National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

views updated


The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the largest Catholic church in the United States and among the largest churches in the world. Located in Washington, D.C., adjacent to the campus of The catholic university of america, it honors the Blessed Virgin Mary who, under the title of the Immaculate Conception, was named patroness of the United States by the bishops at the Sixth Provincial Council of Baltimore (1846). Pope John Paul II bestowed on it the honorific distinction of minor basilica.

Bishop Thomas shahan, fourth rector of The Catholic University, conceived the idea of a national shrine, and in 1914 with the approval of Pope Pius X work went forward. The architects under the direction of Charles Maginnis (18671955) sought to create a structure that was distinctively American. They settled on a design that was contemporary and original but in the spirit of Byzantine and Romanesque architecture. Eugene F. Kennedy Jr. designed the superstructure.

James Cardinal Gibbons laid the cornerstone on Sept. 23, 1920, and by 1931 the crypt church and some of the crypt areas had been completed. After a period of inactivity, building was resumed at the urging of the newly appointed archbishop of Washington, Patrick O'Boyle, and Bishop John Noll of Fort Wayne. In the years 1954 to 1959 the exterior of the upper church was built, and 10 of the 11 planned chapels added. It was dedicated by Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, Nov. 20, 1959, while work on the interior continued.

The edifice is in the form of a Latin cross, 459 feet long, 240 feet wide at the transepts. The height is 120 feet to the peak of the roof, 237 feet to the top of the dome, and 329 feet to the top of the bell tower. The seating capacity is 3,500; total capacity is 6,000. It was built without structural steel, entirely of masonry. The Knights Tower (bell tower) adds a strong vertical accent to the overall composition of the shrine. On the tiled dome, huge gold symbols of Our Lady appear against a blue background. The sculpture of the east wall of the exterior illustrates the theme of faith; that of the west wall, charity. The north wall features contemplatives, and the art of the facade centers around Christ and Our Lady. Notable among the 137 separate pieces of sculpture on the exterior are two figures by Ivan Městrović.

The interior walls of the main (upper) church are covered with Botticino and Travertine marble decorated with bas-reliefs. The entire south wall above the entrance is covered by a large mosaic depicting the "Universal Call to Holiness." On each side of the upper church there is a long row of high Roman arches leading to the sanctuary. A 3,500 square-foot mosaic of Christ in Majesty by John de Rosen adorns the north apse (interior of the cupola/dome), and two smaller domes above the sanctuary have mosaics depicting the Lamb of God and the descent of the Holy Spirit. The flanking east and west apses have images honoring Mary and Joseph, and below are altars dedicated to the 15 mysteries of the rosary decorated with marble and brilliant mosaics. The 176 stained-glass windows include three rosette windows.

The crypt church is a low, vaulted room with massive arches focusing attention upon the main altar, an isolated block of golden Algerian onyx. The crypt's marbles, golden mosaics, and ceramic tiles, rich in doctrinal and historical meaning, emphasize Marian themes. More than 30 devotional and liturgical areas as well as a gift shop, bookstore, and cafeteria are located on the crypt level. The National Shrine is under the direction of a Board of Trustees appointed by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Bibliography: f. r. difrederico, The Mosaics of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (Washington, D.C. 1980). w. p. kennedy, The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (Washington 1922). b. a. mckenna, Memoirs of the First Director (Washington 1959). t. j. grady, American Ecclesiastical Review 136 (1957):145154; 137 (1957): 400409; 141 (1959): 217231.

[t. j. grady/

p. sonski]

About this article

National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Updated About content Print Article


National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception