A papal blessing for Basilica work

Project: A contingent from the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust hopes to present plans to Pope John Paul II this week.


October 15, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Before launching a multimillion-dollar restoration of Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption - the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States - sponsors want to make sure their project is endorsed at the highest possible level.

So nearly a dozen representatives from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, including Cardinal William Keeler, have gathered in Rome this week with the goal of outlining their construction plans before Pope John Paul II.

"We want to get the blessing of the Holy Father for this project and have him acknowledge the building's significance as an expression of religious freedom in America," said Robert J. Lancelotta Jr., executive director of the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, the nonprofit organization leading the restoration effort.

"We feel that it is very important that we get this endorsement from the Holy Father."

For the past several years, the trust has been planning a comprehensive restoration and upgrading of the Basilica, which was built starting in 1806 and is considered the "mother church" of Catholicism in the United States. Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, it was called "North America's most beautiful church" by architectural historian Nicholas Pevsner.

It was designated a Minor Basilica in 1937 by Pope Pius XI - one of only about 30 religious buildings in North Am-erica to have that distinction - and declared a national shrine in 1993. There are four Major Basilicas, all in Rome.

The preservation group now has design recommendations from two nationally prominent architecture firms that are working together - John G. Waite Associates and Beyer Blinder Belle, both from New York state - and is raising money to pay for the restoration work.

The goal is to restore the 19th-century grandeur of the building but give it all the conveniences of a modern-day cathedral. Plans also call for the addition of a "pilgrimage center" and museum on the grounds to serve visitors from around the world. The trust is aiming to complete construction by the summer of 2005 - one year before the Basilica's 200th anniversary.

Before leaving for Italy last week, Lancelotta said members of the Baltimore contingent hope to meet with the pope on Wednesday, during a regularly scheduled audience with the public. He said the Baltimoreans will be seeking 10 minutes or so to outline their plans and present the pope with computer renderings showing how the cathedral's interior and exterior will look when construction is completed.

Lancelotta said the group is not seeking monetary support from the Vatican but hopes to videotape the presentation to the pope and use the tape as part of an educational and marketing campaign underscoring the project's international significance.

Others who are representing Baltimore's Basilica in Rome are Marie Boursiquot, vice president of the Basilica parish council; trust members Wayne Ruth, Mark Potter, Michael May and Mikesha Hayes; fund raiser Kerry Wargo, contractor Henry Lewis and architect Douglas McKean of Beyer Blinder Belle. Architects Jack Waite and Steve Reilly of Waite Associates were to leave for Rome today.

Lancelotta noted that six years have passed since the pope visited Baltimore and had a private tour of the Basilica and that group members were hoping to remind him of that visit.

He added that this month's trip was planned before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, to coincide with a meeting of Catholic bishops that Keeler was already scheduled to attend in Rome.

Although trust members debated rescheduling the trip in light of the war on terrorism and some prospective travelers backed out, Lancelotta said, those who traveled to Rome felt strongly about adhering to the original date. "We felt it was more important now than ever to get this recognition" for the project, Lancelotta said.

Harbor forum

Baltimore's harbor development will be the subject of a noontime forum on architecture Wednesday at the Johns Hopkins University's Downtown Center, Charles and Fayette streets.

Baltimore architect David Benn of Cho Benn Holback + Associates will lead a discussion about harbor development and what could enhance its character in the future. The meeting is free and open to the public.

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