Inside Mary's House

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., known as “America’s Catholic Church,” will see the end of major construction by the end of 2017 — nearly 100 years after its cornerstone was laid. Final work is being done on the structure’s central Trinity Dome, a 20,000-square-foot area over the center of the church, which will bear an image of the Blessed Trinity and the Immaculate Conception.

“The mosaic has been completely installed, and now we’re in the process of taking the scaffolding down and putting the Church back together,” said Msgr. Walter Rossi, rector of the shrine. “It’s an exciting time, as it brings the building to completion.”

A ceremony is being planned for Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which will include invitations being sent out to all the nation’s bishops to attend. Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., and chairman of the shrine’s board of trustees, will be the principal celebrant and homilist for the Mass.

Cardinal Wuerl said that the upcoming completion of the shrine was a time of “pride and joy” for the Catholic Church in the United States. He recalled that during Pope Francis’ 2015 visit to the basilica, he blessed the section of the Trinity Dome’s mosaic with the words “I believe” and “Amen,” which encircles the base of the dome.

Cardinal Wuerl ascended the scaffolding at the beginning of the work on the dome mosaic last fall — 150 feet above the floor of the church — to bless its workers and the worksite. He recently returned with Msgr. Rossi to participate in the placement of the last pieces of the mosaic, contained in the “I believe” and “Amen” section blessed by the pope.

“The mosaic ornamentation of the Trinity Dome, now totally completed, is the crowning jewel of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a truly historic effort which began construction nearly 100 years ago,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “Looking at it, it is hard not to be overwhelmed with a sense of celebration, joy and thanksgiving.”

He said the dome’s 14 million tiles are “a faith lesson in art.” He explained: “The mosaic depicts the Most Holy Trinity, the object and source of our faith, together with Mary the Immaculate Conception, the model of our faith, surrounded by a great procession of saints who have an association with America and who reflect the face of the Church with its diversity of peoples, traditions and backgrounds. The mosaic is an image of the very mission of the shrine where the many cultural and ethnic traditions that are an integral part of the Church in our country have found a place to express and celebrate their Marian devotions.”

Jim Graves writes from California.

A mosaic of the Holy Trinity is seen above scaffolding. Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Trinity Dome

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 Mother.”

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 the country.”

Although Archbishop Noll did not live to see the upper church’s completion and dedication in 1959, he has a celebrated place in its history.

“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 ethnic backgrounds.

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 building.”

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 back.”

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 level) church.

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 former employee.

“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.”