.- The first Roman Catholic cathedral built in the United States reopened to the public in Baltimore Saturday after undergoing a $32-million restoration over the past two years.
“We, in Baltimore, have the blessing of having a special treasure in our care, in this basilica," Cardinal William Keeler told a crowd of 1,300 gathered outside the 200-year-old church during a special ceremony, after which he reopened the doors of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Cardinal James Francis Stafford was in attendance, representing Pope Benedict XVI. The ceremony launched a week of festivities, which will end Nov. 12 with a procession of more than 200 U.S. bishops.
Cardinal Keeler said what St. Peter's is to the Roman Catholic Church, the cathedral is to the United States, reported The Associated Press. He said Pope John Paul II hailed it as a worldwide symbol of religious freedom.
Though a few cathedrals were built in the British, French, and Spanish controlled territories that now make up the United States, Baltimore’s cathedral was the first constructed in the new country, being built not long after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. The church came to symbolize the acceptance of Catholicism in the young country. Construction began in 1806; it was completed in 1821. Pope Pius XI designated it a basilica in 1937.
Still recovering from a car accident, Cardinal Keeler used a walker to follow five children through the doors of the basilica as the bells tolled. Visitors followed the archbishop inside during the open house Saturday, reported the Baltimore Sun.
During the restoration, workers found the cathedral's cornerstone and uncovered 140-year-old paintings of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on the walls beneath its 87-foot-high dome. Crews also restored 24 skylights in the dome.
Much of the restoration served to return the basilica to more closely match the designs of British-American architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who also designed the U.S. Capitol building.
Funding for the restoration was obtained and managed by the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust Inc.