Friday, June 2, 2017


Our son was graduating from Columbia University in May 2017, and we decided to expand our trip to his graduation in New York City to include Washington, D.C., which we had both visited (Bob in 1978 and I in 1973 and 1987), but never together. We figured a lot had probably changed since we were there last, and we knew that WE and what we liked to see had certainly changed.

We took a non-stop red-eye flight out of LAX that left at 10:30 PM and arrived at 6:30 AM, and in spite of our lack of sleep, we hit the ground running, which is our M.O. for travel. After picking up a rental car in a painfully slow process at Budget Car Rental (an hour to get a car with only two people in front of us in line), we were off to our first destination: The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

One of the reasons we wanted to see this church is because we recently added "Basilicas" to our list of things to see.  Before I started blogging, we visited these basilicas, and probably quite a few more that I can't remember or identify:
     Notre Dame Cathedral/Basilica in Paris, France
     Cathedral/Basilica of Our Lady of Chartres in Chartres, France
     Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on Montmarte in Paris, France
     Speyer Cathedral/Basilica in Speyer, Germany
     St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Italy
     Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Italy
     Florence Cathedral in Florence, Italy
     Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy
     St. Mark's Cathedral/Basilica in Venice, Italy
     Santa Croce in Florence, Italy
     Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Since I've started keeping a blog of our travels, we have been to these basilicas:
     Hagia Sophia Basilica in Istanbul, Turkey
     Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal, Canada
     Basilica of St. James in Prague, Czech Republic 
     St. Stephen's Basilica, Budapest, Hungary
     St. Kastor Basilica in Koblenz, Germany
     Strasbourg Cathedral/Basilica in Strasbourg, France
     Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile, Alabama
     Memorial Church of Moses, Mount Nebo, Israel
     Church of All Nations/Basilica of the Agony in Jerusalem, Israel
     Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Israel
     Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis
     St. Josaphat's Basilica in Milkwaukee Wisconsin
     Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Castries, St. Lucia
     Cathedral/Basilica of St. John the Baptist in San Juan, Puerto Rico

There are 1,756 basilicas around the world, and I'm sure we won't make it to all of them, but there are only 83 basilicas in the United States, and on a recent trip to the East Coast we checked off four, bringing our US total to seven. We probably won't make it to all of the U.S. basilicas either, but I hope we'll knock off a good percentage of them, and meanwhile this list takes us to places we might not go otherwise.

The first basilica of our trip was this one in Washington, D.C.:

It looks dramatically different from different viewing angles. This is the front, and the main entries doors are those three brown ones in the center:

The tower, a gift from the Knights of Columbus, rises 329 feet and houses a 56-bell carillon:

Built between 1920 and 1959 and designated a basilica in 1990 by Pope John Paul II, this is the largest Catholic church in North America:

My favorite part is the richly colored tiled dome. It is twice the size of the dome on St. Mark's in Venice, and only seven feet smaller than the dome on the U.S. Capitol:

The entry includes many engraved words and specific scriptural scenes rather than just representations of the Saints:

. . . but there are still a lot of saints. The tallest pillars on each side have carvings of Old and New Testament saints and apostles:

The shorter pillars surrounding the entrance are decorated with Biblical scenes:

The interior is quite magnificent, with the dominant color being gold. Here is a photo looking towards the front:

A stern, resurrected Christ stands powerfully behind the main altar:

Looking towards the back:

A zoom-in on the pipe organ and rose window on the back balcony:

And by the way, these are not all tourists who have come to appreciate the basilica. We happened to arrive about an hour before the graduation ceremonies of Catholic University, of which this Basilica is part. We had to rush to try to see it all before commencement.

Gilded domes tiled in brilliant mosaics in the central nave, the transept, and the chapels ringing the perimeter draw eyes irresistably upward:


Many of these domes cap the small chapels around the perimeter:

The marble pulpit declares that "The seed is the word of God":

While there are beautiful stained glass windows, they aren't the primary feature in this cathedral:

The architecture dominates. Side aisles are rich with gold, and arches seem to repeat into infinity:

Seventy chapels dedicated to Mary create a ring around the church and the basement crypt. Many of them reflect the diverse origins of Catholic immigrants to America, one of the features of this basilica that is particularly appealing to me. I took pictures of just about all of them, but I'll try to post just my favorites.

"To Jesus through Mary"--an interesting thought. As members of the LDS church, I think we would say "To God the Father through Jesus Christ, the Great Mediator":

 Our Lady of China--one of my favorites:

Our Lady of Czestochowa is a reproduction of Poland's revered icon, the "Black Madonna":

These next two are also Polish:

It was in this Polish chapel that the Polish pope, John Paul II, prayed during his 1979 visit:

The mosaics are AMAZING:

And so are the carvings:

 Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas:

I wonder who brings fresh flowers to this altar:
An accompanying mosaic border depicting the many cultures of the Americas is one of my favorite mosaics in the church:

 There are intricate mosaics like this everywhere in the Basilica.

These mosaics in the "Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal" depict St. Vincent de Paul, the universal patron of charity:

. . . and St. Louise de Marillac, the patroness of social workers:

A window depicting Christopher Columbus is, appropriately, in the chapel funded by the Knights of Columbus. I love how it is reflected on the wall:

One of my favorite chapels is the "Mary, Queen of Ireland" chapel. The chandelier looks like a cascading waterfall:

 Young mothers everywhere can relate to this simple Mary holding a squirming, slippery child:

The engraved marble reads: "God sent Saint Patrick to bring the faith to Ireland. May Patrick's prayers help missionaries preach Christ everywhere. Christ on my right. Christ on my left."

 He is a little hard to see, but that's St. Patrick superimposed on a map of Ireland:

This is "Our Lady of Pompei":

More exquisite murals. These show Jesus performing his first miracle of turning water into wine under the direction of his mother, and Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist:

The Mount of Transfiguration and . . . ? The Sermon on the Mount? (Note the green mountain shapes under Jesus' feet):

I can't find any clues as to which of these twelve apostles is Judas Iscariot:

The best part of the "Mary Queen of the Most Holy Rosary" Chapel . . . 

. . . is the ceiling:

The wonderfully tender Chapel of Our Mother of Sorrows, Patroness of Slovakia, was a gift of Slovaks living in Canada and the United States:

In addition to the Pieta above, there are six additional sorrows depicted in bas relief sculptures on each side of the chapel, which include on the left: the prophecy of Simeon, the flight into Egypt, and the loss of the child Jesus at a temple in Jerusalem; and on the right: Mary meeting Jesus on the Via Dolorosa, the crucifixion, and the deposition of Jesus' body from the cross:

At first I thought this was a copy of Michelangelo's Pieta, but it is quite different and was sculpted by Frenchman Ernest Morenon. The simplicity is appealing to me, as is Mary's prayerful face:

Our Lady of Siluva from Lithuania:

I wasn't going to include the next two mosaics because they aren't great photos and I don't know what they refer to or what language is in the upper artch, but the background detail is so unique and interesting that they made the cut:

After exploring the main level, we headed downstairs, where there are still more tributes to Mary and other things to see. Here is the Hungarian chapel:

The baptism of Hungary's St. Stephen (A.D. 1000):

St. Stephen gives his crown to the Blessed Virgin Mary:

(See a post about St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest, Hungary, here.)

"Blessed Mother, great old patron of ours, in dire distress does our homeland implore you: Forget not Hungary, our sweet homeland, forget not the Hungarians":

There is a lovely tribute to women (including many Americans) in the central space downstairs, including Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997), who visited this Basilica many times between 1972 and 1995, and Rose Philippine Duchesne, Missouri's Pioneer Saint (1769-1852):

Saint Katharine Drexel of Philadelphia (1858-1955) and Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, aka Lily of the Mohawks (1656-1680):

St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, Patroness of Immigrants (1850-1938), and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, first native-born American to be canonized (1774-1821, beatified in 1963):

While we were busy looking around, THIS was happening--the lining up for the Catholic University graduation procession:

SInce the grads were in the center of the room, we had access to the perimeter. I think this interesting painting shows Christ being pierced with a spear:

This is Our Lady of Lebanon, a painting of the 27-foot-tall cast iron statue of Mary that was erected in Beirut in 1906. According to Wikipedia, the statue is still there. I'd love to see it!

St. Maron, the Syrian Christian hermit who founded the Maronite order of Antioch:

I think this floor mosaic must be one of the Biblical Cedars of Lebanon:

Some of the chapels are actually quite large, such as sthe Mary Memorial Altar, "Representing the Marys of America":

The dominant feature in the basement is the Crypt Church, which was just finishing up a mass when we arrived through its rear door:

This is a later view from the side after the chapel had emptied:

Those circular rooms behind the altar visible in the photo above contain niches dedicated to various saints:

The ceilings, like many other ceilings in this church, are the best part:

The main altar is not too shabby either:

I like this version of stained glass that doesn't have a lot of color, kind of like a pen and ink drawing:

Around the Crypt Church were even more international tributes to Mary, including this very contemporary-looking "Our Lady of Hope" French chapel, which commemorates an appearance of Mary in 1871 to four children in Pontmain, France. An interesting bit of trivia about this chapel is that it was a gift of actor Bob Hope and his wife Dolores in memory of Hope's mother, Avis Townes Hope. "Our Lady of Hope" is an especially appropriate title:

Our Lady of Good Health comes from India:

Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage, aka the Virign of Antipolo, is venerated in the Philippines:

Our Lady of Mariazell comes from Austria. Gotta love those matching crowns:

Our Lady of Ta' Pinell hails from Malta:

The Chapel of Our Lady of Brezje, Patroness of the Slovenes:

I didn't get the origin of these, but they look very Russian to me:

. . . except for that rendering of the Statue of Liberty on the right, of course:

Mary Immaculate, Queen of Missions, is international:

There is lots of shiny gold in the basement, just as there is on the main level:

Candles abound, and the smell of hot wax and flame permeate the air:

I love how Joseph is shielding Mary and Jesus with his cloak:

More candles, and more Marys:

. . . and even a praying angel here and there to add some flavor:

There are some tributes to Mary that are so complicated (especially for a non-Catholic) that I could write a whole post on them. This "Heart of Mary Pray for Us" shrine is one of them:

Suffice it to say that it involves this guy, a Spanish archbishop and confessor of Isabella II of Spain who founded the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, aka the Claretians:

I love this quote from St. Augustine: "His mother carried Him in her womb; let us carry Him in our hearts. She gave birth to the Savior; let us give birth to praises."

Since this basilica specifically honors Mary, there aren't that many references to Jesus, but there are a few. This stained glass door was especially nice:

The basements of most cathedrals/basilicas are crypts, and at first I thought this one had a unique way of expressing that by including everyone's name on the wall who is buried here. But given the number of names, that would be an enormous cemetery, and there isn't really evidence of any tombs, so I suspect that these are contributors to the Basilica's many renovations:

Here is a close-up. The bottom line of most of the entries includes the donor's home city and state:

Every pillar and wall in the central room is covered with names:

This is my favorite tribute in the church (and I'm still amazed that I found it):
Supposedly there is also a dedication to Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, but I didn't stumble across that one.

WHOA! Look who dropped by for a visit! He didn't say  much, but he did pose for a photo with me:

Actually, there is ONE crypt down here in the crypt, Bishop Thomas J. Shahan (1857-1932). He was the rector of Catholic University, a consecrated Bishop, and the founder of this very church:

I like the crucifix that goes with his sarcophagus with its four winsome and wing-ed angels surrounding Jesus:

The good Bishop will be praying for eternity:

There is also a nice tribute to the Popes, past and present.  There is Peter, "The First Pope," on the left, and Pope Saint Pius X (1835-1914), who gave permision to Bishop Shahan to build this Shrine in 1913 and even contributed about $400 towards it, on the right:

But what is especially interesting is the collection of Pope-related artifacts on display. This was Pope Paul VI's (1897-1978) "tiara":

It was given to the Basilica by the current Pope, Pope Francis:

This pulpit (called an "ambo" for the Greek word meaning "both" since it serves as both a lectern and a pulpit, which I always thought were the same thing anyway) doesn't appear to be that exciting, but it was from this very "ambo" that Pope Francis canonized Father Junipero Serro here at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in 2015. It was the first canonization that took place on American soil, so yeah, it's a big deal:

This next artifact is actually a copy of the Pastoral Staff Pope Paul VI had created in 1963 and which Pope Francis used in the canonization of Junipero Serra in 2015:

There are several papal chairs on display, but this is THE chair Pope Francis sat in during his visit in 2015:

There is even a display of the outfits of the Papal Swiss Guard over the years, the men who protect the Pope and Vatican City and stand guard in St. Peter's Square:

By the time we were done checking out the downstairs, our brains were spinning and our tummies were growling.  Lucky for us this cathedral has a cafeteria.  Yep, just like a museum.

Unlike most cafeterias I've been to, however, it also has some lovely stained glass depicting scenes from the life of Christ, including the miracle of water-to-wine at the wedding in Cana:

. . . the miracle of the loaves and the fishes:

. . . the Last Supper (no question who Judas is this time):

. . . and the resurrected Christ (I think, based on the red mark on his right hand) breaking bread with his disciples:

Finally, I couldn't leave without a visit to the large gift shop (so large that it's actually TWO gift shops). It has a lot of interesting things for sale, including this very unique crucifix that depicts the Trinity:

Visiting the Basilica of the Naitonal Shrine of the Immacultae Conception in Washington, D.C. is almost like visiting a church version of a Smithsonian museum. It takes several hours to see everything, there is an overwhelming number of things to take in, and it is a great education. I've never visited another church that is so multi-cultural. It was well worth the several hours we spent there.


  1. I'm amazed you pulled this all together. Lots and lots to include. I think this is the most complicated and complex church we've visited. It is enormous and every nook and cranny is filled with amazing stuff. The amount of Mary memorabilia is mind-boggling. It should be on more peoples itineraries when they visit Washington.

  2. The stern Christ at the main altar was almost enough to prepared me to hate this church, but the ceilings! The mosaics! The Marys! Beautiful.