Creating a Family Album

The American Catholic Monument

America’s Church:  The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

by Gregory W. Tucker
2000 Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., Huntington, IN, 287 pages, $39.95
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At first glance, Gregory W. Tucker’s America’s Church: The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception might seem to be yet another attractive religious shrine commemorative volume destined to take its place in that inexorably horizontal, closed position where picture book meets coffee table. But both the National Shrine and Tucker’s volume, which lovingly recounts its history, are indeed well worth our more sustained attention.

Although there are hints from the time of the meeting of American bishops at the Sixth Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1846 that a “magnificent Catholic church” should be built in Washington, D.C. and dedicated to the honor of “Mary Immaculate, Patroness of the Americas,” the National Shrine was originally conceived at the end of the nineteenth century to serve as a “University Chapel” for the growing academic population of The Catholic University of America. The Shrine’s founder, Rev. Thomas Shahan (first as University Rector and later as Bishop), additionally wished Catholic University to be a center for meetings of America’s bishops and for the plethora of Catholic religious orders and lay organizations that aspired to have a presence in the nation’s capital. As early as 1891, Shahan’s architectural vision was of a glorious basilica to the Blessed Virgin “around which would one day center the great edifices of a new Catholic Oxford.”

America’s Church traces chronologically the tortuous, century-long path from Shahan’s dream to the reality of the National Shrine as the largest Catholic church in the Western Hemisphere. Tucker’s narrative of the Basilica’s design and construction is so fascinating because it also simultaneously describes the shared yet shifting priorities of generations of American Catholics spanning the decades of the twentieth century.

Initially proposed in 1915 as a church in the fourteenth century French Gothic style, the National Shrine was intended to give form in stone to the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, promulgated by Bl. Pius IX in 1854, and to express the ability of American Catholic immigrants to replicate the “delicate tracery and lofty proportions” of some of the venerable Marian cathedrals of Europe.

Eventually an Irish immigrant, Charles Donagh Maginnis of the respected Boston firm of Maginnis and Walsh, was chosen as the Shrine’s chief architect. Maginnis opted for the Byzantine-Romanesque style, in part as a counterpoint to the Gothic design of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul (popularly known as the Washington National Cathedral), whose construction across town had recently commenced in 1907. According to Tucker, Maginnis sought a style more amenable to a “contemporary, uniquely American interpretation,” yet one that “clearly articulated the ‘divine presence,’ one that bore witness to the aspirations of a ‘nation under God.’” Critiquing the iconoclastic principles of modernism in architecture, Maginnis wrote: “I am completely disconcerted when I encounter the aggressive modernist with the conscience of a Puritan or a Trappist monk who refuses to make a sinful compromise with beauty.”

Due to the outbreak of World War I and later of the Great Depression, progress on the National Shrine was slow and fitful. The ceremonies and fundraising surrounding the laying of its cornerstone in 1920 characterized the Shrine as a “war memorial.” A more winsome appeal to ten thousand “Marys of America” paid for the golden onyx altar of the crypt church, which was completed in 1924. Nonetheless, the nation’s perilous economic circumstances throughout the 1930’s and the seemingly endless disagreements concerning the Shrine’s relation to Catholic University and to the financial support of the bishops of the United States threatened the future of the entire project. Tucker conveys well how ambitious building projects, even ones with the noblest spiritual aims informed by faith, can be faced with the prospect of death by ten thousand doubts.

And yet Tucker also highlights the crucial importance of prophetic individuals, raised up in the darkest hour, whose faith succeeds in rallying the multitudes to push forward toward the goal. Throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, for example, the heroic efforts of men like Bishop John F. Noll of the Diocese of Ft. Wayne (founder of Our Sunday Visitor) and Bishop Fulton Sheen re-catalyzed interest in continuing construction of the National Shrine, particularly as an appeal to (and eventual thanksgiving for) Our Lady’s intercession in overcoming the respective threats of Nazism and Communism. Commending Marian devotion as the most efficacious weapon against the latter, Sheen declared dramatically in a televised fundraising broadcast from the Shrine: “Thirty-seven out of 100 people in the world today are beaten by that hammer and cut by that sickle. There is danger that we might be engulfed by these barbarians. . . . If there be this evil thing marching through the world, it is fitting that we make some sacrifice in order to affirm our love of God and to invoke the assistance of the woman whom God said would overcome the Red Serpent! . . . Through these sacrifices we will pile under the architecture of divine love stone upon stone until it all cries out in praise to God and in truth that we love the woman whom God chose—-His mother—-and yours.” American Catholics in response donated millions of dollars for “stone upon stone” to be added to complete the National Shrine (no wood or reinforced steel, incidentally, was used in its construction).

In the 1950’s Eugene F. Kennedy, Jr. assumed the role of chief architect of the Basilica. He was assisted by an “iconography committee,” led by John De Rosen, charged with articulating a theologically and artistically coherent program for the variety of sacred art on both the building’s interior and exterior. De Rosen is the artist responsible for the mosaic of Christ Pantocrator, which dominates the Shrine’s north apse. (De Rosen sought a more modern interpretation of the great mosaic of Christ in the apse of the Cathedral of Monreale, which Tucker mistakenly locates in Canada rather than Sicily.)

Tucker’s chronological narrative communicates well the progressive realization over the next decades (even to the present) of the National Shrine’s myriad sculptural and mosaic works based on a wide array of biblical and patristic themes. But unfortunately his text does not provide even elementary diagrams, which might graphically illustrate for the reader De Rosen’s programmatic vision of the iconographic whole in all of its carefully negotiated specificity. Instead the reader is offered suggestive representative examples of sacred art scattered throughout the Shrine, sometimes frustratingly incomplete and visually and theologically under-contextualized.

Even a cursory examination of the images in America’s Church reveals that there are as many photos of persons and events associated with the National Shrine as there are images of its sacred art and architecture. That the author of this history is the former communications director for the Basilica might partially account for this emphasis. But one quickly realizes that Tucker is aiming to represent the “living stones” who for generations have allowed themselves, as the First Epistle of Peter admonishes, to “be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pt 2:5). In this sense, America’s Church is more like a family album of the spiritual household than an exhaustive theological guidebook for prospective pilgrims to the Basilica.

In creating a family album, Tucker intersperses throughout the principal narrative of the book, much like apsidal chapels radiating from the center of the Shrine, many sidebar descriptions of noteworthy figures who have shared in the Basilica’s history: Popes and Presidents, Shrine Directors and influential Catholic laity. These figures are not tangential to understanding the edifice; they are its essence, for a church exists so that people may come to pray to God. In a suggestive example, Tucker recounts how Dorothy Day came to the crypt church of the Shrine to pray in 1930, when she was a reporter covering socialist demonstrations in Washington. There, providentially on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Day offered up what she would later call “a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and with anguish that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.” In considering the countless pilgrims like Day who journey regularly to churches to make “a special prayer” touching on the destiny of their lives, one is reminded of the grave responsibility of church architects and artists to place their imaginations and labors at the service of the Church’s prayer.

In homage to Maginnis, Kennedy, De Rosen, and the countless others who contributed to the design and construction of the National Shrine, I must conclude by adding to Tucker’s tribute my own personal testimony. In the late 1990’s, I was doing graduate studies at the John Paul II Institute, across the street from the Basilica. Each day I would attend Mass in the lower crypt church, praying like Dorothy Day “with tears and with anguish” that the Lord would show me what he wished me to do with my life. I had been discerning a priestly vocation for many months, and one June day my spiritual director made it clear that I should apply to the seminary. We decided that the Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend, where I had lived most of my adult life, was the most appropriate place to begin.

But before phoning Bishop John D’Arcy (one of whose predecessors was Bishop Noll of Ft. Wayne), I thought it would be good first to say “a special prayer” of thanksgiving to God at the Shrine for showing me the next step toward my mission. Approaching the Basilica, I was so lost in thought that when I arrived I walked up the steps to the upper church in a daze, finally stopping before the far left outside door of the east transept. Thinking to myself how odd it was that I took this unusual route, I glanced up and saw for the first time—-written in enormous letters over the door—-the inscription, Behold Your Vocation.

Stunned and more than a little amused that the Almighty would literally show me the handwriting on the wall, I began to laugh until I noticed the mosaic lunette immediately above the inscription. It depicted a priest in a canoe, Fr. Stephen Badin, the first priest ordained in the United States of America, in 1793. (Tucker’s text mentions Fr. Demetrius Gallitzin as the first priest ordained in the United States; Fr. Gallitzin was ordained in 1795, the first to receive all the degrees of Holy Orders in the United States.) Fr. Badin traveled the territory that now includes the Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend and is buried in the log chapel at the University of Notre Dame, on the very land he donated for the founding of my alma mater in 1842. My laughter turned to awe and, eventually, to my ordination to the Priesthood for the Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend.

In each of my six years as a Priest, I have made the pilgrimage back to the National Shrine with many of my high school students for the Vigil Mass for Life during the annual March for Life, certainly the largest annual gathering of Catholics in the United States. The pilgrim throngs converge on a place where stones literally speak, and where the worshipping community is palpably larger than the visibly gathered assembly because the latter is surrounded on all sides by representations of the angels and saints. In the Basilica’s sacred art and architecture, the newest generation of believers is catechized and seekers evangelized into the mysteries of the whole economy of salvation. George Tucker’s America’s Church is a beautiful and worthy invitation for the future priests and lay leaders, artists and architects of the New Evangelization to behold their vocation.