No Other Structure: The Baltimore Cathedral’s Central Role in American History

by The Most Rev. William E. Lori, appearing in Volume 41

My dear friends: in 1803, Bishop John Carroll surveyed his diocese—the Diocese of Baltimore. Stretching from Canada to Florida and westward to the Mississippi River, it was a vast new diocese in a vast new country. A republic founded on the proposition that all persons are created equal, and endowed by the creator with fundamental freedoms, among them, freedom of religion. Freedoms  for which over time many would give their lives to defend.

John Carroll knew that his new diocese would need a spiritual center, a cathedral. And so he invited his people to contribute what they could to its design and construction. Specifically, he asked parishioners in his far-flung diocese to contribute $1 annually each December for four consecutive years. And moreover, like a good American, he also instituted a lottery to help pay for this edifice.

Mass for the 200th anniversary of the dedication of the Basilica of the Assumption, May 31, 2021. Photo: Catholic Review/Kevin J. Parks

A Structure Filled with Light

Having secured the hill upon which this basilica sits from Governor John Eager Howard, John Carroll and his trustees set about building a cathedral that would be a beautiful manifestation of the Catholic faith in the spirit of the new republic. He enlisted the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who had designed the Capitol, to design this neo-classical structure. A structure that would be filled with light so as to reflect the light of faith and the light of reason. And yes, the sunlight of authentic freedom.

Archbishop Carroll did not live to see the completion of the project he had so ably begun. It fell to the third archbishop of Baltimore, Ambrose Maréchal, to complete it. With great energy and industry, Archbishop Maréchal did just that. And on this date [May 31] in 1821, he consecrated the nation’s first cathedral, dedicating it first and foremost to the celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

In a pastoral letter issued just before its consecration, Archbishop Maréchal spoke of the grandeur of the Temple in Jerusalem, but added that this cathedral would have a superior grandeur because of the divine mysteries which would be enacted herein. In this place possessing its own worthiness and beauty, “ministers of peace,” he said, “will continue to offer up to heaven under the symbols of bread and wine the same adorable victim, who was once immolated on Mount Calvary for the redemption of mankind.”

“Here,” he said, “the law of the Gospel will be announced to you from the pulpit, pure and holy as it flowed from the lips of the son of God and the apostles.” So too the archbishop spoke of the mercy that would be obtained here, the sins that would be pardoned in this cathedral church, through the sacraments of baptism and penance.

It was in view of this edifice’s sublime and holy ends that the archbishop dedicated it to God, praying that the faithful would receive within these very walls “courage in their temptations, comfort in their afflictions and infirmities, might in their doubts, and all the graces necessary to persevere in the love and the service of God.” So too did he pray that those suffering from spiritual infirmities would return home from this cathedral “made whole, praising and glorifying God.” These most fundamental purposes of this basilica continue in our times. And today we give thanks for the torrent of graces communicated and received within this sacred space.

The Cathedral’s Role

Archbishop Maréchal could not have envisioned fully the role our nation’s first cathedral would play in the history of the Church in the United States. This would be the scene of the seven provincial and three plenary councils of Baltimore, meetings in which the nation’s bishops laid the foundations of the Catholic Church here in the United States and gave it its institutional shape.

No other structure in the United States can claim such a history. And no other church, even to this day, has witnessed the consecration of more bishops than this venerable basilica, which rightly claims the title “America’s first cathedral.”

All of which and more led James Cardinal Gibbons in 1905 famously to declare, “what Mecca is to the Mohammedan, what the Temple of Jerusalem to the Israelite, what Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome is to the faithful of the Church universal, this cathedral is to the American Catholic,” a claim we today reassert.

There are, to be sure, bigger and grander cathedrals across our land. But none are so venerable as this haven of tranquility amid the chaos of modern life. None so noble as this house of prayer, where reigns the peace of Christ in troubled times. Is it any wonder that Cardinal William Henry Keeler, given his love for Baltimore, given his love for this archdiocese and its history, saw fit to restore America’s cathedral to its original beauty and genius so that once again its light could radiate across our land, around the world, and yes, in our souls?

If, my friends, you look up to the lights in the dome above us with its oculus emblazoned with an image of the Holy Spirit, you can easily imagine how strong and solid the foundations of this building must be. Were you to visit its undercroft, you would see four inverted arches, ingeniously designed by Latrobe to support and sustain the massive dome overhead.

Yet the foundations of this basilica are far more solid and deep than that, for as Saint Paul said in our second reading, “no man can lay a foundation other than the one that was there, namely Jesus Christ.” Jesus Christ, the son of God and the son of Mary, our Eucharistic Lord, remains the true and enduring foundation of this cathedral, and it is upon Christ and no other that we must build.

Archbishop Carroll was consecrated a bishop in 1790 in Saint Mary’s Chapel at Lulworth Castle, Dorset, England. Photo: Ladell

The Patroness

And while this cathedral was patterned on classical architecture, especially the Pantheon in Rome and the chapel of Lulworth Castle in Dorset, England, where in 1790, Archbishop Carroll had been consecrated a bishop, nonetheless, this cathedral finds in its patroness, the Blessed Virgin Mary, an even more sublime model and patron for its form, its prayer, and its mission.

Today’s feast of the Visitation manifests Mary as the archetype of this temple. Mary, who in her sinless heart absorbed the living Word of God and believed in it. Mary, who by the power of the Holy Spirit conceived the Word, and in whose virginal womb the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Thus within her body was the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our savior. If, as Saint Paul says, we are all temples of the Lord, even more can it be said of Mary that she is a temple in whom God dwelt.

Or, to use the words of Saint John Paul II, “when at the Visitation Mary bore in her womb the Word made flesh, she became in some way a tabernacle. The first tabernacle in history, in which the son of God, still invisible to human gaze, allowed himself to be adored by Elizabeth, radiating his light, as it were, through the eyes and voice of Mary.”

In the radiant light of this basilica, we feel Mary’s maternal warmth as here we listen to the voice of Christ proclaimed through the scriptures, reenact sacramentally the death and Resurrection of her divine son, receive the Lord’s body, blood, soul, and divinity, and like Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, adore him in the Blessed Sacrament reserved.

From this basilica, there arises Mary’s timeless hymn of praise, “the Lord has done great things for me, holy is his name, his mercy is from one generation to the next.” And like Mary, having received our Lord in our hearts, we too become temples as it were, tabernacles, called to bring Christ outward. Outward no longer to the hill country of Judea, but now to the streets of Baltimore and beyond. Streets where we meet Jesus in his most distressing disguises, as Mother Teresa used to say, “whether in the poor and homeless, or in those who are spiritually impoverished.”

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, patroness of the basilica. Photo:

The Eucharist at the Heart

And so this basilica continues not only to celebrate history but to make history. Just as it has done in the ministry of Monsignor James Hobbs and Father Jeffrey Dauses, in the ministry of Monsignor Arthur Valenzano, who we remember so lovingly, and in Bishop Madden’s devoted care for this parish, and now, in the dedicated ministry of our current rector, Father James Boric.

It is he who had the vision to undertake an initiative known as “source of all hope.” Young women and men, urban missionaries, whose lives are centered on the Eucharist, and who go forth from this basilica to minister to the poor and homeless in our midst, treating them not as a problem to be solved but as human beings endowed by God with inalienable rights, called to friendship with him.

At the heart of this initiative is indeed the Eucharist, and Eucharistic adoration. And with that in mind, today we rejoice to inaugurate for the first time in this historic basilica, and for the first time in this city of Baltimore, perpetual Eucharistic adoration. Under Father Boric’s leadership, a chapel renovated during Monsignor Valenzano’s rectorship has been made even more beautiful with a new and secured tabernacle. And adorers have been identified, hundreds of them, who will come here day and night to adore the Lord and to make of this basilica a true spiritual heart of this city. You can be sure that this will be the source of hope and joy for countless people, many of whom will be unaware that this powerhouse of prayer exists in their midst.

Dear friends, on this solemn and joyous occasion, may we, faithful to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, magnify the greatness of the Lord together with Mary and all the saints. And through Mary’s intercession, may this song of praise resound within these walls and echo far beyond them for hundreds and thousands of years to come. And may God bless us and keep us always in his love.