Bells toll to commemorate basilica's ties to France

Cardinal, diplomat recall contributions in art, religious order's service

November 11, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

Bells rang 200 times on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean yesterday to celebrate the centuries-old relationship between France and the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore.

As part of a week of celebrations for the restored basilica, Cardinal William H. Keeler stood in front of the cathedral and recounted how France influenced both the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and the religious heart of Baltimore.

"I know that for a lot of Americans, France's greatest gift is standing in New York Harbor holding a torch," Keeler told those gathered for the ceremony. "Not to take anything away from the Statue of Liberty, but for me, France's greatest gift is standing behind me."

Yesterday morning, French Consul General Jean-Pierre Allex-Lyoudi toured the basilica on Cathedral Street at Mulberry Street with Keeler and attended the inaugural Mass in a new chapel in the cathedral's undercroft. France's Society of St. Sulpice sponsored the worship space, dedicated to Our Lady Seat of Wisdom.

After the Mass, at an outdoor presentation titled "A Tribute to France," Keeler asked for prayers for French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte. He had been scheduled to attend but had to return to France Wednesday because of a family emergency.

Keeler and Allex-Lyoudi spoke of the connections between their countries. The archbishop said the basilica's architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, was influenced by French precedents. Two paintings displayed in the rear of the church were gifts of King Louis XVIII of France, and the clock in the church's tower was made by the railway clock contractor for the French government, Keeler said.

France also contributed its people. Priests from Society of St. Sulpice founded the nation's first seminary, St. Mary's, then located on Paca Street downtown. Our Lady Seat of Wisdom is the seminary's patroness. Keeler said that the rector of St. Mary's often served as vicar-general for the archdiocese. Sulpician priest James Hector Joubert also helped found the first religious community for black women, the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

Two of Baltimore's archbishops were Sulpicians, whose mission is educating diocesan clerics. The third, Ambrose Marechal, one of the original priests who founded St. Mary's, led the dedication of the basilica in 1821.

Marechal, who returned to France to teach, received the altar and candlesticks as gifts from his students. In addition, two students gave the basilica's larger tower bell, which was forged in Lyon, France, 175 years ago.

To commemorate the connection, the basilica's bell tolled at noon, at the same time as bells at the Cathedrale St. Jean Baptiste and the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere in Lyon, France.

The 3,500-pound bell had been fitted with a larger hammer as part of the basilica's more than $32 million restoration. A Global Positioning System satellite now controls the bell and clock.

Allex-Lyoudi, the consul general, said he was proud that France was so deeply involved in the creation of a monument that, like the Statue of Liberty, is an important part of American history.

Veterans Day, which is celebrated this weekend, is another opportunity to remember the American armed forces who crossed the Atlantic twice in the 20th century to help France, Allex-Lyoudi said.

"This beautifully restored basilica reflects the richness and the diversity of French-American relations, past and present," he said.

The consul general also commended the Rev. Lawrence B. Terrien, a Virginia native who is the first non-Frenchman elected superior general of the Sulpicians.

Sulpicians have served at the basilica since it opened, Terrien said. They arrived in 1791, two years after the Diocese of Baltimore was established, answering the call of John Carroll, the first bishop, to found the first seminary. But they were also hoping to preserve the religious order because they were banned from educating other priests during the French Revolution.

"We have a tremendous history behind us, and we guard it because we know there's no place on earth quite like our basilica," Keeler said.

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