The Trinity Dome is the last and largest of the church’s five domes
to be decorated. At 18,300 square feet, it is five times the size of the
shrine’s other domes and cost five times as much to complete, said Tom
Wong, a volunteer who recently graduated from The Catholic University of
America with an engineering degree. Wong spent last summer interning
with the company doing work on the Trinity Dome.
“It was an amazing experience, watching work being done 150 feet off the ground.”
“The shrine is a living entity brought to life by the pilgrims who
visit, a place of prayer and worship where people can come to seek
greater contact with the Lord,” said Msgr. Walter Rossi rector of the
shrine. “We invite everyone to come and hope that their visit helps our
visitors on the path of holiness following the example of the Blessed
Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C., invited pilgrims to
come to the shrine and encouraged American Catholics to continue
offering it their financial support, saying, “In an age that finds the
idea of transcendence so alien, the beauty, majesty and grace of the
Basilica of the National Shrine are an open invitation to let our hearts
soar and our minds be elevated by a beauty that invites us to step
beyond our own limitations. This newly ornamented dome, with its
depiction of the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception and so many
saints, speaks to us, calling all who look upon it to experience
personally and as a family and nation, God’s great love for us, which
can renew and transform hearts.”
OSV Founder Played a Key Role
Archbishop John F. Noll (1875-1956), longtime bishop of the Diocese
of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, and founder of Our Sunday Visitor,
played a key role in the development of the Basilica of the National
Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. In 1946, Archbishop Noll became
chairman of the bishops’ committee dedicated to completion of the
shrine, raising a total of $7 million toward that end. In the Diocese of
Fort Wayne, his parishioners contributed a record-breaking $104,486 for
the shrine’s construction effort.
| Archbishop John F. Noll looks at an artist’s rendering of the shrine. Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Archbishop Noll was born in Fort Wayne, one of 19 children. He was
ordained a priest at age 23 in 1898. Over his next 58 years as a priest
and bishop, he was a dedicated Catholic apologist active in
communications media, battling misconceptions about Catholicism and
promoting the work of the Church. He used his influence to draw
attention to the shrine, including raising more than $4 million from Our
Sunday Visitor readers to finish its construction.
Although work began on the shrine in 1920, and the crypt church was
completed in 1926, the Great Depression and World War II caused a delay
in construction on the upper church. At the war’s end, the bishops
wanted to continue the effort to finish the upper church and asked
Archbishop Noll to spearhead the effort.
“Archbishop Noll was a real powerhouse behind making sure the upper
church was completed,” said Msgr. Walter Rossi, rector of the shrine.
Among Archbishop Noll’s fundraising ideas was a proposal to have an
annual collection for the shrine each year on Mother’s Day. Although his
fellow bishops did not agree, it would have been a fitting time for
such a collection because, as Msgr. Rossi noted, Archbishop Noll
envisioned that the shrine “would become a center of Marian devotion for
Although Archbishop Noll did not live to see the upper church’s
completion and dedication in 1959, he has a celebrated place in its
“If it weren’t for him and Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle of Washington,
we’d probably still be trying to raise the money to build it,” said
longtime docent Sal Mazzuca (see profile below). “That’s why we
affectionately refer to Archbishop Noll as the ‘Apostle of the Shrine.’”
A view of the upper church at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Orhan Cam / Shutterstock
A Shrine for Mary
The National Shrine came to be in the early 20th century, when
America’s Catholic bishops petitioned Pope St. Pius X for a national
monument in honor of the Blessed Mother. Bishop Thomas Shahan
(1857-1932), rector of The Catholic University of America, personally
spoke with the pontiff in 1913 about his desire to see such a shrine
established as “a monument of artistic truth and sincerity ... a mirror
of all the beauties of our venerable and holy religion.”
The pontiff agreed and made a personal contribution of $400 (in lira)
for its construction. The cornerstone was laid in 1920, and the first
Mass was held on Easter Sunday in 1924. It has both an upper and lower
level. Its lower crypt level, which today contains 80 chapels and
oratories, was completed in 1931. The large upper church was completed
and dedicated in 1959, with Our Sunday Visitor founder Archbishop John
Noll playing a key role in raising needed funds.
The shrine is dedicated to the patroness of the United States, the
Blessed Virgin Mary, under her title of the Immaculate Conception, and
is sometimes called Mary’s Shrine. Its chapels and oratories that have
been added through the years are dedicated by various religious
communities and ethnic groups. Since its founding, the shrine was
envisioned as a gift from all American Catholics to represent the
devotion to Mary by many kinds of peoples, cultures, traditions and
The shrine is open 365 days per year, and receives 1 million visitors
annually. It is a hub of spiritual activity, with six Masses celebrated
daily, five hours of confessions daily and a variety of devotions.
Pilgrimage groups come to the shrine from around the world. Visitors can
enjoy daily tours, as well as a gift shop, bookstore and cafeteria.
Proceeds benefit the shrine.
The shrine is the largest Catholic Church in North America, and one
of the 10 largest in the world. It is 25 percent longer than St.
Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and has a seating capacity in the
upper church of 3,500 and a total capacity in the upper church of 6,000.
The shrine has the world’s largest collection of contemporary
ecclesiastical art, including mosaics, stone scultures and stained
glass. The north apse of the church, for example, features the famous
“Christ in Majesty” mosaic. It covers 3,600 square feet and contains
nearly 3 million tiles. Msgr. Rossi described the work as both the
shrine’s most popular and controversial, because “not everyone likes the
way Christ looks; they think he looks angry, or too powerful.”
Msgr. Rossi continued, “Christ does look strong and powerful, but he
was intentionally depicted that way by the artist Jan Henryk de Rosen.
He wanted people to know what the real source of power was, Jesus
Christ, not the government.”
The shrine’s liturgical music program is the finest in the country,
Msgr. Rossi believes, with a 25-voice professional choir directed by
Peter Latona. “Peter has really fine-tuned the choir so that it is an
example of what good liturgical music should be,” Msgr. Rossi said. “We
try to be a model that others will follow.”
Meet the shrine’s rector
Msgr. Walter Rossi has served as rector of the National Shrine of the
Immaculate Conception since 2005. He was assigned to the shrine in
1997, when he was named its director of pilgrimages. He became rector
when the previous rector, Msgr. Michael Bransfield, was named bishop of
the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia.
| Msgr. Rossi is rector of the basilica. Catholic Standard of Archdiocese of Washington via Jaclyn Lippelmann
Msgr. Rossi was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and studied for the
priesthood at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, New York. He was ordained a
priest for the Diocese of Scranton in 1987. While a priest-student at
The Catholic University of America, he began celebrating Mass and
hearing confessions at the shrine, which sits alongside the CUA campus.
As rector, he has both administrative and spiritual responsibilities
at the shrine, overseeing a staff of 180. “I am the pastor of the
largest Catholic Church in North America,” he said. “It is a large
building, with lots of interworking parts, and I get to watch the wheels
turn. I tell people I’m the shrine’s caretaker.”
The shrine is located in the Archdiocese of Washington, and its
archbishop, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, serves as the shrine’s chairman of
the board of trustees, hence Cardinal Wuerl is Msgr. Rossi’s “immediate
boss.” However, Msgr. Rossi said, “The shrine belongs to all the
bishops and all the dioceses of the United States, so twice a year I
make a report to the national bishops’ conference.”
Msgr. Rossi is one of four priests assigned to work full-time at the
shrine, three of whom are diocesan priests and one a religious-order
priest. Additionally, priests who live in the surrounding area assist
with the six daily Masses and five hours of daily confessions.
One of Msgr. Rossi’s ongoing challenges as rector is raising
sufficient funds for construction on and maintenance of the shrine. Last
Mother’s Day, the bishops approved a national collection to fund work
on the shrine’s Trinity Dome, the last construction project that needed
to be completed to finish the shrine. The shrine also relies on
donations acquired through direct mail and income from its gift shops to
pay the bills.
“We are funded solely through the generosity of American Catholics,”
Msgr. Rossi said. “We always need help, as our bills are as large as our
Pope Francis arrives inside the National Shrine to celebrate Mass and the canonization of St. Junipero Serra in September 2015. CNS photo via Paul Haring
Popes, Presidents And Saints
Over the years, the shrine has welcomed popes, presidents and saints.
St. Teresa of Calcutta, for example, was a regular visitor to the
shrine, as her community operated in facilities nearby. In 1979, Pope
St. John Paul II became the first reigning pope to visit the shrine.
In 1960, Cardinal Giovanni Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, flew
into Washington, D.C., and noticed the shrine while looking out his
airplane window. He asked what the large building was, and when told,
fit a visit into his itinerary. He said, “The strength of this beautiful
shrine is much more than its massive dimensions; to me it represents
America’s deep faith in Christ and his Blessed Mother.”
Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2008; Pope Francis visited in 2015 for the canonization Mass of St. Junipero Serra.
Longtime shrine volunteer Sal Mazucca stands in the Our Lady of Pompei Chapel, his favorite spot in the church. Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Volunteer Profile: Sal Mazzuca
Volunteers play a vital role in the operation of the Basilica of the
National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, assisting with liturgies,
working in reception and serving as tour guides. According to Dee Steel,
coordinator of the docent program, there are about 80 such active
volunteers, about half of whom serve as docents. Among the most
dedicated and longest-serving docents is Sal Mazzuca, a retired civilian
employee of the U.S. Navy who served as thurifer during the shrine’s
1959 dedication Mass.
Noting that the shrine was dedicated to the Blessed Mother and serves
as a center of Marian devotion, Mazzuca explained, “Mary has been good
to me. Serving at the shrine all these years is my way of paying her
Mazzuca is the son of a shoemaker and is a first-generation American
of Italian ancestry. He was a graduate student at The Catholic
University of America in 1958 when a priest approached him and a friend
on campus and asked if either was an altar boy. The next morning,
Mazzuca and his friend began serving Mass in the shrine’s crypt (lower
Mazzuca remembers a large crowd coming for the 1959 dedication and
how he was “in seventh heaven” when the liturgical music began. It was
around that time he was informally drafted to serve as a docent.
“The priests would tell me that if I see a tour bus pull up that I should jump on board and offer to lead a tour of the shrine.”
When his health is good he leads as many as 20 tours a month, with
group sizes as small as 10 or 12 to as many as 100. He’s led Catholic
notables such as Cardinal George Pell and Cardinal Bernard Law, and
foreign dignitaries, and is regularly requested by returning school
groups. “We get a lot of students coming in April and May,” he said. “I
really get a kick out of touring them.”
He’s also been on hand for the last three papal visits to the shrine:
Pope St. John Paul II in 1979, Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 and Pope
Francis in 2015.
To lead a tour, Mazzuca dons the blue sash with the gold and white
emblem of the docents, to which he’s added hundreds of pins given to him
by visitors. His tour lasts 55 minutes; he narrates a script he wrote
himself years before.
“Sal’s an expert on the shrine and really knows how to share its story,” Steel said.
The Our Lady of Lourdes chapel was long his favorite spot for prayer
and meditation among the shrine’s 80 chapels and oratories. However, due
to his Italian ancestry, his loyalty switched on Oct. 4, 2008, when the
shrine’s Our Lady of Pompei chapel opened.
Mazzuca is amazed at the shrine’s growth in popularity over the past six decades.
“When we started, almost no one came,” he said. “Maybe you’d see a
group of five or six from time to time. But today, many visit. It was
something back in the ’50s I never could have imagined.”
Mazzuca is excited about the completion of the Trinity Dome. “It will
make the whole place come to life. It marks the completion of the
artwork as envisioned in the 1920s.”
Working and volunteering at the shrine has become a family affair for
the Mazzucas. His late wife, Rose Mary, was a volunteer, as was his
sister. His daughter is a 27-year employee of the shrine, and his son a
“The shrine is a special place,” he said. “I’ve had many wonderful experiences there.”
Our Lady of Pompei Chapel: Honoring America’s Italian Heritage
The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is home to 80 chapels and oratories. Many are dedicated to Catholics of specific ethnicities, such as the chapel in honor of Our Lady of Pompei, the first at the shrine to honor America’s Italian heritage.
In 2006, Italian-American bishops under the leadership of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, former archbishop of Philadelphia, began the process of establishing an Italian chapel in honor of Our Lady of Pompei. The bishops launched a $2 million fundraising campaign to fund the chapel’s construction.
| The Our Lady of Pompei Chapel features a mosaic of Mary and the Infant Jesus holding a rosary. CNS photo via Nancy Wiechec
Devotion to Our Lady of Pompei began in Italy in 1872 when Blessed Bartolo Longo (1841-1926) was walking through the Valley of Pompei, near Naples, and believed he heard the Blessed Mother asking him to spread devotion to the Rosary. Longo restored a local church and secured a worn image of the Blessed Mother to be placed in it. The image was of the Madonna and Child presenting rosaries to St. Catherine of Siena and St. Dominic.
The following years would see a new church built and expanded; today, it is a pontifical shrine dedicated to the Blessed Mother.
The Our Lady of Pompei chapel in the shrine features a life-sized image of the Madonna and Child based on the original image and a crucifix blessed by Pope Benedict XVI during his 2008 visit to the shrine. It also features the Mysteries of Light, introduced by Pope St. John Paul II in 2002. This is the first representation of the Mysteries of Light at the shrine.
The chapel’s design is in keeping with the Roman Byzantine architectural style of the shrine.
Two thousand attended the dedication Mass on Oct. 4, 2008, including many bishops from the surrounding area. Cardinal Justin Rigali served as principal celebrant and homilist, telling those assembled, “This newest chapel, a gift from the people of Italian American heritage, is another important chapter in the legacy of love between Mary and her faithful children. Hopefully, all who visit this chapel will be stirred to deeper devotion to the Rosary.”
He described the chapel as “a beautiful reminder of the Italian legacy of centuries of devotion to the Mother of God by so many faithful people, including our own forebears. At the same time, it is also a pressing challenge to all of us to be ever more fervent in our devotion to this timeless and powerful prayer.”