple of miles, but the story continues all the way to California, and all that started right here.”

For Catholics, the Basilica of the Assumption is a national shrine and a treasure, a depository of their faith’s history in the United States and, as Bishop Carroll called it, “a shining citadel” to which its bright light will soon be restored.

Hidden Treasures, Hidden Past

From carved wooden angels to Civil War-era paintings of the four evangelists, not to mention a historic balcony for segregated black worshipers, restoration workers have uncovered surprises in Baltimore’s old basilica.

Balanced precariously on a scaffold 50 feet high, below the top of the basilica’s dome, Stephen F. Reilly, project architect for John G. Waite Associates of Albany, New York, last year discovered four 19th-century paintings of the Gospel evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

“It was a very exciting moment,” Reilly says, noting that he knew something was behind the walls, “but nothing this big.”

About 11 feet wide by eight feet high, the water-based fresco paintings are believed to have been created by artists Philip Nengel and Hubert Schmidt in 1865. No monetary value has been placed on the paintings, but the Archdiocese of Baltimore considers their historical and religious value priceless.

The discovery was made in late July of 2005. A few months earlier, Reilly and his work crew were surprised to uncover the original balcony in the rear of the basilica where freed slaves were allowed to worship before the Civil War.

He was particularly surprised to discover a large, intricately made cast-iron support beam spanning the length of the structure that he said was unique to the building. Reilly also found that the balcony’s oak timbers were still in good condition. The balcony has now been restored to its original condition.

More recently, workers discovered two nearly life-size wooden angels in the basilica’s undercroft. Archival photos show the angels once flanked the altar. Adding mystery is the fact that the angels were once a foursome.

Today, only these two are known to exist, and they are being restored by Baltimore master woodworker Jim Adajian. One of the angels had its feet missing but will have two new ones when Adajian’s work is done.

Mark Potter, executive director of the Basilica Historic Trust, the private, nonprofit organization that is spearheading the basilica’s restoration, says, “We can’t wait to get the angels back and return them to the basilica’s altar where they belong.”

Still a Parish Church

It may have been the first Catholic cathedral in the United States, but Baltimore’s Basilica of the Assumption was always a parish church, and will continue to be one after the November 4 grand reopening.

Until the basilica was closed to the public in 2004 to accommodate the restoration work, it functioned much like any other parish, with six weekend Masses, two daily Masses, confessions, funerals, ordinations and at least 40 weddings and baptisms each year. Yet it was not quite a typical parish, says its rector, Msgr. James Hobbs.

Unlike most parishes, members would come from all over Baltimore and many zip codes outside the city limits, most of them making the trip so that they could celebrate the Eucharist in the country’s most historic Catholic Church.

In fact, a majority of the parish population is made up of visitors. “I’m sure three quarters of the people who come to Mass here are not parishioners,” says Msgr. Hobbs, who has been rector of the basilica community for 12 years.

Visitors to Baltimore often make a special effort to attend Mass at the historic basilica. Of the approximately 35 people who would come to the daily 12:10 p.m. Mass, only two or three were likely to be registered parishioners. The rest were downtown workers.

“The basilica parish is still a very vibrant parish, although it’s small,” says Michael Ruck, a parishioner for more than 12 years who also happens to be chairman of the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, the active force behind the restoration.

Like many other basilica members, Ruck, who is president of the family-owned Ruck Funeral Homes, traveled with his family from Hunt Valley, north of Baltimore, for Mass each week and will continue to do so after November 4.

Christopher Gaul is a semi-retired journalist whose 45 years of experience includes The Baltimore Sun, Group W Broadcasting and as a White House correspondent for National Public Television. Born and educated in England, Christopher has four children and eight grandchildren. He and his wife, Pam, live in Baltimore County.