Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

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Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
National and Patronal Church
of the United States of America
Tree-lined entry road leading to the main façade, showing the entry with the great rose window, dome, and bell tower attached to the left of the main structure
Main façade of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Map of the city of Washingotn, D.C. with a red dot on the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Map of the city of Washingotn, D.C. with a red dot on the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Location of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
38°56′0″N 77°0′02″W / 38.93333°N 77.00056°W / 38.93333; -77.00056Coordinates: 38°56′0″N 77°0′02″W / 38.93333°N 77.00056°W / 38.93333; -77.00056
LocationWashington, D.C.
CountryUnited States
TraditionRoman Rite
WebsiteBasilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
StatusMinor basilica, National shrine
DedicationImmaculate Conception
DedicatedNovember 20, 1959
Architect(s)Maginnis & Walsh
Architectural typeBasilica
StyleNeo-Byzantine and Neo-Romanesque
GroundbreakingSeptember 23, 1920
CompletedDecember 8, 2017
Length500 feet (150 m)
Width240 feet (73 m)
Nave width157 feet (48 m)
Height329 feet (100 m)
Dome height (outer)237 feet (72 m)
Dome height (inner)159 feet (48 m)
Dome diameter (outer)108 feet (33 m)
Dome diameter (inner)89 feet (27 m)
ArchdioceseArchdiocese of Washington
RectorMonsignor Walter R. Rossi
Priest(s)Walter R. Rossi
Vito A. Buonanno
Michael D. Weston
Raymond A. Lebrun, OMI
Director of musicDr. Peter Latona
Organist(s)Peter Latona
Benjamin LaPrarie
Andrew Vu
Robert Grogan, Emeritus

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is a Roman Catholic minor basilica and national shrine located in Washington, D.C., United States of America.

The shrine is the largest Catholic church in the United States and in North America[1], and the tallest habitable building in Washington, D.C.[2][3][4] Its construction of Neo-Byzantine architecture began in 1920 with renowned contractor John McShain while the Trinity Dome mosaic marked its completion on December 8, 2017.

The basilica is the national and patronal Catholic Church of the United States,[2] honoring the Immaculate Conception as Patroness, accorded by Pope Pius IX in 1847. Pope Pius XI donated a mosaic rendition of the image in 1923. The shrine has merited several Papal visits namely the following:

The basilica does not have its own parish community, but serves the adjacent Catholic University of America, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and hosts numerous Masses for various organizations of the Church from across the United States. The basilica is not the cathedral church of the Archdiocese of Washington (see Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle).

The rector of the shrine is the Monsignor Walter R. Rossi.


The detail of the grand facade of the shrine

The basilica houses 70 chapels honoring Mary and reflecting the origins of the Catholic immigrants and religious orders whose generosity erected them. Its Greek-styled interior is crowned with numerous domes decorated in mosaics, similar to the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, Italy, but much larger. The mosaics feature American renditions of traditional Catholic images. Artist Jan Henryk De Rosen, who presided over the shrine's iconography committee was also responsible for much of its decor, including composing the large mosaic over the northern apse.

The exterior of the basilica is 500 ft (152 m) long, 240 ft (73 m) wide, and 237 ft (72 m) tall to the top of the cross on the dome.[5] The diameter of the main (Trinity) dome of the basilica is only 7 feet (2 m) smaller than that of the dome of the United States Capitol. The shrine was built in the style of medieval churches, relying on masonry walls and columns in place of structural steel and reinforced concrete. It was designed to hold 10,000 worshipers and includes modern amenities such as a basement cafeteria, hidden public address speakers to carry speech at the altar to the rear of the building, air conditioning and the largest (in 1959) radiant heating slab in the world.[6]

In all, 70 chapels and sacred images flank the sides of the upper church and crypt.[7] It contains many works of art. There are arches outlined with iridescent Pewabic Pottery tile, large ceramic medallions set in the ceiling, and fourteen Stations of the Cross for the crypt.[8]


Patronage of the Immaculate Conception[edit]

In 1792 John Carroll, the bishop of Baltimore and the United States's first Roman Catholic bishop, consecrated the newly created United States under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of The Immaculate Conception. In 1847, the 7th Provincial Councils of Baltimore reiterated this episcopal choice to name the title Virgin Mary, conceived without sin as the principal patroness of the land, which Pope Pius IX formalized on February 7 1847 and was published on July 2, 1847.

Construction (1920—1999)[edit]

Grave of Bishop Shahan, founder of the Shrine

Bishop Thomas Joseph Shahan, the fourth rector of The Catholic University of America in Washington, proposed the construction of a national shrine to commemorate the Immaculate Conception in the country's capital. Bishop Shahan took his appeal to Pope Pius X on August 15, 1913.[9]

Shahan received the pope's enthusiastic support and personal contribution of US$400 ($10,000 adjusted for inflation). Shahan returned to the United States and persuaded the board of trustees of The Catholic University of America to donate land at the southwest corner of the campus for his shrine.

In January 1914, Shahan published the first issue of Salve Regina, a newsletter meant to stir enthusiasm for his project. He wrote that the shrine would be a "monument of love and gratitude, a great hymn in stone as perfect as the art of man can make it and as holy as the intentions of its builders could wish it to be." His newsletter was circulated to dioceses throughout the country and financial donations began to pour into Washington. In 1915, Shahan appointed Father Bernard McKenna of Philadelphia as first director of the national shrine. Shahan oversaw the construction of the shrine until his death on March 9, 1932. His are the only remains interred at the national shrine.

By 1919, Shahan and McKenna chose architectural drawings by the Boston firm of Maginnis & Walsh for construction of the national shrine. Initially, they considered a traditional Neo-Gothic architectural style, but Shahan opted instead for a Byzantine Revival-Romanesque Revival design.[10] Cardinal James Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore, blessed the foundation stone on September 23, 1920. More than 10,000 people attended the Mass, including ambassadors, government officials, and military officers. In 1929, the Great Depression halted the construction above the crypt level. The beginning of American involvement in World War II stalled plans even further.

After the war, in 1953, American bishops under the leadership of John Noll, archbishop ad personam of Fort Wayne, and Patrick O'Boyle, archbishop of Washington, pledged to raise the funds necessary to complete the upper church of the national shrine. On November 20, 1959, thousands of Catholics gathered with the bishops for the dedication of the Great Upper Church.

Since 1968, the Papal Tiara of Pope Paul VI has been on display inside the crypt.[11]

In October 12, 1990, Pope John Paul II raised the national shrine to the status of minor basilica. The papal bull was signed and notarized by Cardinal Agostino Casaroli. It is the 36th designated basilica within the United States.

Completion (2000—2017)[edit]

Interior view of the basilica's choir and sanctuary

In August 2006, work was completed on a mosaic covering the Redemption Dome in the Upper Church. Following its completion in the summer of 2007, the Incarnation Dome was blessed on November 17, 2007.[12] A small chapel on the crypt level honoring Our Lady of La Vang (Vietnam) was completed in 2006.[13]

In 2008, during his apostolic visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI bestowed the Golden Rose upon the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.[14]

In June 2011, a new chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Lebanon was erected within the basilica, commemorating the fidelity of the Maronite Church and its faithful. A mosaic of Saint Maroun and the Crucifixion was copied from the 6th-century Rabboula Maronite manuscript, and was donated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl. The chapel was formally consecrated by Maronite Bishop Gregory J. Mansour on September 23, 2011.[15]

On January 26, 2013, the basilica held a televised thanksgiving Mass and enshrined two first class relics of Americans Catherine Tekakwitha and Marianne Cope, who were both canonized October 20, 2012.[16]

Pope Francis visited the shrine on September 23 2015, and celebrated a Mass for the canonization of Junípero Serra, O.F.M. on the mall of The Catholic University of America. The altar, ambo, and chair used for this Mass match the existing marble in the basilica. After the Mass, the Papal altar was placed in front of the High Altar, and is now used as the altar in the Great Upper Church.[17]

On February 20 2016, the Basilica was the site of the funeral mass of US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at which his son Fr. Paul Scalia was the celebrant.[18]

On December 8, 2017, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the final architectural element was completed with the installation of the 24 tons of Venetian glass in the Trinity Dome, one of the largest Mosaics of its kind in the world. Following installation, the dome was dedicated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl.[19]


  • Walter R. Rossi – rector of the National Shrine
  • Vito A. Buonanno – associate rector and director of pilgrimages
  • Michael D. Weston – associate rector and director of liturgy
  • Raymond A. Lebrun, O.M.I. – spiritual director



Panoramic view from the Catholic University Mall


Panoramic view of the nave
Panoramic view of the apse

See also[edit]


  1. ^ due to Trinity Dome being finished
  2. ^ a b "Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception". National Shrine. Archived from the original on February 3, 2009. Retrieved July 23, 2011.
  3. ^ "The National Shrine". Archived from the original on October 5, 2008. Retrieved July 23, 2011.
  4. ^ The Washington Monument is taller, but is not a habitable building).
  5. ^ "Architectural Style". National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Archived from the original on February 8, 2009. Retrieved March 24, 2009.
  6. ^ "National Catholic Shrine Will be Dedicated Nov. 20". Reading Eagle. United Press International. November 8, 1959. Retrieved July 23, 2011.
  7. ^ Clay, Jennifer (April 2005). "National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on April 20, 2012.
  8. ^ Bruner, Lousie (July 5, 1977). "Historian, Print Specialist Begin Museum Duties". The Blade. Toledo. Retrieved July 23, 2011.
  9. ^ Morgan, David G.; Promey, Sally M. (2001). The Visual Culture of American Religions. University of California Press. p. 76. ISBN 978-0-520-22522-0.
  10. ^ Morgan (2001), p. 79.
  11. ^ Dugan, George (December 1, 1964). "Spellman's Surprise: Pope's Tiara Is Here". The New York Times. Retrieved February 24, 2017.
  12. ^ McLaughlin, Moira (June 23, 2007). "A Work of Art in Many Pieces". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 23, 2011.
  13. ^ Black, Meredith (June 27, 2008). "Vietnamese Catholics Gather at National Shrine to celebrate their faith". Catholic Standard. Washington. Retrieved July 23, 2011.
  14. ^ "Pope, US bishops exchange gifts" (Press release). April 17, 2008. Retrieved July 23, 2011.
  15. ^ Szczepanowski, Richard (September 26, 2011). "New chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Lebanon at national shrine". Catholic Standard.
  16. ^ Sparke, Andy (July 23, 2013). "Native Americans celebrate faith, spirituality at Tekakwitha gathering". The Catholic Sun. Phoenix. Catholic News Service.
  17. ^ Mena, Adelaide (June 8, 2015). "An altar for Pope Francis: CUA students' design to enliven DC Mass". Catholic News Agency. Retrieved September 1, 2018.
  18. ^ Wolf, Richard; Korte, Gregory (February 20, 2016). "At funeral Mass, Justice Scalia eulogized as a man of faith as well as law". USA Today.
  19. ^ Samber, Sharon (December 9, 2017). "After a century, the largest Catholic church in North America is finally complete". USA Today. Retrieved December 10, 2017.

Further reading[edit]

  • Tucker, Gregory W. (February 1, 2000). America's Church: The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Our Sunday Visitor. ISBN 978-0-87973-700-9.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Old Post Office Building (Washington, D.C.)
Tallest Building in Washington, D.C.
Succeeded by