Religious landmark is renewed in Baltimore

A U.S.

Basilica was statement on faith, liberty in new nation

October 29, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun staff

.. High above the city, the church loomed. So it was for the great cathedrals of Europe - of Chartres and Notre Dame and Salisbury and Orvieto. And so it was for the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore.

For much of the 19th century, the neo-classical cathedral, built on a hill north of what was then the city center, was the most prominent feature of Baltimore's skyline.

Skyscrapers have since grown to overshadow the cathedral and its primacy in the birth of the Catholic church in America has been forgotten by many.

But now there is hope that the cathedral - reopening Saturday after a two-year, $32 million restoration - will reassert its importance in the history of the church, of the city and the country, giving it the appeal great European cathedrals have to both the religious and the curious.

Mark J. Potter, executive director of the Basilica Historic Trust, points out that unlike European cities, trips to an American metropolis rarely include a stop at a cathedral. "I think we have the opportunity here in America to change that," he said.

The life story of the cathedral, now known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is rich enough to have such an appeal.

Construction began exactly 200 years ago on what was the first cathedral constructed in the United States after the American Revolution. It is in the first diocese established in the country, in the most prominent city of the state that fought the hardest for the rights of Roman Catholics and other religious minorities in the colonies and the new country.

It was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, one of the nascent nation's most prominent architects - responsible for the U.S. Capitol and other iconic structures - to make a statement about the religion and the nation.

"What the basilica rededication helps us to do is emphasize for our own people the important role that Baltimore had in the early days of the church in the United States," said Cardinal William H. Keeler in an interview at Baltimore's Catholic Center last week.

Keeler has spent nearly two decades as Baltimore's archbishop and the basilica restoration is seen by many as a key part of his legacy.

"This church can now tell a story," said Potter.

That story is the story of the Catholic church in America. The roots of even such large dioceses as New York and Boston can be to traced back to Baltimore. Bishops met within the basilica to make decisions that established and furthered Catholicism in this country.

"So many people today only think of the Catholic Church as it is today, 60 million Catholics and all these dioceses and parishes," Potter said. "They're so unaware of the modest beginnings of the church in this country."

It is also the story of a new nation trying to establish itself in all ways, including architecturally.

American Catholic leaders decided Baltimore's cathedral should break from the heavily ornamented style of Europe. Historians say the building's structure reflects the era in which it, and the new nation, was born.

John Carroll, the Baltimore diocese's first bishop, "built a church that was in its style and everything very American," said Jay P. Dolan, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of In Search of an American Catholicism: a History of Religion and Culture in Tension.

"When Carroll and the cathedral trustees sought an architect, they didn't go to Europe. They looked to the nation's capital," Dolan said. "They wanted a cathedral that would fit with the times, a style compatible with the ideals of the Enlightenment - order, harmony, quiet, dignity."

Latrobe volunteered his services and designed a house of worship in the neoclassical style favored by Thomas Jefferson, said state archivist Edward C. Papenfuse. Construction began in 1806.

The earliest Baltimore guidebooks mention the basilica. "It is an extraordinary example of American architecture and needs to be seen in that light," Papenfuse said. "Whether you were Catholic or not, you would come and see this remarkable structure."

Beyond its architectural style, the church made a statement about American ideals, embodying Carroll and his family's belief in religious freedom. "I believe it is a monument to the Catholic experience in Maryland, which was persistently an effort to establish a place in America where they could practice freely," Papenfuse said.

The nation's first Catholic bishop grew up in a time when members of his faith were widely persecuted. He and Charles Carroll of Carrollton - his cousin and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence - were ardent proponents of religious freedom who worked within Maryland to establish rules by which different faiths could live together peacefully in a predominantly Protestant America. The style and prominence of the cathedral gave powerful affirmation of that goal.

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