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“America’s first cathedral” celebrates 200 years


Archdiocese of Baltimore

John Burger - published on 05/17/21

Baltimore Basilica, designed by the architect of the U.S. Capitol, continues mission of drawing people to Christ.

In the days before GPS, there was MapQuest. And that is what Marie-Alberte Boursiquot used to find Baltimore’s Basilica. 

It was the mid-1990s. Dr. Boursiquot had gone to Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C., and was completing her residency at Johns Hopkins. A practicing Catholic, she had to find a later Mass on Sunday if hospital duties didn’t finish early enough in the day.

On one of those Sundays, she drove to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with a printout of directions from MapQuest. 

“When I pulled up, it looked like a federal building,” Dr. Boursiquot recalled. “I went in to ask for directions.”

But inside, she knew she wasn’t lost.

“The first thing that struck me was the tabernacle — right in the center of the church,” Dr. Boursiquot, past president of the Catholic Medical Association, said in a recent interview. “I can’t tell you what came over me. I just felt like, wow, this was such an impressive church. It wasn’t just going to be just a church I would go to when I needed to. I felt like I had finally found my home or parish church.”

Archbishop William E. Lori will celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving on the 200th anniversary of the dedication of Baltimore’s Basilica, America’s first cathedral.

Rich History

It’s probably no accident that Dr. Boursiquot at first thought it was a “federal building.” The imposing structure’s principal architect was Benjamin Henry Latrobe, a friend of Thomas Jefferson and one of the key architects of the United States Capitol. The basilica’s towering ionic columns in front give it a feel something like the United States Supreme Court. 

Latrobe, working with the first bishop of the United States, John Carroll, wanted to express in stone the values and principles that the founding fathers of the United States charted out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, including democracy and religious liberty. 

When Rome granted Catholics in the United States their own diocese in 1789 — the year the Constitution came into force — it instructed them to build a proper cathedral. That cathedral was finally constructed in Baltimore and dedicated on May 31, 1821.

This month, on the 200th anniversary of that dedication, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori will celebrate a Mass of thanksgiving and launch a new initiative that confirms, deepens and extends the basilica’s mission in the city. 

“It remains a place where we preserve, showcase, celebrate our history and heritage, and it continues to be a church that is rightfully venerated, certainly by the whole local Church but also I think throughout the whole United States,” Archbishop Lori said in an interview. 

Baltimore’s Basilica, perhaps overshadowed by the much larger Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, is often forgotten by most Catholics in the rest of the country. But it was the first great metropolitan cathedral constructed in the United States after the adoption of the Constitution, according to a history on the basilica’s website. And the history that was made there continues to impact the Church. It was here that national gatherings of bishops commissioned the so-called “Baltimore Catechism” that instructed generations of catechumens, mandated parochial schools and established the Catholic University of America. It was here that Fr. Michael J. McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, was ordained a priest in 1877. 

“Situated majestically on a hill above Baltimore Harbor, the historic Basilica was the center of the country’s first archdiocese, from which two-thirds of U.S. Catholic dioceses can trace their heritage,” the history recounts. “Under its auspices also came a series of other firsts, including the first order of African-American Religious, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, founded by Mother Mary Lange.”

The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was designated a minor basilica in 1937, signified by the yellow and red ombrellino situated to the side of the sanctuary.

“As I became more and more interested in U.S. Catholic history, I came to appreciate it as the most historic Catholic building in the United States,” George Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II, told Aleteia. “It’s still that, but it’s also a vibrant center of the New Evangelization in a stricken and suffering city.”

In a 2006 Baltimore Sun article, Weigel, who attended the Cathedral School across the street and received his First Communion in the basilica, just before the opening of the new Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, said that the original cathedral “was designed to be the physical embodiment of the American commitment to religious freedom.”

“And in that sense, the Baltimore Basilica is a building of global importance, for Americans have never understood religious freedom as a right for Americans only, but a universal human right,” Weigel wrote. “To express this conviction architecturally, Archbishop John Carroll, the first and arguably the greatest of Catholic bishops in the United States, sought out Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect of the U.S. Capitol. Mr. Latrobe, the son of a Moravian pastor, hit on the idea of diffused light as the natural metaphor that best expressed the American commitment to freedom of worship and conscience.”

Troubled city

With the American commitment to freedom comes the reality that some people will make choices of their own free will that lead to less-than-desirable results. 

In the social arena, Baltimore is one of the cities in the U.S. that has suffered most from poor choices and mistakes. For years, its nickname “Charm City” has been sullied by high rates of murder, drug addiction and homelessness. 

When Fr. James E. Boric began his tenure as rector of the Baltimore Basilica in 2017, he was struck by the chasm between the beauty of the faith celebrated inside the church and the ugliness of the city streets. Homeless people slept in a bus stop across the street from the heavy iron gates in front of the basilica that were locked at 4 o’clock every afternoon. The peaceful quiet inside the sanctuary was occasionally pierced by the screaming of a drug addict.

Plus, people couldn’t stop in for a moment of prayer after work. Families visiting patients at nearby Hopkins — some of them seeking a miracle or in need of consolation — couldn’t come into the church and kneel down in front of the tabernacle and beneath that “diffused light.” 

“Pope Francis said, ‘Your cathedrals, your basilicas — the gates should be open. The doors should be open,’” Fr. Boric said in an interview. “We’re taking that seriously.”

Fr. James E. Boric is thrilled that the basilica is attracting an increasing number of young families with children — and even crying babies at Mass.

So he began a fundraising campaign to be able to extend the hours the basilica could afford a security guard. Now the church doors are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Fr. Boric strongly believes that whether people know it or not, they are being drawn into the basilica by Jesus Christ’s presence there, resting in the Eucharist in the tabernacle.

“I know that I don’t have the answers to everything, but I know that Christ does,” said the priest. “And I know that the Eucharist is Christ, and if we believe, then that’s the greatest evangelization tool. Christ is the great evangelizer, and the Eucharist is Christ. When you get people in front of him and you feel the peace, even if you don’t know, there’s something that’s magical that happens in hearts.”

One step further

The rector is going one step beyond the 7am-7pm availability of the Eucharistic Christ. After Archbishop Lori celebrates the anniversary Mass on May 31, he will process down to the church’s undercroft to inaugurate the basilica’s new Pope Saint John Paul II Eucharistic Adoration Chapel. “America’s First Cathedral” will have perpetual Eucharistic Adoration — 24/7 — a practice that people in other churches say brings miraculous change for the better. 

In fact, Fr. Boric has already seen the fruits of Eucharistic adoration, which the basilica has had on a part time basis until now. Young men and women from the basilica community are studying for the priesthood and entering religious life, something that hasn’t happened in quite a long time. 

“We want to be the adoration chapel for our archdiocese and the entire country to come and pray for the intentions we have daily, because we are America’s first cathedral,” said Ana Farias, Director of Pilgrimages & Adoration for the basilica. Adoration slots are being filled by parishioners and people from other parts of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Each day, adorers will pray for specific intentions, such as an end to racism and injustice; an increase of religious vocations; a strengthening of marriages and families, and an end to violence in Baltimore City.

“The basilica is where I draw closer to Christ and am able to really rest in him, to partake in the sacraments so I can be a better mother, spouse, sister and friend and daughter,” Farias said. 

Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect of the U.S. Capitol, designed the Baltimore Basilica in a way that diffused light would serve as a metaphor for the American commitment to freedom of worship and conscience, said papal biographer George Weigel.

In addition, to draw people to God, the basilica employs a variety of approaches, most of which are based on “the transcendentals — the good, the true, and the beautiful,” Fr. Boric explained.

“We’ve taken to heart what the bishops have asked for — to really try to evangelize, to preach the truth, show the good, influence people with beauty,” he said. 

The good, the true and the beautiful

Thus, Mass is celebrated reverently, with beautiful music, “so that when you walk into the basilica it’s as if you were leaving earth for an hour and a half and entering into the realms of heaven,” he explained. 

“For others, it’s going to be the truth [that draws them to church], whether it’s preaching to young adults or preaching homilies, whatever it might be,” he continued. 

The basilica provides a number of programs for ongoing formation, including regular lectures, conferences and a Rosary congress. Each Thursday, a burgeoning young adult population gathers for “P3,” a program launched by Angelus Virata, director of evangelization at the basilica. P3 stands for “Prayer, Penance and Pub,” and it brings young people together for Eucharistic adoration, with the sacrament of Confession available, an informative talk on some aspect of life and faith, and socializing in a local “establishment.”

Fr. Boric, 42, who often officiates at the proceedings, sees the young adults as “hungry for the faith, who want to be challenged, who want authentic Catholicism, who want holy marriages, who want to discern their vocation and have great community together.”

As for “the good,” a key component in the parish’s charitable work is a new program initiated in 2018, called Source of All Hope. Because of the persistent problem of homelessness, crime and drug abuse in Baltimore, Fr. Boric invited young people to serve as “urban missionaries,” walking the streets each day and bringing the fruit of their prayerful intimacy with Christ to those in need of his healing.

“The  work of the missionaries brings people to Christ who maybe aren’t going to come into the church for the beauty of the Mass or the truth of the Gospel, but they’re going to come in because of good works,” Fr. Boric explained.

The Baltimore Basilica has seen a growth in community in recent years, one manifestation of which is the annual Assumption Day picnic, held on the grounds of the historic church.

He summed up that the vision for the parish is simple. “It’s the Blessed Mother and the Eucharist,” he said. “If we stay connected to the Blessed Mother and the Eucharist, we’re going to be alright. Mary will lead us to her son. The Eucharist is her son, and will give us every strength, all the sustenance that we need. 

“I think that in a world in which there is so much division — in politics, in society, in theology — we’re united in the Eucharist,” he said. 

And, with the Eucharistic Christ at the center, the Baltimore Basilica community is growing. There are an increasing number of families at Mass, with more and more babies crying, kids chattering, adolescents being confirmed, and young people opting for religious life.

Archbishop Lori agreed that the times are hopeful.

“In spite of all the challenges, there are so many reasons to hope,” he said. “And I would like to think that the basilica would stand as a symbol of that hope for the Church in the United States. There are many cathedrals that are much larger and grander, there are many shrines that are larger and grander, but this shrine has stood the test of time through thick and thin, and I would say it is standing the test of time right now in a most magnificent way.”

If you are in Baltimore …

In addition to the May 31 celebration, the basilica’s anniversary will also be marked on the parish’s patronal feast day of the Assumption. On August 14, New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, a Church historian, will give a talk on the history of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. On August 15, Archbishop Lori will celebrate Mass, with a homily delivered by Bishop Robert Barron of the Word on Fire ministry. In November, when all the bishops gather in Baltimore for their annual conference, they will concelebrate Mass in the basilica. Check the basilica’s website for more information.

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