America’s First Cathedral
by Philip Nielsen, appearing in Volume 17
In America’s First Cathedral, Mary-Cabrini Durkin presents a beautifully illustrated history of the Baltimore diocese’s cathedral from Latrobe’s original designs through its rise as a national symbol of American Catholicism, culminating in years of restoration that have only recently been completed.
The first half of America’s First Cathedral places the cathedral in its historical context, providing a succinct survey of the primary figures involved in its creation, moving from Latrobe and Archbishop John Carroll through James Cardinal Gibbons and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Durkin admirably interweaves the architectural history—including marvelous detail about the construction process—with the histories of the men who played such a profound role in the building and development of the cathedral. As an architectural touchstone for the changing population of American Catholicism, the history of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, MD, illuminates the history of the Catholic Church in America over the past two hundred years. Its historic associations include acting as the site of the Second Provincial Council to establish boundaries for the new and fluid dioceses of the United States and its archbishop, James Cardinal Gibbons, playing an instrumental role in the election of Saint Pius X to the chair of St. Peter. Illustrating the church’s physical and spiritual dimensions, Durkin quotes George Weigel:
“The living stones of this building—the stones which make up its luminous fabric, and the “living stones” that are the countless lives transformed here by God’s grace—are a great … expression, in a cathedral church, of America’s noblest aspiration: to be a people who freely choose what is true and good and beautiful; to be a people who bind themselves to the true, the good, and the beautiful in acts of worship.”
The book’s rich intermingling of cultural and architectural history ensures that the reader, whether well acquainted with architecture or completely ignorant of the field, will find it both interesting and informative.
Having established the importance of the basilica both as a first-class architectural composition as well as a historical font of American Catholicism—which combine to make it a profound precedent for American Catholic church construction—Durkin moves to the fine details of the restoration project. The restoration’s intent seems clear from the first: “to restore the building to the original Benjamin Henry Latrobe design. This will ensure that the building realizes its full potential as a religious and architectural icon of national and international significance.” Even Pope John Paul II placed his imprimatur on the undertaking when he was presented by the trustees with their plans for restoring the cathedral: “I remember well my own visits to the first cathedral of the Catholic Church in America. May God bless the efforts you are now making to restore this historic shrine as a worldwide symbol of religious freedom.” Durkin explains the progression of these efforts to restore Latrobe’s original design, including how the preservation architect discovered on the drum surface original pieces of artwork depicting the four evangelists, covered by a previous renovation.
Through detailed photographs of the undercroft chapel, the exterior and the dome restoration, this section provides clear insight into the process by which the architects and preservationists worked to uncover the original intent of Latrobe’s design. Ultimately, the images of the basilica interior with its before and after images, its delicate coloring and light-filled rotunda, rightfully steal the show in this book, a valuable tribute to the first home of American Catholicism.