National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

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Editorial Review

It's a chapter in the legacy of the late John Paul II. In 1990 the pontiff designated the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception a "basilica." Although Christians used basilicas as places of worship as early as the fourth century, today the term is reserved for churches a pope declares as such, recognizing their antiquity, dignity, historical importance or significance. Host to more than 500,000 visitors per year, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the largest Catholic church in the Americas, the eighth largest in the world, and a work in progress.

Its story begins in 1913, when founder Thomas J. Shahan, bishop and fourth rector of the Catholic University of America, persuaded the university to donate a portion of campus land for a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Construction on the shrine's crypt began in 1920, aided by a personal contribution of $400 from Pope Pius X and financial support from Catholic groups across the country. The Great Depression and World War II brought progress to a halt . . . for a while. A surge of interest and donations in the 1950s, however, saw the dedication of the upper church in 1959. And construction continues.

Visitors to the 77,500-square-foot byzantine-style shrine should take the time to explore both levels of the church. In all, 70 chapels and sacred images flank the sides of the upper church and crypt. The upper church -- in addition to its many iconic gifts from a variety of countries -- features as its centerpiece one of the largest mosaic renderings of Jesus in the world; "Christ in Majesty" contains nearly 3 million tiles.

The downstairs level of the church houses the tomb of the shrine's founder, Bishop Shahan -- the only individual interred in the church -- as well as archived items from Pope John Paul II's D.C. visit in 1979. (His signature adorns a page of the glass-encased guestbook.)

Follow the lower level's Memorial Hallway to the Romanesque crypt to view its domes, granite arches and mosaic marble floor. Designed to be reminiscent of the meeting places of early Christians in Rome, the softly lit crypt has a freestanding Mary Memorial Altar made of translucent gemstones -- a gift of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae.

Two-hour guided tours are offered Sunday afternoons and twice daily Monday through Saturday. A cafeteria (serving breakfast and lunch), bookstore and gift shop are on the shrine's lower level. A quiet, spiritual time to visit: weekday mornings between masses.

---Jennifer Clay (April 2005)