Wearing a hard hat and a white collar, Cardinal William H. Keeler led a tour yesterday of the half-restored Basilica of the Assumption in downtown Baltimore, all the while hinting to contractors that he expects the project to be finished early.
"I've told people in Rome that the weather is nicer in Baltimore in October than it is in Rome," he said, referring to the invitation he has sent Pope Benedict XVI to attend the basilica's rededication -- a ceremony scheduled for November next year.
Followed by reporters, the cardinal collected dust on his black cloak while leading the way under exposed wiring to provide one of the few public peeks inside the basilica that has been closed since last year. He strained to be heard over the rattle of a power drill when he said, "When this is complete, it will reveal the beauty of the original design."
A grand neoclassic centerpiece in the city, the structure was the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States.
In 1806, Archbishop John Carroll laid the cornerstone. The basilica was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect of the U.S. Capitol.
Building was delayed during the War of 1812 and the cathedral, formally known as the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was completed in 1821.
Last fall, the basilica was closed to begin the $32 million restoration and modernization. It is on schedule to be finished in time to mark its 200th anniversary.
Keeler recently turned up the pressure on the project by inviting Pope Benedict to the rededication ceremony. Keeler said he invited the new pope in person soon after he was elected and then again in writing. "It would be an enormous blessing," said Keeler, who has not received a response from the Vatican.
Jeff Childs, assistant project manager with Henry H. Lewis Contractors, said the most complex piece of the project, the roof, is almost complete. The new roof includes a reconstructed dome with 24 newly uncovered skylights.
The skylights were painted during World War II to comply with blackout mandates and were later permanently covered because they leaked. Ever since, archdiocesan officials have struggled to brighten the main hall.
Workers have uncovered other details of the original structure that had been obscured through more than a dozen redecorations, such as a gallery built for slaves that is above the front entrance.
Still ahead, Childs said, is reconstruction of the basement and the altar, which is to be built on tracks so that it can be moved for special events. The workers also plan to X-ray samples of plaster from the interior to determine the original color scheme. They then plan to paint the walls, fixtures and plaster petals of the ceiling decorations in their original colors.
Childs said the work is on schedule and he spoke with confidence about meeting the project deadline next year.
But he was quick to point out the deadline he was aiming for. "It's November" 2006, he said.