I don’t know why I have this fascination, but I do.
Steeples, domes, alters, frescoes.
You would think seeing one is about the same as seeing another.
Not for me.
Some of my favorite places to visit when I travel are cathedrals.
So when I arrived in Baltimore a few months ago, one of my top priorities (other than to attend the conference I was there for) was to visit the Baltimore Basilica, America’s first cathedral.
I located the Basilica earlier in the week and discovered it was only a few blocks from where my conference was being held. So when I found out that we had an hour for lunch that day with no featured speaker or additional conference activities, I could not resist. I had to check out the Basilica.
So I swapped out my stylish boots for the more practical sneakers and sped up the street toward the large grey domes.
Because I was visiting during the lunch hour, there were quite a few people filing into the church as I climbed the steps to the door. Many people who live or work in the area come to the church to pray during the week.
As I quietly entered the church and made my way to the pews, it became pleasantly apparent to me that this church was primarily a place of worship and reverence, not of tourism and boasting. I was approached by a man who handed me a pamphlet, which I assumed provided a history of the Basilica. It did not. Instead, it was a list of the Sunday worship times and other ministry opportunities available at the church.
“Are you from this area?” he quietly asked.
“No, no. I’m just in town for a few days on a work assignment,” I replied.
“That’s wonderful!” he exclaimed. “Thank you for taking the time to visit the Basilica. If you are in town this weekend, we would love to have you join us for worship on Sunday.”
I later continued my conversation with the man and another volunteer. As I inquired more about the Sunday masses, they asked me about my own faith and offered to tell me more about Jesus Christ and about the Catholic Church. I explained to them that I, too, am a follower of Christ, though I am not a Catholic. They couldn’t have cared less. They were not there to convert me to Catholicism; they simply wanted to extend the opportunity for me to learn more about Christ if I was interested.
As I explored the cathedral on my own, I also met the Rector. He was delighted to hear of my interest in the building and its history. I also asked him abou this own personal history and how he became a priest. He described feeling as a young child as though God was calling him to a lifetime of service and ministry to His Church and so he followed that calling into the priesthood.
Suddenly what I had expected to be just another routine visit to a cold and empty-feeling cathedral became much more meaningful and memorable as I began to connect with the people behind the building.
The story of the Basilica
The Baltimore Basilica, also known as the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was constructed from 1806 – 1821, and was the vision of America’s first bishop, John Carroll. The building was designed by the famous architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who also designed the United States’ Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. He designed the building to be in the shape of a cross. Bishop Carroll wanted a distinctly American cathedral, not one that was dark and cold, like so many of the Gothic cathedrals in Europe (though I think they’re beautiful, too, in their own right). The interior of the church, with it’s large dome and light colored walls and beautifully painted ceilings, is intentionally light and symbolic of Christ being the light of the world.
Pope John Paul II referred to the Basilica as a “symbol to the world of religious freedom,” and to the early Americans of European descent, it certainly was a symbol of their newly gained independence and freedom to worship. Prior to the adoption of the American constitution, Catholics in America had existed but were a persecuted minority. So, understandably, they wanted to build a structure that celebrated their newly found freedom. Today, the cathedral is world-renowned as one of the best examples of 19th Century architecture.
The Basilica has beautiful exterior and interior architecture and artwork, but perhaps the most interesting part of the building is its crypt and underground chapel. Here, the builders used inverted arches to support the structure from underneath. Visitors can explore the crypt today, and there is a small chapel that hosts various ceremonies. There is also an alter downstairs where anyone is welcome to come pray.
How to plan your visit
The Basilica is open to visitors from 7:00 am – 4:00 pm Monday through Friday, and from 7:00 am to the conclusion of the 5:30 pm Saturday mass and the 4:30 pm Sunday mass. Tours are available throughout the day, but visitors are also free to explore on their own. A donation of at least $2 is request for tours. Be sure to check out the Pope John Paul II Prayer Garden just outside the cathedral.
The Basilica is located at 409 Cathedral Street in Baltimore. For more information on how to plan your visit, click here.
My visit to the Baltimore Basilica was perhaps the highlight of my time in the city, if for no other reason than the human connections that were made so spontaneously. If you’re in Baltimore, I highly recommend a visit to the Basilica, and if you have time and are open to the idea, perhaps attend a mass so you can experience not only the architecture and the history of the building, but witness the life of the congregation today.
What’s the most impressive or surprising cathedral you’ve visited?
No related posts.