The Shrine of Mary, a basilica that belongs to America

Located in the heart of Washington D.C., the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, known as the "Shrine of Mary," is the largest Catholic church in the United States and is among the ten largest churches in the world.

Jennifer Elizabeth Terranova-July 25, 2023-Reading time: 4 minutes
Shrine of Mary

Dome of the Basilica of the National Shrine (OSV News photo / CNS file, Bob Roller)

– Supernatural basilica of the National Sanctuary of the Immaculate Conceptionlocated in Washington D.C., also known as the Shrine of Mary, laid its cornerstone in 1920. It was consecrated in 1959. Prayers were said in honor of Mary and the Immaculate Conception, and celebrations of this historic day were evident in parishes throughout the United States.

Located in the heart of Washington D.C., the basilica is the largest Catholic church in the United States and is among the ten largest churches in the world. An estimated one million pilgrims from across the country and around the world visit the majestic basilica each year.

With eighty chapels and oratories in honor of the Blessed Mother, reflecting the "unity" and "universality" of the Catholic Church, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is a sight to behold.

Interior of the basilica

A sacramental life building

Early organizers envisioned a Gothic-style cathedral, but the visionary who conceived the plan to erect a national church in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mother, Bishop Thomas Shahan (September 11, 1857-March 1932), then a monsignor and rector of Catholic University, believed that "the contributions of the modern era could not compete with the basilicas of early Christianity and the cathedrals of the Middle Ages." Thus, his vision, along with that of the architects, of a Romanesque-Byzantine architectural fusion would be the destiny of what is now the American Catholic Church.

Bishop Thomas Shahan received the apostolic blessing of Pope Pius X for his dream, which was to "create a building that would enhance sacramental life" and serve as a "national monument or witness" 'supported' by a "national devotion to the Blessed Virgin." He wanted the future shrine to capture "eternal beauty and truth." And so it does.

A mirror of Catholic beauty

A letter he wrote to Michael Jenkins of the CUA Board of Directors summarizes his vision:

"A glorious Church sheds a warm, emotional, sacramental light, and speaks with a divine eloquence that nothing can match. I would not presume to dictate its style... But I have always admired a great open and free space, without columns, an ideal space for preaching and singing, for seeing and hearing. Its walls and ceilings should be covered with noble historical frescoes depicting the origins and glories of Catholics in the United States, and particularly in these lands.

Gradually, it would become a museum of the finest statues, of all the most beautiful Church art, ornaments, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. In a word, no one would think he had really seen the Nation's Capital unless he had visited this Church. Inside and out, it would be a monument of artistic truth and sincerity, and therefore a mirror of all the beauties of our venerable and holy religion.....".

Project support

One of the windows in the sanctuary

Pope Pius X not only supported the plan to build a shrine honoring Our Blessed Mother, but also made a personal donation to the project, which would be "distinctively American."

Bishop Shahan would participate in the life of the Shrine from "its conception to its construction". His passion and zeal were contagious. His dedication is not forgotten, and he is the only person buried in the basilica; his body is in the Ave Maria Chapel. And to honor his memory, the space received, in later years, the eponym "Founder's Chapel".

His Holiness is also honored in the basilica in the Chapel of Pope St. Pius, where he is depicted in a life-size statue and depicted giving Holy Communion. There you can read his papal motto: "Restore all things in Christ".

Marian shrine par excellence

Upon entering "the Basilica," as the locals affectionately call it, one is mesmerized by its enormity, its sacred art and the myriad of devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Not for nothing is it the "Marian shrine par excellence" and the "patron saint church" of the United States. Two hundred square meters of pure delight for the eyes; the Greek-style interior is crowned by numerous domes, and the decorated mosaics are visually stunning. The workmanship "rivals" that of some European counterparts in the United States.

In 1846, the Bishops of America declared the Blessed Virgin Mary patroness of the United States under her title of the Immaculate Conception, so it is fitting that the Mother of Jesus Christ has a shrine in America where all can come to pray, seek refuge, evangelize and pray to Our Lady. If you have devotion to Our Lady of Pompeii, Our Lady of Hope or Our Lady of Africa, or to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, there is a chapel for you. All you need are your Rosary beads.

Bishop Fulton Sheen said it perfectly: "The National Shrine "does not belong to a diocese, city or parish, it belongs to America".

Chapel of Our Lady of Hope
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