City's symbol of free worship

November 03, 2006|By M. J. "Jay" Brodie

Picture the London skyline without St. Paul's or the Rome skyline without St. Peter's: They would be unrecognizable.

And any view of Baltimore would be similarly incomplete without the memorable dome of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But even Baltimore residents may not fully appreciate what is one of the great buildings of American 19th-century architecture and also an important symbol of religious freedom. That proud history is about to be on display when the basilica reopens its doors tomorrow after a 2 1/2 -year, $32 million restoration and renovation.

As an architect and urban planner, I've always admired this magnificent Catholic church in the Mount Vernon neighborhood. Constructed between 1806 and 1821, the basilica is generally considered the masterpiece of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, often called the father of American architecture. Latrobe was one of the architects of the U.S. Capitol and collaborated with Thomas Jefferson on the design of the University of Virginia.

The building is unique and extraordinary - a creative combination of neoclassical architectural elements with simple but powerful interior spaces bathed in natural light. It now represents a faithful restoration of Latrobe's vision, combined with state-of-the-art mechanical systems. With its 24 reinstalled skylights spilling diffused light on the nave, the interior positively glows.

But while the basilica is an important American building, it's not just for architects or art historians - and it's not just for Catholics.

Marylanders should recall our early history, including the 1649 Toleration Act, which mandated religious toleration of all Christian denominations. Despite the protections offered by the law, in practice, the Catholic Church prior to the American Revolution was a persecuted minority. After the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, the English crown sent royal governors to Maryland to enforce English penal laws against Catholics, and in 1700, all the Catholic churches in the colony were razed.

As the American Revolution took shape, Catholic leaders in Maryland, including the prominent Carroll family, gave their strong support. John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the young nation, envisioned a cathedral that would celebrate the newly acquired right of Catholics and people of other faiths to worship openly, in accord with their conscience. So when Carroll situated his church - the first metropolitan cathedral constructed in the United States after the adoption of the Constitution - on Baltimore's highest hilltop, it was a bold building and an important symbol.

At the same time, other prominent buildings, including the neighboring First Unitarian Church (originally the First Independent Church) at Charles and Franklin streets (designed by architect Maximilian Godefroy), were added to the neighborhood. As a 40-year member of First Unitarian, I'm proud of the resurgence of both these nationally significant religious buildings - and of their shared importance in the history of religious freedom. As Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "In the matter of religion, people eagerly fasten their eyes on the difference between their own creed and yours; whilst the charm of the study is in finding the agreements and identities in all the religions of humanity."

So whatever your belief, a visit to the basilica is essential to contemplate our country's struggle to achieve religious tolerance, a continuing journey.

My hope is that the basilica will help spur further revitalization in the Mount Vernon neighborhood in much the same way that the Inner Harbor has been a catalyst for the waterfront. Across the city, but particularly in Mount Vernon, there's a renaissance afoot. In addition to the empty-nesters and young professionals who have settled and rehabbed historic buildings there, Mount Vernon offers so many wonderful treasures. With a newly reopened basilica, the picture is complete.

I am confident that the restoration of the basilica will be, as its original construction so clearly was, another milestone for a growing, vital city - not only celebrating a glorious past but also pointing the way to an even better future.

M. J. "Jay" Brodie is president of the Baltimore Development Corp. His e-mail is jbrodie@baltimoredevelopment.com.

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