Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

The Basilica of the National Shrine on Michigan Avenue in Washington, DC is the largest Catholic Church in the United States, and ranks among the ten largest religious structures in the world. After Pope Pius IX proclaimed the Immaculate Conception as the Patroness of the U.S. in 1847, Bishop Shahan proposed the building of a National Shrine in 1913. Encouraged by the endorsement of Pius X, Shahan published the first Salve Regina newsletter to promote the building of the Shrine. Numerous donations were received from dioceses across the country toward the building of this “monument of love and gratitude.” (Note: Bishop Shahan, the 4th rector of the Catholic University, is the only one actually interred in the National Shrine.)

Construction under John McShain began in 1920 on land donated by the Catholic University of America. The foundation stone was laid on September 23,1920 at a mass conducted by Cardinal Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore, and attended by an estimated 10,000 political, military, and religious dignitaries from around the world. Further construction above the crypt or lower level was delayed, however, until after the depression and WWI. By 1953, interest in building the Shrine was renewed, and in November 1959 the dedication ceremony announced the completion of the Upper or Great Church. Although the Basilica of the National Shrine is not the official church of the United States, it operates as an adjunct to the Catholic University of America, serving the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Archdiocese of Washington, and the Military Services, as well as maintaining a close relationship with the Vatican. Not only is it a religious shrine of ceremonial privileges, its Byzantine Romanesque architecture and history as a place of worship attracts pilgrimages and visitors of every religious faith worldwide. .

Built without a steel infrastructure, the stone, brick, and tile building is 459’ long and covers an area of 77,600 square feet. The walls of the bell tower, or campanile, rise to a height of 272 feet, with an additional 37’ spire and a 20’ golden cross. Since the Knights Tower, as it is also called, houses the 56-bell carillon, there is no public access or observation floor, but recitals by the Shrine organist and carillonneur can be heard every Sunday afternoon during the summer. Throughout the National Shrine, there are numerous chapels, paintings, statues of saints, rosary and meditation altars, and communion tables. Mosaics of gold, copper, and silver; tapestries and images such as the Glorification of the Lamb and a copy of Murillo’s Immaculate Conception crafted by Vatican artisans, can be found on all the ceilings including the main Trinity dome, the Redemption Dome, and the Incarnation Dome. The Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the Great Church houses a tabernacle resting on a base of marble and surrounded with a gold canopy. Bronze rods rise to an open crown where sunlight filters in across gold squares and in the center of the chapel dome is Christ In Majesty. Designed by John de Rosen, this image of Jesus, one of the largest in the world, is composed of 3,600 square feet of over three million mosaic tiles.

Chapels in the Lower or Crypt Church honor Our Lady of Vietnam, the Dominican order, Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Charity, to name a few. Many of these chapels, all dedicated to the worship of Christ and the Virgin Mary, were gifts from other countries such as the Miraculous Medal Chapel and the Lourdes Chapel. The Crypt Church also includes The Hall of American Saints, which contains the statues of Ste. Seton, Cabrini, Tekakwitha, Drexel, and Duchesne. Memorial Hall features 14,400 marble tablets engraved with the names of the benefactors, and eight marble columns depicting the first notable events and persons in the Catholic history of the U.S. In the center of Memorial Hall stands the statue of Mary, Mother of Mankind, sculpted by Henry Donohue. The statue was given to the Shrine as a gift by Judge and Mrs. Brennan and dedicated in 1938.

Outside the Basilica, visitors can stroll the pathways through Mary’s Garden amid cherry trees and flowering shrubs to the red granite fountain, terrace, and reflecting pool. A statue of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus is framed with magnolias, hydrangeas, and roses. Two stone piers hold urns of seasonal flowers, while stone benches and prayer niches around the terrace offer a place of peace and meditation. The National Council of Catholic Women donated this beautiful area.

The National Shrine, named the 36th minor basilica in the U.S. by Pope John Paul II in 1990, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Six thousand worshippers can be seated in the vast interior of the Upper Church, while the Crypt Church at the lower level will accommodate 400 people. Msgr. Walter R. Rossi welcomes over 750,000 visitors to the National Shrine each year, where there is a regular schedule of public observances including six daily masses, and four or more hours for confessions.

Hours: November 1 — March 31, 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; April 1 to October 31, 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Guided Tours: Monday — Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.; Sunday — 1:30 to 4:00 p.m.

(Gift shop and bookstore – open daily at 8:30 a.m.; dining room and cafeteria – open at 7:30 a.m., for breakfast and lunch.)
(Note: The tiara of Pope Paul VI, the last one to be worn to date, is on permanent display within the Basilica.)

Comments are closed.