HISTORIC PLACES: The Shrine Story

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The Shrine at sunrise.  Photo by Robert Malesky

It is not even in Brookland, yet for some it has become a symbol of our neighborhood. That’s understandable, given its size and presence. Formally, it is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, but most just refer to it as the Shrine. And it is big. It’s the biggest Catholic church in the United States, the biggest in the western hemisphere. Brooklanders see it every day, poised on the next hill over, yet many don’t know its story, and it’s an interesting one.

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When The Catholic University of America was founded in 1887, it was only for the graduate-level education of priests and seminarians. There was one beautiful chapel on campus in Caldwell Hall for them, but that was all. When the university expanded to include first lay students (1895), then undergraduates (1904), it soon became apparent that a real university church was called for. Bishop Thomas Shahan (right), the fourth rector of the university (1909-1928), became the driving force behind it. Shahan liked the Collegiate Gothic style of institutional architecture, and soon came up with a bold campus plan with a university church at the very center: 

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 Rector Shahan’s vision. Courtesy The Catholic University of America Archives. Click to enlarge.

At this early stage, the church is Gothic. That soon changed. Why? There were a number of reasons, but primarily because the National Cathedral across town at Mount Saint Alban was already being built in the Gothic style. Charles Maginnis, the architect chosen to build the Shrine, saw no reason to simply do a Catholic version of the same thing, and neither did the CUA trustees. Instead, a Byzantine Romanesque style was approved. 

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Of course, the major obstacle in getting the church built was money. Originally in the hands of some powerful Catholic women, in 1915 fundraising was put under the control of Father Bernard McKenna (left), who went about his assignment with great zeal. Rector Shahan also started a little magazine called Salve Regina to tout the progress of fundraising efforts and encourage more donations. As money began to come in, Shahan’s vision for the Shrine became more grandiose. Somewhere along the line, instead of just a university church, he began to imagine a “splendid basilica to the Blessed Virgin."

Finally, construction could begin. On September 23, 1920, the cornerstone was dedicated. Cardinal James Gibbons, before a crowd of some 30,000, blessed the stone, tracing crosses on each side with a ceremonial silver trowel. 

Cardinal Gibbons at the dedication. Courtesy of The Catholic University of America Archives.

Construction proceeded, and by the mid-1920s, the foundations and basement level were near enough to completion that the Crypt Church could be opened. The first Mass was held there on Easter Sunday, April 23, 1924. But times and attitudes were changing. Contributions began to dwindle, tensions between Father McKenna and the trustees began to increase, and Rector Shahan was preparing for retirement. Then came the Depression. Work on the Shrine was halted, leaving it perhaps the lowest, flattest functioning cathedral in the world. It stayed that way for nearly thirty years.

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The Shrine in 1928. Courtesy of The Catholic University of America Archives.

By the end of World War II, things had once again changed. Realizing it could no longer manage what had become a large Catholic institution in its own right, Catholic University formally separated from the Shrine in 1948, and the church became the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Inc. To raise the funds necessary to complete construction, the country’s bishops inaugurated a national collection. In 1954, construction resumed, and proceeded quickly.

The Shrine in 1958. Courtesy of The Catholic University of America Archives.

Finally, 39 years after the cornerstone was laid, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was formally dedicated on November 20, 1959, and the Great Upper Church opened to the public. It has since been visited by two Popes, John Paul II (who named it a basilica in 1990) and Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. The current Pope Francis is considering a US visit in 2015, with a stop in Washington. If he comes, how could he not drop by the Shrine?

The full history of the Shrine is far more complex and fascinating than this outline could provide. For further information, you may want to check out Geraldine Rohling’s Jubilee 2009.  She is the Shrine’s archivist. And Gregory Tucker’s America’s Church is another fine pictorial history.

Finally, take a tour - there are guided tours and audio tours daily.  And occasionally visits are available to the Knight’s Tower. There were some this past week. It’s well worth it for the views of downtown, Brookland, and a close look at the dome.

© Robert Malesky 2016