Claiming Civic Space

On a hill in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast Washington, D.C., on the campus of Catholic University, stands the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. To the task of writing the Shrine’s history, Thomas Tweed brings all the methodological resources of contemporary religious studies, from material history and ethnography to old-fashioned work with archives and census records.

The story of the Shrine begins in the mind of its “chief source of inspiration” (29), Bishop Thomas J. Shahan, a patristic scholar and rector of Catholic University. In a 1913 audience, Shahan gained Pope Pius X’s approval. Cardinal Gibbons laid the foundation stone in 1920. By 1931 the Shrine’s lower level with the Crypt Church and its Mary altar was completed. The Great Depression and World War II stalled progress on the building. Some denounced it as a “Hall of Disappointment” or “shapeless bit of masonry” (42–43). The Marian year of 1954 provided impetus, and in 1959 the building was finally dedicated.

Tweed names the period from 1913 to 1959 an age of consolidation characterized by what he aptly describes as a “triumphalist Americanism” and a “selective counter-modernism.” He organizes the book’s six chapters around six “clerical aims” characteristic of the age and a corresponding piece of material culture associated with each aim: institution building (the 1920 foundation stone), mobilizing women (the Mary altar), engaging children (a comic book image from Treasure Chest), contesting Protestants (the Crypt Church), claiming civic space (the Great Dome), and incorporating immigrants (the chapel to Our Lady of Antipolo in the Philippines). Though these are “clerical” aims, Tweed shows that the Shrine is not “just about bishops.” With the exception of absent African Americans and Amerindians, he explores the presence and agency of the Shrine’s donors and users, as well as its makers. Tweed highlights the shared devotion to Mary that united its diverse constituents and made the Shrine work, a fact that easily slipped from view in the polarized age of fragmentation that followed the 1960s.

Though not as large as Saint Peter’s in Rome or the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, the Shrine is a massive building, “the largest Roman Catholic worship space in North America and one of the ten largest churches in the world” (23). At 459 feet, the Shrine is not as long as Washington National Cathedral, located in a more fashionable Northwest Washington neighborhood, but the combined square footage of the upper and lower churches is larger (289n1). The design of the lower level and especially of the Crypt Church expressed Shahan’s intent to replicate the feel and the religious art of the recently excavated Roman catacombs, and thereby to “transport visitors to the narrow subterranean burial chambers of Rome” (150), with their sense of God’s closeness. Ceramic artist Mary Chase Stratton modeled the ceramic art of the Crypt Church on catacomb art, especially representations of Mary.

The Shrine’s Byzantine-Romanesque style contrasts with the Gothic of the Washington National Cathedral. Its distinguishing architectural features are the imposing 329-foot tower, donated by the Knights of Columbus, and, in the words of a Washington Post reporter Tweed quotes, a “brilliant multi-colored dome … high on its northeast hill” (189). Though the tower falls short of the 555-foot Washington Monument, its elevated location makes it, along with the polychromatic dome set atop the crossing of the nave and the transepts, visible from all over the city of Washington. The dome parallels Saint Mark’s in Venice, a Byzantine basilica in turn modeled on Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It both evokes the style of the U.S. Capitol (within sight at the southern end of North Capitol Street) and distinguishes the Shrine from the National Cathedral. Over the years, the Shrine’s distinctive features have largely achieved its makers’ aim of claiming civic space and becoming a landmark in the capital city.

Based on years of research and Tweed’s dazzling, interdisciplinary methodological sophistication, America’s Church is a landmark study that deserves to be widely read by specialists in architecture and American religious history, as well as by people who simply want to learn about Mary’s shrine in Washington.

William L. Portier serves as the Mary Ann Spearin Chair of Catholic Theology in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Dayton.  His most recent book is Divided Friends, Portraits of the Roman Catholic Modernist Crisis in the United States (CUA Press, 2013).