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Baltimore Basilica – America’s First Cathedral
America’s First Cathedral, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in Baltimore, Maryland.
In addition to rank as a Minor Basilica, the church is also a National Shrine, Marian Shrine, National Historic Landmark, and Co-Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and welcome all to visit and worship in what Pope John Paul II referred to as “the worldwide symbol of religious freedom.”
The Baltimore Basilica, built from 1806-1821, was closed from April 2004 until November 2006, for a major restoration to return the church to its original design, as envisioned by America’s first bishop, John Carroll, and as planned by renowned architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
The Baltimore Basilica reopened with much fanfare and celebration, just in time to commemorate her 200th Anniversary. Within the first year of reopening, over 200,000 visitors were welcomed from all over the world, to walk through history, rejoice in faith, and admire the Basilica’s stunning architecture and artwork.
The Basilica is also one of Baltimore’s beloved cultural institutions, offering educational tours daily, as well as hosting uplifting concerts and informative lectures. You are invited to visit the beautiful Pope John Paul II Prayer Garden, adjacent to the Baltimore Basilica, at the corner of North Charles and Franklin Street.
The The Baltimore Basilica Museum
The Basilica Museum houses hundreds of artifacts and antiques, dating back to the 17th Century. Items include:
- the tabernacle once kept by the family of John Carroll in their chapel,
- the chasuble worn by St. John Paul II for his public Mass at Camden Yards in 1995,
- letters between various Presidents and Archbishops, and
- altar vessels used during the Basilica’s earliest days.
The Basilica Museum is part of the guided tour.
The Basilica Museum
The Basilica Museum houses hundreds of artifacts and antiques, dating back to the 17th museum2Century. Items include the tabernacle once kept by the family of John Carroll in their chapel, Cardinal Gibbons’ 1884 Third Plenamuseum1ry Council vestments, the chasuble worn by St. John Paul II for his public Mass at Camden Yards in 1995, letters between various Presidents and Archbishops, and altar vessels used during the Basilica’s earliest days.The Basilica Museum is part of the guided tour.
Pope John Paul II Prayer Garden
Pope John Paul II and his two visits to the Basilica inspired a commemorative prayer garden adjacent to the Basilica complex, which opened to the public on October 24, 2008. The pontiff, who came to Baltimore in October 1995, was paying the formal visitation of a Pope to one of his Basilicas, but it was not his first trip. In 1976 he visited the Baltimore Basilica as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, with seventeen other Polish bishops.
This beautiful space is located at the corner of Franklin and North Charles Streets, adjacent to the Basilica. One of a few green spaces in downtown Baltimore, the garden provides pilgrims and visitors with an outdoor spiritual retreat within the city, while paying homage to Pope John Paul II, one of the 20th century’s true visionaries. The centerpiece of the garden is a statue of the Holy Father with two children, sculpted by Joseph Sheppard. This statue is based on a photograph taken during his 1995 Papal Visit to Baltimore. The Pope John Paul II Prayer Garden is open 7 days a week from 9am until 3pm. Please note that during inclement weather and on holidays, the Pope John Paul II Prayer Garden is closed to visitors.
Monday through Friday
- 7:30am and 12:10pm
- 5:30pm (Vigil for Sunday)
- 4:30pm (Music)
- Monday through Friday: 11:30am-12:00pm
- Saturday- 4:45pm-5:15pm
- Sunday – 3:45pm-4:15pm
Monday through Friday beginning at 7am and on Saturday at 5pm
40 Hours of Eucharistic Adoration (Adoration Chapel)
Monday through Friday from 8am until 4pm
The first step in the restoration of the Baltimore Basilica began in 1998 when John G. Waite Associates, Architects was engaged by the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust to prepare a historic structure report for the building and its grounds. The result was a complete written and graphic documentation of the building and a thorough examination of its fabric. For the first time, all the available historical documentation regarding the original construction and subsequent modifications of the building was examined in a comprehensive manner. The result of the report was a detailed plan for the restoration of the first great metropolitan cathedral in the United States. The report documented and evaluated every aspect of the building from the apex of the dome to the base of the foundation piers. The relationships between the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Bishop John Carroll, and President Thomas Jefferson in the design and construction of the cathedral were researched and described.
The first major campaign of construction started with the laying of the cornerstone in July 1806 and continued through 1812. In 1817 construction resumed, and after delays in the initial construction efforts, the main dome was completed in 1821. As is the case with many major religious buildings, it took years for the most significant architectural and liturgical details of the building to be completed. It wasn’t until 1838 that the north and south towers were finished, and it was only after the Civil War that the essence of Latrobe’s and Carroll’s design was realized, when Latrobe’s son John, who lived across Mulberry Street from the building, oversaw the completion of the portico at the main entrance to the church. Additions to the building continued after the construction of the portico, including the creation of a formal sacristy to the north of the sanctuary in 1879, as well as the expansion of the sanctuary to the east in 1890. After the completion of the historic structure report in 2000, schematic and design development documents for the restoration of the cathedral were developed by John G. Waite Associates, Architects in close consultation with the Basilica Historic Trust and with construction manager Henry H. Lewis Contractors, developing concepts and solutions to address the restoration of the building while accommodating the requirements of a functioning cathedral in the twenty-first century. During the design process, the architects worked with engineering consultants and restoration contractors to develop the best details and means of construction for the work.
Construction documents were completed in 2004, and the 30 month construction schedule began with selective removals and precise excavations necessary for the installation of new work. In addition to the intricate restoration of the historic fabric by restoration specialists from around the United States, the existing, outdated utility systems were completely replaced with modern, innovative, and energy efficient heating, ventilating, and air conditioning equipment. New fire protection, electrical, lighting and sound systems were also provided. The installation of a mechanical vault, completely buried below grade outside the building at the north side of the site, provided much-needed rest rooms and storage areas, and allowed for the relocation of mechanical equipment previously scattered throughout the building. By locating this equipment in the vault potential for fire was drastically reduced, and the need for sprinklers in the sanctuary and nave was eliminated. The project included the complete restoration of the exterior and interior of the building back to Latrobe’s and Carroll’s original design and intent. Portions of the original roof were encapsulated and the original, low-profile, appearance was replicated. Some of the most dramatic restoration elements are the reintroduction of the historic, translucent glass windows in the nave and the twenty-four skylights in the main dome. The spectacular original lighting effects are completed with the replication of the original lighting fixtures and the reintroduction of Latrobe’s original paint scheme.
Another important feature is the creation of a chapel in the undercroft to fulfill the original intention of Latrobe and Carroll, which had been thwarted almost two centuries ago by errors made by the builders in constructing the foundation. The Basilica of the Assumption is a landmark of international significance because of its architectural design and role in the history of American religion. Its restoration is one of the most extensive and significant carried out on a religious building in the country, befitting the importance of America’s first Cathedral.
The historic Baltimore Basilica, built from 1806-1821, was the first great metropolitan cathedral constructed in the United States after the adoption of the Constitution. America’s First Cathedral, officially known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, quickly became a symbol of the country’s newfound religious freedom.
Two prominent Americans guided the Basilica’s design and architecture: John Carroll, the country’s first bishop, later Archbishop of Baltimore, and cousin of Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; and Benjamin Henry Latrobe, father of American architecture, and Thomas Jefferson’s Architect of the Capitol.For more than 100 years until the American Revolution, the Catholic Church consisted of a persecuted but devout minority. With the adoption of the new Constitution, Church leaders wanted to build a cathedral to celebrate their newly acquired right to publicly worship. Bishop Carroll eschewed the popular Gothic Revival and adopted the neoclassical (romantic classicism) architecture of the new federal city in Washington. He wanted an architectural symbol for the Catholic Church in this new republic that was uniquely considered “American”.
OculusLearning of Bishop Carroll’s effort, Latrobe volunteered his architectural services. President Jefferson’s insistence on skylights for the U.S. Capitol inspired Latrobe and his design for the Cathedral’s grand dome. The Basilica, which culminated years of architectural refinement by Latrobe, is now considered one of the world’s finest examples of 19th century architecture. “When the Cathedral was first constructed, the only building that could compete with it in size, scale, and architectural sophistication was the United States Capitol,” said Jack Waite, Principal Architect with John G. Waite Associates, Architects. “Architecturally, it was the most advanced building in the country.”
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. 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. Once construction was completed, the Basilica began a distinguished history that continues to this day. In 1829, the First Provincial Council of Baltimore, held at the Basilica, asserted the need for Catholic schools.
Six other Provincial Councils and Three Plenary Councils followed, guiding the Church as the country moved westward, and its Catholic population increased with new immigrants. The First Plenary Council in 1852 extended the legislation of the Seven Provincial Councils to the entire country. Following the American Civil War, the Second Plenary Council in 1866, whose guests included President Andrew Johnson, achieved peace for the Church and called for the evangelization of Native and African-Americans.
The Third Plenary Council, the largest meeting of Catholic Bishops held outside of Rome since the Council of Trent (December 13, 1545-December 4, 1563), commissioned the famous Baltimore Catechism, which taught generations of Catholics the basics of their faith. Father Michael J. McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, was ordained at the Basilica in 1877.
In April 1906, the 100th anniversary of the laying of the Cathedral’s cornerstone was observed with a Pontifical Mass celebrated by James Cardinal Gibbons. Pope Pius XI raised the Cathedral to the rank of a Minor Basilica in 1937; in 1972, it was declared a National Landmark; and in 1993, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops designated the Cathedral a National Shrine.
“No other Catholic edifice in America can claim to have seen so much history made inside its walls,” observed George Weigel, acclaimed biographer of Pope John Paul II, and NBC News Vatican analyst.Since 1976, the Basilica has hosted visits by Pope John Paul II, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. Today, it is the focus of a diverse and revitalized neighborhood, the Mount Vernon Cultural District.In 2001, under the leadership of Cardinal William H. Keeler, 14th Archbishop of Baltimore, the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, Inc. launched a campaign to restore the neglected Basilica to Latrobe’s original vision.
The restoration included providing public access to the Archbishop’s crypt; the construction of a Chapel in the undercroft; incorporation of the Basilica Museum; handicap accessibility to the entire Basilica; a complete overhaul of the Basilica’s infrastructure; and much, much more. Today, the Baltimore Basilica, now fully repaired and restored, welcomes new generations to pray and explore, at America’s First Cathedral!