The historic Baltimore Basilica, built from 1806-1821, was the first great metropolitan cathedral constructed in the United States after the adoption of the Constitution. America’s First Cathedral, officially known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, quickly became a symbol of the country’s newfound religious freedom. Two prominent Americans guided the Basilica’s design and architecture: John Carroll, the country’s first bishop, later Archbishop of Baltimore, and cousin of Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; and Benjamin Henry Latrobe, father of American architecture, and Thomas Jefferson’s Architect of the Capitol. For more than 100 years until the American Revolution, the Catholic Church consisted of a persecuted but devout minority. With the adoption of the new Constitution, Church leaders wanted to build a cathedral to celebrate their newly acquired right to publicly worship. Bishop Carroll eschewed the popular Gothic Revival and adopted the neoclassical (romantic classicism) architecture of the new federal city in Washington. He wanted an architectural symbol for the Catholic Church in this new republic that was uniquely considered “American.”
Learning of Bishop Carroll’s effort, Latrobe volunteered his architectural services. President Jefferson’s insistence on skylights for the U.S. Capitol inspired Latrobe and his design for the Cathedral’s grand dome. The Basilica, which culminated years of architectural refinement by Latrobe, is now considered one of the world’s finest examples of 19th century architecture.
“When the Cathedral was first constructed, the only building that could compete with it in size, scale, and architectural sophistication was the United States Capitol,” said Jack Waite, Principal Architect with John G. Waite Associates, Architects. “Architecturally, it was the most advanced building in the country.”
Situated majestically on a hill above Baltimore Harbor, the historic Basilica was the center of the country’s first archdiocese, from which two-thirds of U.S. Catholic dioceses can trace their heritage. Under its auspices also came a series of other firsts, including the first order of African-American Religious, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, founded by Mother Mary Lange.
Once construction was completed, the Basilica began a distinguished history that continues to this day. In 1829, the First Provincial Council of Baltimore, held at the Basilica, asserted the need for Catholic schools.
Six other Provincial Councils and Three Plenary Councils followed, guiding the Church as the country moved westward, and its Catholic population increased with new immigrants. The First Plenary Council in 1852 extended the legislation of the Seven Provincial Councils to the entire country. Following the American Civil War, the Second Plenary Council in 1866, whose guests included President Andrew Johnson, achieved peace for the Church and called for the evangelization of Native and African-Americans. The Third Plenary Council, the largest meeting of Catholic Bishops held outside of Rome since the Council of Trent (December 13, 1545-December 4, 1563), commissioned the famous Baltimore Catechism, which taught generations of Catholics the basics of their faith. Father Michael J. McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, was ordained at the Basilica in 1877.
In April 1906, the 100th anniversary of the laying of the Cathedral’s cornerstone, was observed with a Pontifical Mass celebrated by James Cardinal Gibbons. Pope Pius XI raised the Cathedral to the rank of a Minor Basilica in 1937; in 1972, it was declared a National Landmark; and in 1993, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops designated the Cathedral a National Shrine. “No other Catholic edifice in America can claim to have seen so much history made inside its walls,” observed George Weigel, acclaimed biographer of Pope John Paul II, and NBC News Vatican analyst. Since 1976, the Basilica has hosted visits by Pope Saint John Paul II, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. Today, it is the focus of a diverse and revitalized neighborhood, the Mount Vernon Cultural District.
In 2001, under the leadership of Cardinal William H. Keeler, 14th Archbishop of Baltimore, the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust launched a campaign to restore the neglected Basilica to Latrobe’s original vision. The restoration included providing public access to the Archbishop’s crypt; the construction of a Chapel in the undercroft; incorporation of the Basilica Museum; handicap accessibility to the entire Basilica; a complete overhaul of the Basilica’s infrastructure; and much, much more.
Today, the Baltimore Basilica, now fully repaired and restored, welcomes new generations to pray and explore, at America’s First Cathedral!