10 surprising facts of America’s first cathedral in Baltimore

Baltimore basilica Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in Baltimore, Maryland. | Ritu Menoj Jethani/Shutterstock

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, the first cathedral built in the United States, is turning 200 years old on May 31. Below are 10 facts that make this landmark one of the most emblematic places in Catholic America:

·       Its architect, Benjamin H. Latrobe, was the most important architect at the time of its construction, having helped designed the U.S. Capitol. Upon the request of Bishop John Carroll, Latrobe presented two different plans for the cathedral.

·       Bishop Carroll chose Latrobe’s neoclassical architectural plan over a Gothic alternative, because he wanted to convey the message that the Catholic Church was a forward-thinking institution that would stay and participate in the building of America. 

·       Thomas Jefferson himself mediated in a difference of opinion between Bishop Carroll and Latrobe - two men who had a very collaborative relationship overall. Jefferson's proposal, inspired by his visit to Paris, was finally incorporated in the cathedral: a wooden double-shell sky-lit dome.

·       The cathedral hosted key events in the expansion of Catholicism in the United States. During plenary councils at the basilica in the 1800s, the Baltimore Catechism was commissioned, and the American Catholic school system was also planned there.

·       Blessed Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, was ordained at the basilica on Dec. 22, 1877.

·       The first ordination of an African-American priest on U.S. soil, Charles Randolph Uncles, SSJ (Nov. 8, 1859 — July 20, 1933), took place at the basilica in 1891.

·       More than 30 bishops assigned to dioceses across the United States were ordained at the basilica.

·       Nine of the fourteen deceased archbishops of Baltimore have been laid to rest in the basilica's historic crypt. The crypt is located beneath the main altar, next to the Our Lady Seat of Wisdom chapel, and is accessible to the public.

·       Between Nov. 2004 and Nov. 2006, the cathedral underwent a massive 32-month long restoration financed with private funds. It reopened in time for the 2006 USCCB meeting, which was held in Baltimore to mark the occasion.

·       An earthquake that shocked the East Coast on Aug. 23, 2011, generated about 1,000 linear feet of cracks in the basilica’s structure. A seven-month, $3 million restoration was completed on Easter Sunday 2012.


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