Sunbeams flooded the nave and sanctuary of Baltimore's basilica yesterday during the first formal media tour of the nearly 200-year-old cathedral since it closed in 2004 for a $32 million renovation and restoration.
The sunlight entered through 24 skylights restored in the basilica dome, illuminating murals of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that were discovered there.
The Basilica Historic Trust will celebrate the culmination of restoration with a reopening ceremony Saturday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Cathedral and Mulberry streets.
But this week several groups got early looks at changes that proponents say will restore the building to its era of historical significance.
Guests from St. Alphonsus Church, which hosted those displaced when the basilica closed two years ago for full-time renovations, attended Mass at the basilica Sunday along with basilica parishioners.
Michael J. Ruck Sr., a parishioner and chairman of the board of the Basilica Historic Trust Inc., said he sat in the last row for the service so he could see people's reactions as they walked in.
When clouds moved overhead, people would gasp as the nave darkened and then brightened again. "I said to myself, `It's like this grand old lady took a deep breath,'" he said.
Monsignor William F. Burke remembers a very different basilica from the one he saw yesterday. He and other clergy from the Archdiocese of Baltimore toured the building yesterday afternoon.
As a seminarian nearly 50 years ago, he sang in the choir of the basilica every Sunday.
At the time, the floor was dark-green marble, the windows stained glass and the skylights had been covered up.
"Nobody knew they were there," said Burke, now the pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish near Lake Montebello.
After his visit, the priest said the restoration and renovation was "very impressive."
"The brightness of the place is what's most striking," he said. "It's a much more cheerful, celebratory place from that perspective."
At the media briefing yesterday, Cardinal William H. Keeler thanked the architects, contractors and artisans who worked on the project. He described the basilica as "an American treasure."
"On Saturday, when the church reopens, we will realize a long-held dream of sharing it with a nation," he said.
The archbishop said that until the American Revolution, "the Catholic Church consisted of a persecuted but devout minority." The basilica was the first Catholic cathedral built in the United States after the signing of the Constitution.
The first archbishop, John Carroll, "wanted a cathedral that would celebrate the newly acquired right of Catholics and people of other faiths to worship openly, in accord with their conscience," Keeler said.
Preparation for the renovation and restoration began nearly a decade ago and included plans to upgrade the infrastructure and to execute elements of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe's original design that were never realized in the 19th century.
For example, the early workmen had read the plans upside down for the lower level or undercroft, said architect John G. Waite. As a result, the plan of Carroll and Latrobe to create a chapel there had to be abandoned until this restoration. Contractors for the renovation excavated 4 to 15 feet to open it up and build the Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Chapel at one end.
The cornerstone of the basilica was laid in 1806, but the cathedral was unfinished when it was dedicated in 1821.
"For the next 40 years, Latrobe's vision was so strong, it's completed in bits and pieces as money's available," Waite said.
By the time of the Civil War, however, "there was a real tendency to try to make it more medieval-looking, darker," the architect said. In the 1940s, stained-glass windows were installed. They were replaced with clear glass during the recent renovation. Other changes help to make the basilica "an effective cathedral for the 21st century," Waite said, by integrating modern heating, lighting and electrical systems.
Keeler demonstrated the accessibility of the restored building by using a wheelchair to get to the news briefing yesterday from his residence to the cathedral.
"He was able to come in from his house in a completely accessible route," Waite said.
Monsignor G. Michael Schleupner attended the priests' tour yesterday with Monsignor Martin Strempeck, who was ordained in the basilica more than 50 years ago.
Schleupner, the pastor of St. Margaret Roman Catholic Church in Bel Air, said the restored basilica is beautiful. He sometimes celebrated weekday Masses there when he served as chancellor of the archdiocese for 10 years.
"What an amazing change," he said. The priest was particularly impressed by natural light, as well as the improved access to the crypt where Carroll and other early archbishops of Baltimore are buried.
The Rev. Abel Agbulu, who moved to St. Cecilia parish near Gwynns Falls Park last month, soon learned about the basilica's restoration. The native of Nigeria, who has visited cathedrals in Paris and Rome, described this basilica as "awesome."
"Just open your eyes, and it speaks to you," he said.