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A Portrait of America’s Catholic Church

In 1846, the Lowell Courier Journal, a Massachusetts newspaper, wrote of “a magnificent Catholic Church to be built at Washington, D.C.… from the subscriptions of every Catholic Parish in America.”

Decades would pass before construction began on this Catholic monument dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary; it wasn’t until 1920 that the foundation stone was placed for the National Shrine – and not until 1959 that the superstructure was completed. Today, it is known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception a “distinctively American” marvel of architecture and the largest church in North America.

As we celebrate Independence Day this week, we invite you to reflect upon the heritage of the Basilica, its path from conception to completion, and what is means to be “America’s Catholic Church.”

Bishop Thomas ShahanThe Founder of the National Shrine

The name Thomas Shahan may not be familiar to many American Catholics. Yet without Bishop Thomas Shahan, “America’s Catholic Church” would not exist as we know it today. The visionary behind the National Shrine, Bishop Shahan guided it from conception to construction. It was Shahan who first presented a plan for a national church in honor of the Blessed Mother in Washington, D.C. to Pope Pius X in 1913. In response, the Holy Father gave his apostolic blessing and a personal contribution.

Bishop Shahan sought an aesthetic that would reflect the patristic understanding of beauty and eternal truth, and was actively involved in the construction of the National Shrine until his death on March 9, 1932. To this day, Bishop Shahan remains the only person to be interred at the Basilica; his body is three feet directly beneath the sarcophagus in the Ave Maria Chapel, which he himself named.

Basilica SketchThe Architectural Vision of the National Shrine

Some of the earliest ideas for the church envisioned a Gothic cathedral, but as a scholar and historian, Bishop Shahan felt that the contributions of the modern age could not compete with the basilicas of early Christianity and the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. He envisioned a style combining the symmetry and eloquence of the ancient basilica (Romanesque) with the mystical language of the mosaic and the triumph of the dome (Byzantine).

Architects ultimately settled on this Romanesque-Byzantine fusion in order to create an original design that was “sunk in tradition yet distinctively American.” The Romanesque-Byzantine style was also chosen to be distinct from the Washington National Cathedral, the Gothic Episcopalian cathedral whose construction was underway at the time.

Pope Francis at the Basilica The Basilica’s Mission and Role in American Catholicism

The Basilica has been at the center of many monumental moments for American Catholicism. Pope FrancisPope Benedict XVISaint Pope John Paul II, and Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta, among others, have visited the Basilica. And in 2015, Pope Francis presided over the first canonization ever to take place on American soil, that of Saint Junípero Serra in an outdoor Mass.

The Basilica is the nation’s preeminent Marian Shrine, dedicated to the patroness of the United States—the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title of the Immaculate Conception. As a place of worship, pilgrimage, evangelization, and reconciliation, this National Shrine offers the occasion for one’s deepening conversion, a step forward in the journey to God, with Mary as a model for that journey. It is here at Mary’s Shrine that pilgrims and visitors may encounter Christ through the Word, the Sacraments, popular Devotions, and His Blessed Mother.

Basilica aerial The National Shrine Today

Not only is the Basilica the largest Roman Catholic church in North America – it is also among the ten largest churches in the world. It contains the world’s largest collection of contemporary ecclesiastical art and is constructed entirely of stone, brick, tile and mortar—without structural steel beams, framework or columns. Today, the completed structure is comprised of 11.5 million bricks and 10,000 cubic yards of concrete, and new mosaics are continually added year after year. Nearly 1 million visitors come annually to see the 80+ chapels and oratories relating to the Blessed Mother and peoples from countries around the world.

The Basilica is proud to honor the United States’ rich heritage as the great melting pot with art and architecture representing peoples from every corner of the globe. As Saint Pope John Paul II remarked during his 1979 visit: 

“This Shrine speaks to us with the voice of all America, with the voice of all the sons and daughters of America, who have come here from the various countries… When they came, they brought with them in their hearts the same love for the Mother of God that was characteristic of their ancestors and of themselves in their native lands. These people, speaking different languages, coming from different backgrounds of history and traditions in their own countries, came together around the heart of a Mother they all had in common.”

Learn more fun facts about America’s Catholic Church in our post “10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Basilica.”


Rohling, Geraldine M., PhD, MAEd. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception: Guide and Tour BookWashington, D.C.: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, 2018.

Rohling, Geraldine M., PhD, MAEd. Jubilee 2009: A Photographic History of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

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