Restoration of the 1st U.S. Catholic cathedral to be celebrated in Nov.

With reopening of basilica near, its message is alive

March 16, 2006|By MATTHEW HAY BROWN | MATTHEW HAY BROWN,SUN REPORTER

When the great dome of Benjamin Henry Latrobe's cathedral first rose over the Baltimore skyline two centuries ago, it loomed as a bold symbol of a new liberty.

The British had suppressed Roman Catholicism in the American colonies, forcing the faithful to worship in secret. But now a church building that rivaled Latrobe's U.S. Capitol in size and sophistication, a cathedral on a hill for a Catholic diocese that encompassed the entire young nation, proclaimed a new era for religious freedom.

Today, Michael J. Ruck Sr. said, the message of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is as relevant as ever.

"At a time when sacred mosques are being destroyed by explosives, and riots are engulfing basilicas in distant lands," the chairman of the basilica historic trust said yesterday, "this cathedral deserves to be preserved, protected and, yes, showcased for Americans of today and Americans of tomorrow as a symbol of our right to worship without fear of persecution or attack."

Ruck spoke as the historic trust announced plans for the bicentennial reopening in November of America's first Catholic cathedral. It has been closed since November 2004 for a $32 million restoration.

The festivities will begin with a ceremony and open house Nov. 4, followed by a Mass and the reconsecration of the altar the next day. Also planned for the bicentennial week are a concert, an interreligious service and tours for the public. The festivities end with a procession of the nation's Catholic bishops and a Mass on Nov. 12 -- a repeat of the pageantry that accompanied the centennial of the basilica in 1906.

Pope Benedict XVI, invited to attend, will not be coming. Cardinal William H. Keeler, who has known the pontiff for decades, has asked him to consider making a stop during a visit to the United States he might make next year.

Built from 1806 to 1821, the neoclassical cathedral was declared a basilica by Pope Pius XI in 1937. It also has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and a National Shrine by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Yesterday, the historic trust, the independent organization that has raised $25 million for the restoration, offered reporters an early glimpse inside.

The project, designed by John G. Waite Associates and Beyer Blinder Belle and managed by Henry H. Lewis Contractors, was intended to peel away two centuries' worth of changes to the original vision of Latrobe and Archbishop John Carroll. The trust hopes to establish the building as a destination for pilgrims and tourists.

"We're using the history to build for the future," said Mark J. Potter, executive director of the trust. "People are going to want to view the 19th-century cathedral as Carroll and Latrobe intended. ... It will be a living classroom for future generations."

Workers have uncovered and replaced the 24 skylights of the great dome, which will suffuse the sanctuary with warm natural light, and they have restored interior walls to their original palette of pale yellow, blue and rose. A floor of white marble remains to be installed.

The undercroft, the level below the sanctuary, has been excavated to create space for a lower-level chapel. Workers have opened access behind the altar to the crypt that holds the remains of Carroll, Cardinal James Gibbons and Archbishop Martin John Spalding, among others.

Four touches not envisioned by Latrobe will be part of the finished interior. Fresco paintings dating from 1865, representations of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that were walled up in the late 19th century and not rediscovered until last summer, will again be revealed. New paintings that depict the Assumption of Mary and the Ascension of Jesus in the style of the early 19th century have been installed in the saucer domes that flank the great dome.

Other work includes the replacement of electrical, plumbing, and heating and air-conditioning systems, and the installation of wheelchair-accessible restrooms. Potter said the building would be fully compliant with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The trust also has built a museum to display artifacts from the basilica's history. The building hosted the ordinations of the Rev. Michael J. McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, and the Rev. Thomas F. Price, co-founder of Maryknoll. Mother Mary Lange, who founded the first order of black nuns in the world, worshiped there, and Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II visited.

Yesterday, Dr. Marie-Alberte Boursiquot, a member of the historic trust board, described her first encounter with the basilica. Recently arrived in Baltimore to complete her medical training, she was looking for a place to worship.

"I thought I was lost, because it did not look like a church," Boursiquot said. "In fact, I thought it was a bank. After having circled the building twice, I decided to enter the `bank' to ask for directions.

"As I entered, I noticed, in the very center of the building, the tabernacle which houses the most sacred objects of our faith. I realized then that I had entered my new parish home."

She was looking forward to attending Mass again at the basilica.

"Having an historic landmark that stands as a symbol of our right as Americans to worship openly, irrespective of our individual religious beliefs, without fear of reprisal is, in my view, something truly worth celebrating. ... And getting my favorite church back is worth a bit of celebrating, too," she said.

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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