Tuesday, September 19, 2017


Baltimore is just 32 miles north of Annapolis, but it's a world away in personality. Where Annapolis has a small town feel, Balitmore, population 620,000+, is definitely a big city. That's even evident in the churches. Baltimore has this humongous, far-from-humble church, not just a cathedral, but a basilica, and well-deserving of the designation. Even its name is haughty: The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (although it is known around town as simply "the Baltimore Basilica").

The Baltimore Basilica claims the title of "America's First Cathedral" because it was the first metropolitan cathedral constructed after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Construction began in 1806 and was finished in 1821. The architect of this Neoclassical church was none other than "The Father of American Architecture," Benjamin Latrobe, who had a hand in designing the U.S. Capitol. In 1937, Pope Pius XI raised the rank and stature of the Cathedral to a Minor Basilica.

Lots of clean, angular lines--none of those layers of saints and pointy Gothic arches here:
The interior is also clean and flooded with natural light, yet there is still a lot of intricacy, perhaps most evident in the ceilings and arched passageways:

The interior of the large central dome looks quite modern:

The two side domes are shallower and decorated with pictures of the Virgin Mary and Christ ascending to Heaven:

The simple altar is made of marble:

There is a classic organ loft:

The pulpit (left) also has very clean lines, unadorned except for that weird red swag. And that throne-ish chair (right) under the canopy? I'm not sure what that is.

We recognized the red and gold baldachin, or umbrella that signifies this church is a basilica, but is that a HAT with tassles hanging from a hook on the wall? Yes indeed. It belonged to Cardinal James Gibbons, who served as Archbishop here from 1877 to 1921 and was ordained a Cardinal in 1886, at which time he was given this red Cardinal's hat by Pope Leo XIII himself. Apparently it is the custom to memorialize a Cardinal by suspending his hat in the Cathedral until the hat disintegrates. This one is almost 100 years old and appears to still be going strong:

Here is the owner of that hat (left), and the first Bishop and Archbishop of Baltimore, John Carroll (right):

Notice anything missing in this Cathedral? NO stained glass windows. Not one. They just aren't part of the Neoclassical design.

There are two famous and very valuable paintings in the Baltimore Basilica, both gifts from the French king Louis XVIII in 1827.  St. Louis Burying His Dead Soldiers by Charles de Steuben shows Louis XVIII's predecessor, Louis IX, Saint and King of France, burying his pestilence-stricken officers and soldiers in Tunis, Africa, in 1270. 

The Descent from the Cross, eerily similar in style, color, and layout to the painting above, is by Pierre Narcisse Guerin and shows Mary, swooning as she holds the body of her dead son, and surrounded by Joseph of Arimethea, Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James:

Famous though those paintings may be, I preferred this bronze by Kris Parmele entitled The Blessing, honoring of visit of Mother Teresa to this Basilica in 1996:

Niches around the Basilica perimeter held live-sized statues of Mary (placed here in 1821 and original to the Cathedral), and of Joseph (I think?) with baby Jesus:

. . . and two other figures I can't identify:

They were nice, but it's really tough to beat a nice pair of angels:

Speaking of angels, check out these cherubs peaking out of the clouds at the very European-looking boy Jesus:

In October 1995, Pope John Paul II knelt in this Basilica, which earned him his own permanent spot in the church. I love his friendly face and that unique staff/crucifix:

We even got to peak into the Sacristy, the room where the clergy put on their vestments for ecclesiastical functions and where liturgical items are stored:
The best part of the Baltimore Basilica, however, is the basement:

During a 32-month restoration project completed in 2006, tons of sand were removed from the basement, and the Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom Chapel, part of Latrobe's original vision for the basement, was created.

Arches and vaults everywhere:

Here is Benjamin Latrobe, the great architect himself, watching over the underground chapel:

One more fascinating, mind-boggling thing in this unique underground chapel is the use of inverted arches as part of the engineering.

One more "finished" room in the basement is used as a kind of Museum of Great People and Events. 

There are memorials to Father Michael J. McGivney (1852-1890), a American Catholic priest who founded the Knights of Columbus, and Mother Mary Lange (1784-1882), a free African-American who established the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a pathway for African-American women to enter into the religious life of the Catholic Church:

That photograph behind Father McGivney's memorial caught my eye. Taken in the early 1900s, it shows Cardinal Gibbons embracing his good friend Teddy Roosevelt, a frequent guest to the Basilica:

A photo of Mother Teresa shows her speaking in the Basilica during her 1996 visit:

The Centennial celebration of the laying of the cornerstone of the Cathedral drew thousands of people:

In 1997 Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I was the first Orthodox Patriarch (like the Pope for the Eastern Orthodox religion) to preach and preside at a Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States. Here he embraces Cardinal William H. Keeler during the service:

Time to head out to other Baltimore sites. Of course, we walked through the Basilica Gift Shop on our way out:

I was tempted--very tempted.


  1. I loved the Baltimore Basilica, the simpleness and the cleanness, the lack of stained glass, very different from the traditional Catholic model.

  2. Those inverted arches are cool. My guess on the two statues are St. Paul and Michael the Arch angel.