The beauty of basilicas

If you’re planning to pack up the family and travel to a theme park or historic city this summer, chances are you will pass by one of America’s more than six dozen minor basilicas — churches that have been given a special designation by the pope as places of prayer closely linked to the mission of the papacy itself. In the United States, basilicas range from almost unknown parish churches in small towns to cathedral-sized buildings built on a national scale.

But though different, they are united in that the Holy Father has granted them the honorific title known as a “minor basilica,” which also brings certain rights and privileges shared by four historically important churches in Rome — St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls and St. Mary Major — known as major basilicas.

Each minor basilica combines artistic beauty, historic significance and a vibrant prayer life that can turn your family vacation into one that delights in the manifestation of the kingdom of God.

Not sure if you’re in a basilica or not? Be sure to look for a red and yellow umbrella and a bell in the sanctuaries. The umbrella, called an ombrellino or canopaeum, displays the colors of papal governance, while the bell, called a tintinnabulum and decorated with the crown and crossed keys of the papacy, would be rung in processions to indicate the presence of the pope or the honor due to his office.

As a bonus, anyone who visits any basilica and participates in “any sacred rite” or at least “recites the Lord’s Prayer and the profession of faith” can receive a plenary indulgence under the usual conditions of sacramental confession, Eucharistic Communion and prayer for the intentions of the pope.

With 78 basilicas in more than 30 states, the United States offers a treasury of architectural and spiritual riches. Our Sunday Visitor presents a snapshot of 10 basilicas representing different parts of the country, historical importance and artistic merit.

Architectural historian Denis McNamara is associate director and faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary.


Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary | Baltimore

Despite being America’s first cathedral, built from 1806 to 1821, the National Shrine of the Assumption was the fourth building to be designated a basilica, gaining the title in 1937. Designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol, it represents the priorities of America’s first bishop, John Carroll, in the early years of the republic. Latrobe even took architectural suggestions on the design from Thomas Jefferson.

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Catholics had been a persecuted minority during most of the Colonial era, with some colonies even making it illegal, on pain of death, for a priest to be present on their soil. Maryland, as the state’s name implies, was a political haven for Catholics, and Bishop Carroll descended on his mother’s side from wealthy Maryland Catholics of English descent.

After the Constitution established full freedom of religion, Carroll made America’s first cathedral an unmistakable statement, choosing a design along the lines of other Neoclassical buildings that represented American freedom and democracy.

The newly restored basilica shows a grand porch of Greek Ionic columns, a low, copper-covered dome and walls made of a hard silver-grey local stone called gneiss. A shallow dome with square recesses called coffers forms an image of a great starry sky, while the text of the Magnificat, the biblical song of the Virgin Mary, appears around its upper walls.

As America’s first Catholic cathedral, the basilica has been the elder statesman of American Catholic history, hosting significant events and high profile visitors. The first religious order of African-American sisters was founded here and the founder of the Knights of Columbus, Father Michael McGivney, was ordained here in 1877. The church was graced with visits from Blessed Mother Teresa and Pope St. John Paul II, who called the building “the worldwide symbol of religious freedom.”

Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus | Hanover, Penn.

Photo courtesy of Chris Heisey

A bit off the beaten path, but only 12 miles east of the famous Gettysburg battlefields, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart highlights the presence of Catholics in the United States in the Colonial era. Sometimes called the Conewago Chapel for the local township, the current church succeeds a log chapel built on the site by Jesuits in 1741 for English-speaking Catholics from Maryland and German-speaking immigrants. Jesuit Father James Pellentz became its first permanent pastor in 1768 and completed the existing church in 1787.

The church is built of red sandstone walls 3 feet thick, making its parishioners proud of its status as the oldest stone church in the United States as well as the first American parish dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A white steeple from the mid-19th century tops the building and the original Federal-period doorway with a hand-wrought iron latch, lock and door pull grace the front door. The church still bears a Jesuit imprint, being filled with paintings and statues of Jesuit saints. Particularly notable are interior paintings by Franz Stecher, an Austrian Jesuit who left the order after showing signs of schizophrenia. He nonetheless traveled to the United States and found work painting Sacred Heart’s ceiling mural of Christ accepting the cross, a set of Stations of the Cross and the death of St. Francis Xavier. A fine set of Munich stained-glass windows were also installed in the early 20th century.

A trip to Sacred Heart is like a step back in time.

Queen of All Saints Basilica | Chicago

Photo courtesy of Tina Leto and the archives of the Archdiocese of Chicago

In Chicago’s Sauganash neighborhood stands a cathedral-sized Gothic church viewed across a great lawn, made all the more remarkable because of its dedication date of 1960. While the Gothic Revival had appeared in the United States in the early 19th century, by the time of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, “Mad Men”-style Modernism almost completely dominated the architectural world. Nonetheless, Chicago’s Msgr. Francis Dolan hired architects Meyer and Cook to project the artistic traditions of the Middle Ages into the Atomic Age.

Queen of All Saints Basilica is filled with images of all kinds, and the glory of the building is the careful design and enrichment of nearly every surface. Bronze angels greet visitors in the narthex, and even its custom-designed pamphlet rack and greeter’s desk are worthy of a look. The baptistery, enclosed by handcrafted bronze gates, displays scores of saints’ relics.

The church’s interior forms a vast room focused on a great deco-inspired screen called a reredos, filled with a mosaic of the Virgin Mary and shadowlike heads of multitudes of saints. On the wall behind appear the persons of the Trinity, with God the Father above, Christ as the lamb and the Holy Spirit as a dove. Large stained-glass windows, both palpably modern and quite traditional, show saints radiant with the light of Christ.

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception | Washington, D.C.

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Truly one of America’s great churches, the “National Shrine,” as it is known in Catholic shorthand, towers above the Northwest quadrant of Washington, with its 30-story tower and colorful dome, proudly claiming the title of largest church in the Western Hemisphere and the eighth largest church in the world. With roughly 1 million people visiting the basilica each year, it is no doubt America’s busiest Catholic shrine, and not without good reason.

The shrine found its inspiration from Bishop John Carroll’s 1792 consecration of the United States to the patronage of the Virgin Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception, with a formal dedication of the same coming with the approval of Pope Pius IX in 1847. The dream of building a national church in honor of the nation’s patroness took material form in 1913 when Bishop Thomas Sheehan, Rector of The Catholic University of America, garnered Pope Pius X’s permission to begin. (The pope also donated $400 to the project.)

Boston’s architecture firm of Maginnis and Walsh began the design in 1919, and the building has been under construction ever since. The lower level was complete by 1929, but the Depression and World War II put construction on hold until 1953, with the upper Church as it stands today being dedicated in 1959. The building appears quite traditional, yet the clean lines bring it all into a modernized 1950s Byzantine-Romanesque hybrid that Maginnis called “distinctly American.”

The interior’s east end shows an apse filled with a dramatic mosaic of a beardless, bare-armed Christ surrounded by angels, while interior domes tell of the life of Mary and Christ. One of the most interesting features of the church is its many chapels — more than 70, in fact — dedicated to various national and theological titles of the Virgin, providing hours of discovery for adults and children alike.

Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart | Newark, N.J.

Just a 20-mile drive past New York’s George Washington Bridge stands a great Gothic cathedral, little-known by tourists. But if you like radiant stained glass and incredible woodwork, you’ll have your fill at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark.

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The mid-19th century brought waves of largely Irish and German immigrants to the city, and a new cathedral was proposed in 1859 by Bishop James Bayley, choosing a site atop a hill that would offer views to New York. It took some 40 years to begin construction and another 50 years to see the cathedral completed, finally dedicated in 1954.

The exterior received its first design from Irish-born architect Jeremiah O’Rourke in an English-Irish mode evidenced by the sturdy grey stone exterior that still exists today. Later in the design process, French-inspired elements were added, such as the great rose window, enriched entry door and small copper crossing tower called a flèche. Striking are the exterior twin towers turned at 45-degree angles to the façade, a modern twist on a traditional design. After entering the cathedral, turn around 180 degrees and take a look at the ornamented doorway you just entered, covered with Gothic tracery and figural sculpture. Turn around again and the interior will reward you with a view of massive stone piers in alternating octagonal and round designs, leading the eye to a canopy over the high altar called a baldachino, enriched by sculpture and ornamented crucifix.

Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption | Covington, Ken.

Photo courtesy of David J. Cooley

Just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati rises the great façade of the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, Kentucky’s slightly smaller version of Paris’ Cathedral of Notre Dame, raised to the status of minor basilica by Pope Pius XII in 1953. The Gothic building offers its expected share of stained glass, paintings, a soaring interior nearly eight stories high and gargoyles so convincing that you almost expect to see Quasimodo prowling its heights.

The church’s nave was completed in 1900, designed by Detroit architect Leon Coquard while the façade was added in 1910. Be sure to pause at the central portal and see the fine statues and a monumental carving of the Assumption by Cincinnati sculptor Clement Barnhorn.

The interior is where the cathedral really shines with almost 80 stained-glass windows, most of which originate from the internationally renowned Mayer Studios in Munich, Germany. The window in its south transept is truly monumental in scale, being 24 feet wide and nearly the height of a seven-story building.

Visit the Blessed Sacrament Chapel as well, not only for a visit to Christ, but to find a series of paintings by Frank Duveneck, a Covington-born painter who studied in the art at the Royal Academy in Munich and later developed a national reputation.

Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine | St. Augustine, Fla.

Photo courtesy of Glenn Hastings, Destination Style

While some of these basilicas seem old, the basilica of St. Augustine takes things to a whole different level. The city was founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers who landed in Florida on the feast of St. Augustine of Hippo. They soon built a church, giving rise to the claim that St. Augustine’s is the oldest Catholic parish in America.

The cathedral itself has had a stormy history, with the current building being the fifth iteration, dating largely from 1797 and a major rebuilding after a fire in 1887 when architect James Renwick — the designer of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York — designed the tower and many of the interior appointments. The church reads as unmistakably Spanish, with its exposed bells and broad, shallow facade. The central door is enriched with architectural embellishment and a series of vine motifs to show the dignity of entering the house of God and image of the new Garden of Eden.

The inside makes a dramatic departure from the largely beige exterior, filled with saturated color, pattern and image.

Though much of the interior decoration dates from a 1960s renovation, it still retains a Spanish feel. The reredos behind the high altar shows twisted supports known as Solomonic columns. Throughout the cathedral appear images depicting the Catholic history of Florida, all wrapped in garden imagery of swirling vines, a nod to the interior of a church as the new paradise promised in salvation history.

Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis | St. Louis

St Louis
Photo courtesy St. Louis Review

Known as the “New Cathedral” of St. Louis, the Cathedral Basilica is perhaps the singular showstopper of ecclesiastical mosaics in the entire nation. With the mosaic artistry of Tiffany Studios and Hildreth Meiere, among others, on display, the Basilica of St. Louis provides a who’s who of American mosaicists’ art — one of the largest collections of mosaics in the Western Hemisphere.

Like the cathedral in New Orleans, this basilica is located in a French-founded river town and dedicated to the same medieval French saint-king. Architecturally, though, it could hardly be more different. A massive grey exterior of Byzantine inspiration by architects Barnett, Haynes and Barnett, it was largely completed by 1914. The interior immediately grasps the Catholic imagination as a building that sacramentalizes the experience of entering the heavenly Jerusalem described in the Book of Revelation. Horizontal layers of golden stone indicate the city walls, while above them float Christ in glory, saints, angels, the Blessed Virgin and figures from history. The canopy over the original high altar is indeed the cathedral’s most spectacular construction, with the intersection of multicolored marbles, gold mosaic, figure and image.

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is truly stunning, as every square inch delights the eye with light, color, reflection and a palpably mystical atmosphere, which will make you want to kneel and pray.

Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, King of France | New Orleans

New Orleans
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In the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter stands America’s greatest icon of French culture and faith: the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, King of France. With a history on that site dating back to 1721, it is among the oldest Catholic cathedrals in the United States. Before the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans formed part of New France, controlling access to the Mississippi River. This site of singular importance is appropriately marked by the cathedral’s three prominent towers fronting up against Jackson Square and the mighty Mississippi itself.

The current church is the third on the site, completed around 1850, though parts of the previous building remain. Notably, architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe — the architect of the Baltimore Cathedral — found himself in New Orleans and designed the central tower with its clock and bell in 1819. He died of yellow fever before it was completed and is buried in the cathedral’s cemetery.

The cathedral’s interior is at once chaste in its architecture and exuberant in its decoration. Over the altar stands a large mural by Swiss-trained immigrant artist Erasmus Humbrecht showing the Announcement of the Seventh Crusade by St. Louis, the 13th-century king known for his piety and wisdom. A series of 10 stained-glass windows depict the life of St. Louis. You’ll notice, too, a series of flags running down the nave. Those on the left indicate the many nations that have governed New Orleans from its beginnings to today, while the right side displays the religious governance of the Church, from the papal flag to its own basilican coat of arms.

Mission Basilica of San Diego de Alcala | San Diego

San Diego
Photo courtesy of Lucas Turnbloom, The Southern Cross

The Franciscan missions of the southwest are stuff of legend in American culture, and the Mission of San Diego de Alcala is no exception, being founded by Franciscan friar Blessed Junipero Serra, who was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in 1988. Father Serra set out in 1767 to found the first of a chain of 21 missions throughout California, and in 1769 the mission settled on its present site.

The existing building dates to the early 19th century, the fifth church on the site after previous buildings were torn down or destroyed by earthquakes. When the present church was restored in 1931, only the facade and bell tower were standing. The interior is therefore largely a re-creation based on historical evidence, but it shows the “naïve” approach to larger artistic trends coming from 18th-century Spain combined with the local adobe tradition. Simple white walls form a stark contrast to the elaborately painted altarpiece, pulpit, wainscoting and statuary.

A visit to the mission is not simply a visit to the church, but to an entire educational and spiritual compound. Visit a re-creation of Father Serra’s room and walk through the formal gardens. Be on the lookout for the fourth-graders of California, however, who come from all over the state as part of their California history studies. You might want to call ahead.