A spiritual home, reborn

After two years of renovation and a bit of controversy, Baltimore's 200-year-old basilica returns to former glory

November 05, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

Two years after closing for restoration, the doors of the Basilica of the Assumption swung open again yesterday, welcoming worshipers and visitors back into America's first cathedral.

"We in Baltimore have the blessing of having a special treasure in our care, in this basilica," Cardinal William H. Keeler told a crowd of 1,300 gathered outside the church yesterday to celebrate its rebirth.

"We realize that we're only temporary guardians of it. It belongs to the community that gives it life and to the many future generations that will call this church their spiritual home."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's editions listed the wrong times for public visits to the restored Basilica of the Assumption. The church will be open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. today. It will be closed tomorrow but will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday and from noon to 4:30 p.m. Friday. The public can attend an outdoor presentation at 11 a.m. Friday. But an interfaith service Thursday night requires tickets, which are no longer available.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust Inc. sought to do more than just modernize and repair the building through the more than $32 million project. It also wanted to re-establish the 200-year-old church's prominence in the history of the United States for those who had lost track of its architectural, cultural and religious significance.

Yesterday's grand opening ceremony honored those who shaped the church or who were shaped by it, including the nation's first Roman Catholic bishop, John Carroll; Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, founder of the first religious order for black women; and President Thomas Jefferson.

"I hope our people will gain a new pride in their historic roots here from it," Keeler said in a recent interview.

The cathedral - the first constructed in the United States after the adoption of the Constitution - has been the backdrop for many seminal moments in the history of the Roman Catholic Church within the United States. American flags and bunting hung from the portico yesterday, a nod to the role of Carroll and the basilica in the nation's religious freedom.

Now officially known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it was the first metropolitan cathedral constructed in the nation's first diocese. (The oldest cathedral within the United States is in New Orleans, but it was constructed when the territory was still controlled by France.)

The Archdiocese of Baltimore, established in 1789, at one point encompassed two-thirds of the United States, eventually leading to the creation of Catholic communities in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Carroll, the first archbishop, worked with the architect of the U.S. Capitol, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, to design a neoclassical church that represented a distinctly American place of worship.

The basilica is considered "the finest piece of architecture [Latrobe] created, and one of the ones that's the most intact," said architect John G. Waite in an interview.

Throughout the 1800s, American bishops met within the cathedral's walls to make major decisions about the church, including the establishment of the Catholic school system, the Catholic University of America and the Baltimore Catechism, used as a religious textbook for many Catholics.

It was designated a minor basilica in 1937, conferring special ceremonial privileges, including a papal bell and umbrella now displayed next to the altar. Today, there are more than 200 cathedrals and more than 50 basilicas nationwide, according to the 2006 Catholic Almanac.

Among those at the basilica's reopening in front of its west entrance on Cathedral Street yesterday were Alan M. Hantman, the current architect of the U.S. Capitol, as well as re-enactors depicting key figures in the basilica's history, such as Carroll, Latrobe, Lange and Jefferson.

"It is gratifying to see Latrobe's Baltimore masterpiece so skillfully and lovingly restored, to its usefulness and [its] purpose reconfirmed for another 200 years at least," Hantman said.

Keeler, still recovering from a car accident last month, used a walker to follow five children through the open doors of the basilica as the church's bells tolled. Visitors followed the archbishop inside, walking through the nave, undercroft and balconies during an open house yesterday.

Many carried cell phones and digital cameras to capture their first impressions of the restored building.

The most dramatic change is the return of 24 skylights to the main dome, permitting lumiere mysterieuse, or mysterious light, to illuminate the nave and rotunda as Latrobe intended. They had been removed after years of leaking and black-out provisions during World War II, Keeler said in an interview.

But Waite, the architect, and Sister Annette Beecham, the superior general of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the order founded by Lange, directed their attention yesterday to a 40-foot upper balcony above the west entrance that was uncovered during the restoration. In the basilica's early years, black men and women would sit there for services.

The area had been covered up after the Civil War.

Beecham recalled her memories of marching down the basilica's aisle - such as during graduation from St. Frances Academy in 1961, and then two years ago, when the Oblates celebrated their 175th anniversary.

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