Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

View of the east side of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Basic information
Location 400 Michigan Ave NE
Washington, D.C., United States
Geographic coordinates 38°56′0″N 77°0′02″W / 38.933333°N 77.00056°W / 38.933333; -77.00056Coordinates: 38°56′0″N 77°0′02″W / 38.933333°N 77.00056°W / 38.933333; -77.00056
Affiliation Roman Catholic
District Archdiocese of Washington
Ecclesiastical or organizational status Minor Basilica, National Shrine
Architectural description
Architect(s) Maginnis & Walsh
Architectural type Basilica
Architectural style Neo-Byzantine, Neo-Romanesque
Direction of façade South
Groundbreaking 1920
Completed 1961
Capacity 3,500 sitting, 6,000 total
Length 459 ft (140 m)
Width 240 ft (73 m)
Width (nave) 157 ft (48 m)
Height (max) 329 ft (100 m) (tower)
Dome height (outer) 237 ft (72 m)
Dome height (inner) 159 ft (48 m)
Dome dia. (outer) 108 ft (33 m)
Dome dia. (inner) 89 ft (27 m)[1]

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is a prominent Latin Rite Catholic basilica located in Washington, D.C., honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary as Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the Patroness of the United States. It is the largest Catholic church in the United States, the eighth largest religious structure in the world, and the tallest building in Washington, D.C.[2][3] An estimated one million pilgrims from around the country and the world visit the basilica each year. The basilica is located on Michigan Avenue in the northeast quadrant of Washington, on land donated by The Catholic University of America.

Construction of this church, notable for its Neo-Byzantine architecture, began in 1920 under Philadelphia contractor John McShain and opened unfinished in 1959. The Basilica is the Patronal Catholic Church of the United States, honoring Mary, Mother of God, under the title Immaculate Conception. It is not the cathedral church of the Archdiocese of Washington; the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle serves as church of the Archdiocese. The Basilica is sometimes confused with the Washington National Cathedral.

The Basilica does not have its own parish community, but it serves the adjacent University, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (located down the street), and hosts numerous Masses for organizations of the Church from across the United States.



Exterior view of the basilica from Mary's Garden which is situated to the North West of the Shrine.

The Basilica houses 70 chapels honoring Mary and reflecting the origins of the Catholic immigrants and religious orders whose generosity erected them. Its Greek-styled interior is crowned with numerous domes decorated in mosaics, similar to the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, Italy, but much larger. The mosaics feature American renditions of traditional Catholic images. Artist Jan Henryk De Rosen, who presided over the shrine's iconography committee was also responsible for much of its decor, including composing the large mosaic over the northern apse.

The exterior of the Basilica is 459 ft (140 m) long, 240 ft (73 m) wide, and 237 ft (72 m) tall to the top of the cross on the dome.[1] The diameter of the main (Trinity) dome of the Basilica is only 7 feet (2.1 m) smaller than that of the dome of the United States Capitol. The shrine was built in the style of medieval churches, relying on masonry walls and columns in place of structural steel and reinforced concrete. It was designed to seat over 2,000 worshipers and includes modern amenities such as a basement cafeteria, hidden public address speakers to carry speech at the altar to the rear of the building, air conditioning and the largest (in 1959) radiant heating slab in the world.[4]

Among the many works of art, Pewabic pottery was installed consisting of arches outlined with iridescent Pewabic tile, huge ceramic medallions set in the ceiling, and fourteen Stations of the Cross for the crypt.[5]


Interior view, including the mosaics completed in 2006

In 1792, John Carroll, the bishop of Baltimore and America's first Roman Catholic bishop, consecrated the newly-created United States under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of The Immaculate Conception. In 1847, Pope Pius IX formalized Carroll's acclamation, proclaiming the Immaculate Conception as the Patroness of the United States. In subsequent years, priests imagined an elaborate shrine in honor of their country's patroness.

Bishop Thomas Joseph Shahan, the fourth rector of the Catholic University of America in Washington, proposed the construction of a national shrine to commemorate the Immaculate Conception in the country's capital. Bishop Shahan took his appeal to Pope Pius X on August 15, 1913.[6] Shahan received the pope's enthusiastic support and his personal contribution of $400. Shahan returned to the United States and persuaded the Board of Trustees of the Catholic University of America to donate land at the southwest corner of the campus for his shrine.

In January 1914, Shahan published the first issue of Salve Regina, a newsletter meant to stir enthusiasm for his project. He wrote that the shrine would be a "monument of love and gratitude, a great hymn in stone as perfect as the art of man can make it and as holy as the intentions of its builders could wish it to be." His newsletter was circulated to dioceses throughout the country and financial donations began to pour into Washington. In 1915, Father Bernard McKenna of Philadelphia was appointed by Shahan as first director of the national shrine, bringing the bishop's dream one step closer to reality. Shahan oversaw the construction of the shrine until his death on March 9, 1932. His body is the only one interred at the national shrine.

By 1919, architectural drawings were chosen by Shahan and McKenna for the construction of the national shrine by the Boston firm of Maginnis & Walsh. At first a traditional Gothic architectural style was considered. Bishop Shahan wanted his shrine to be bold and glorious and opted instead for a Byzantine-Romanesque design,[7] very slightly resembling the Hagia Sophia. Cardinal James Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore, blessed the foundation stone on September 23, 1920. More than 10,000 people attended the Mass, including foreign ambassadors, United States government officials, military officers, and other dignitaries. In 1929, the Great Depression halted the construction above the crypt level. The beginning of American involvement in World War II stalled plans even further.

After the war, in 1953, American bishops under the leadership of John Noll, archbishop ad personam of Fort Wayne, and Patrick O'Boyle, archbishop of Washington, pledged to raise the funds necessary to complete the upper church of the national shrine. On November 20, 1959, thousands of Catholics gathered with their bishops for the dedication of the Great Upper Church.

The crypt has displayed the Papal Tiara of Pope Paul VI since 1968. In 1990, Pope John Paul II named the national shrine as the U.S.'s 36th minor basilica.[8] In August 2006, work was completed on a mosaic covering the Redemption Dome in the Upper Church. This is the first new work to be done in many years and was part of the original architectural plans. Following its completion in the summer of 2007, the Incarnation Dome was blessed on November 17, 2007.[9] In 2009, the Catholic University of America held a competition to design the mosaic for the Trinity Dome. The competition was won by three freshmen. Although their design will not be the exact mosaic implemented in the dome, the artist chosen to create it will use the design as a guideline. Plans for the actual mosaic construction have not been announced. A small chapel on the crypt level honoring Our Lady of La Vang (Vietnam) was completed in 2006.[10]

In 2008, during his apostolic pilgrimage to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI bestowed the Golden Rose upon the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.[11]


  • The Reverend Monsignor Walter R. Rossi, Rector
  • The Reverend Vito A. Buonanno, Associate Rector & Director of Pilgrimages
  • The Reverend Michael D. Weston, Associate Rector & Director of Liturgy
  • The Reverend Raymond A. Lebrun, O.M.I., Spiritual Director

See also

Portal icon District of Columbia portal
Portal icon Catholicism portal


  • Gregory W. Tucker, America's Church: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Our Sunday Visitor, 2000; ISBN 13-978-0879737009.


  1. ^ a b "Architectural Style". National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Retrieved March 24, 2009. 
  2. ^ "Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception". National Shrine. Retrieved July 23, 2011. 
  3. ^ "The National Shrine". Retrieved July 23, 2011. 
  4. ^ United Press International (November 8, 1959). "National Catholic Shrine Will be Dedicated Nov. 20". Reading Eagle.,3470625&dq=basilica+of+the+national+shrine+of+the+immaculate+conception&hl=en. Retrieved July 23, 2011. 
  5. ^ Bruner, Lousie (July 5, 1977). "Historian, Print Specialist Begin Museum Duties". Toledo Blade.,5104317&dq=pewabic+tile+shrine&hl=en. Retrieved July 23, 2011. 
  6. ^ Morgan, David & Promey, Sally M., eds. (2001) The Visual Culture of American Religions, p. 76. University of California Press.
  7. ^ Morgan (2001), p. 79.
  8. ^ Riely, Kaitlynn (July 12, 2007). "Lady Bird Johnson, former first lady, dies at 94, Catholic priest at her bedside". Catholic News Service. Retrieved July 23, 2011. 
  9. ^ McLaughlin, Moira (June 23, 2007). "A Work of Art in Many Pieces". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 23, 2011. 
  10. ^ Black, Meredith (June 27, 2008). "Vietnamese Catholics Gather at National Shrine to celebrate their faith". Catholic Standard. Retrieved July 23, 2011. 
  11. ^ Press release (April 17, 2008). "Pope, US bishops exchange gifts". Retrieved July 23, 2011. 

External links

Photo gallery

View of the Apse of the Basilica
View from the Catholic University Mall
Interior view of the Shrine
Founder's Chapel of the Shrine with Bishop Shahan's Tomb
Preceded by
Old Post Office Building (Washington, D.C.)
Tallest Building in Washington, D.C.
Succeeded by

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