Clergy and laity alike descend upon the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., each January. Planned to coincide with the National March for Life, the National Prayer Vigil for Life’s evening Mass and all-night Adoration takes place at what’s been dubbed “Mary’s House” or “America’s church.” It seems only fitting for such a prominent national gathering to be held in the largest church in the Western Hemisphere.
Attentive pilgrims will easily understand the shrine’s far-reaching role in the culture and history of American Catholicism. With the National Prayer Vigil for Life just around the corner, and with the shrine’s centenary year on the horizon, it’s worthwhile to consider its history, significance and artistic beauty.
“The shrine,” as it’s referred to by the locals of D.C., is dedicated to the Immaculate Mother of God, patroness of the United States of America as unanimously chosen by bishops in 1846. Situated on the campus of The Catholic University of America, the shrine was the dream of one of the university’s former rectors, Bishop Thomas J. Shahan. Its cornerstone was laid by Cardinal James Gibbons in 1920, and its dedication was in 1959.
Numerous historical events have been hosted at the shrine throughout its nearly 100-year history. These include the 1966 nuptials of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughter, Luci (recorded as the only wedding ever celebrated at the shrine), and a host of notable funerals — including those held this past year for prominent Catholics such as U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia and the former Jesuit priest-turned TV personality John McLaughlin.
Perhaps most historic are the visits of the three most recent popes to the shrine. This includes when the shrine hosted the first canonization Mass on American soil as Pope Francis canonized St. Junipero Serra on Sept. 23, 2015.
The Shrine’s Main Floor
The shrine complex is expansive and consists of two main levels: the Crypt Level and the Upper Church. The ground floor includes a cafeteria serving breakfast and lunch daily, as well as a bookstore and gift shop. Near the cafeteria are kiosks where you may request a free tour with a guide. The shrine’s main office is nearby, where Mass intentions and memorial enrollments may be requested.
| The altar in a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Lebanon. CNS
Nearby is the shrine’s Memorial Hall, where visitors can find names of the shrine’s first donors inscribed on the walls. Baseball fans might try to find the memorial to Babe Ruth. The hall also contains statues of some American saints, and the collection interestingly includes the recently canonized St. Teresa of Calcutta, who received honorary American citizenship in 1996 and visited the shrine on several occasions. Also in Memorial Hall is a papal display with the stole Pope St. John XXIII wore at the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962 and the papal tiara worn by Blessed Pope Paul VI at his 1963 coronation. Fittingly there’s also a bust of Archbishop John F. Noll — bishop of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and founder of Our Sunday Visitor — commemorating his advocacy for the shrine’s completion following the stay on construction during World War II.
The Crypt Church, constructed at the first phase of the shrine, is where daily Masses are usually held. The main altar was made possible by donations of over 30,000 American Catholic women who had “even a remote kinship with the name Mary,” and their names are sealed inside it. The tabernacle in the Crypt Church was made by Tiffany & Co.
The Shrine’s Chapels
One of the primary features of the shrine is its more than 70 chapels depicting the Blessed Virgin under a variety of titles, appearances and cultural representations. They fill up the shrine’s interior in the Crypt Church and the Upper Church.
A few of the pilgrim’s favorite chapels at the Shrine include:
Founder’s Chapel — herein is the sarcophagus containing the remains of the shrine’s founder, Bishop Thomas J. Shahan, the only burial in the shrine. A separate portion of the chapel is dedicated to Pope St. Pius X who in 1913 gave approval for the building of a national shrine in the United States.
Our Lady of Hope — a donation from Bob and Dolores Hope erected this chapel, which commemorates the apparition of the Blessed Virgin at Pontmain, France, in 1871.
Our Lady of Altötting — the oratory contains a replica of the venerated Bavarian Madonna, where Pope Benedict XVI bestowed upon the shrine the papal honorific Golden Rose during his visit in 2008.
The Blessed Sacrament Chapel — this chapel was a gift of bishops and priests of the United States. Much of the chapel finds its theme from the Book of Exodus as both the tabernacle, suggestive of the Ark of the Covenant, and the baldachin with its descending streams symbolizing the manna from heaven.
Our Lady of Czestochowa — there’s a replica of the popular Polish Marian image, the original believed by tradition to be painted by St. Luke the Evangelist. A plaque commemorates the visit of Pope St. John Paul II to the shrine, and this chapel, in 1979. He designated the shrine a minor basilica in 1991.
The Shrine’s Mosaics
The Shrine boasts the world’s largest assemblage of contemporary religious art. Its ceilings and walls are beautifully adorned with its trademark mosaics that add up to more than 75,000 square feet. The mosaics of the Upper Church’s domes have been a work in progress since its dedication.
| Mosaic detail from the shrine’s Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe. CNS
A few of the most significant mosaics include:
The imposing and central Christ in Majesty, Byzantine in style, is one of the largest mosaics of Jesus Christ in the world. The only mosaic completed by the shrine’s dedication day, it is designed in the Easter Christian tradition of Pantocrator, or Ruler of All, and is apocalyptic in nature. One of the angels in white, at far left, is holding the shrine in his arms.
Outside of the sacristy doors in the Upper Church is the patronal mosaic of the Immaculate Conception. A gift of Popes Benedict XV and Pius XI, it predates the Upper Church by nearly 30 years and is a rendering of Murillo’s La Purissima Bionda.
Mosaics of the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary adorn the side altars in the apses. The Luminous Mysteries are depicted in mosaics in the Our Lady of Pompeii chapel.
Other mosaic images in the Upper Church portray a variety of biblical scenes including Creation, the Incarnation, Redemption, the descent of the Holy Spirit and the Last Judgment. Installation of a mosaic for the interior of the shrine’s Great Dome is underway currently. Known as the Trinity Dome, once finished it will complete the Upper Church’s original plan of iconography.
Not a mosaic, yet equally significant, is the Upper Church’s The Universal Call to Holiness. An homage to Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium, the sculpted marble relief at the rear depicts faithful from every “rank and status.”
The Shrine’s Exterior
Just as the interior of the Shrine stimulates the pilgrim toward prayer, so too does its Romanesque-Byzantine style architecture and exterior. The Great Dome is decorated in Marian blue, with five iconic Marian symbols: the fleur-de-lis, the Cedar of Lebanon, the Tower of Ivory, the Star of the Sea and the conjoined monograms of A and M — the first letters of the words Ave Maria. Each item is surrounded by the Star of David, indicative of the Blessed Virgin’s ancestry in the House of David.
Other exterior features include:
| The basilica is seen during the annual Fortnight for Freedom. CNS
The dome and the bell tower, known as the Knights Tower as it was donated by the Knights of Columbus, intentionally plays off the theme of the Capitol Dome and Washington Monument downtown. The tower contains a 56-bell carillon.
Exterior reliefs and mosaics, above the main entrances to the Upper Church, depict scenes from American Catholic Church history such as the founding of the city of St. Augustine, Florida, and Sisters of Charity aiding the wounded on a Civil War battlefield.
Notable American priests such as Fathers Stephen Badin (the first priest ordained in the United States) and Eusebio Kino; Sts. Junipero Serra and Damien of Molokai; and unnamed, heroic military chaplains.
The exterior’s sculpted reliefs depict a variety of saints, including the patriarchs, prophets and apostles around the shrine’s main entrance.
Mary’s Garden is a peaceful, wooded place with a statue depicting Mary, Defender of the Faith. In season, a water fountain operates — surrounded by the opening words of the Magnificat — and benches are available for rest or meditation.
Other than in the nearby Mary’s Garden, the only other exterior statue on the shrine grounds is that of St. Theodora Guerin. The French missionary, educator and foundress who settled in Indiana is America’s eighth canonized saint.
The Shrine’s Mission
As beautiful as the edifice is, the primary purpose of the shrine is to facilitate an encounter with Christ through his Blessed Mother. With the help of many local priests from nearby religious houses and ecclesiastical institutions (like The Catholic University of America), confessions are heard several hours each day and at least six Masses are celebrated daily. These, in addition to a variety of other special events and pilgrimages hosted at the shrine, are what help the shrine fulfill its mission as “a place of worship, pilgrimage, evangelization and reconciliation.”
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s The Catholic Answer magazine and a graduate of The Catholic University of America. He resides in Indiana where he teaches high school theology.