Through donations to the National Shine, American Catholics help build their church
Dec. 15, 2017
US & World
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington is often affectionately referred to as “America’s Catholic Church,” because it was envisioned as a gift from all American Catholics to display the country’s many cultures and their devotion to Mary. The shrine is dedicated to the Blessed Mother under her title of the Immaculate Conception, whom Pope Pius IX declared the “Patroness of the United States” in 1847.
The National Shrine is neither a cathedral nor a parish, meaning it does not belong to any particular bishop or parishioners. Instead, it is a spiritual home for the more than one million visitors from across the United States and around the world who visit the basilica every year. Throughout the past century, American Catholics have helped build that spiritual home through their generous donations.
The basilica’s visitors come from all different backgrounds, and the diversity of the country is reflected in the basilica’s 80 chapels that are each sponsored by different ethnic and religious communities. Those chapels are each dedicated to an image of Mary, such as Our Lady of Czestochowa from Poland, Our Lady of China, Our Mother of Africa, and Our Lady of Guadalupe from Mexico. Many of the fundraising efforts that have gone into the completion of the shrine have been tied to ways to honor Mary.
In the very beginning years of the shrine, Mary Downes, a schoolgirl from Indiana, came up with an idea to ask Marys from around the country to make a special contribution to “Mary’s Shrine.” Her idea was accepted and used by Bishop Thomas Shahan, the then-rector of The Catholic University of America and the founder of the National Shrine. In 1921, Clara Sheeran, the co-founder of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae, sent out a note to their members, urging that every woman named Mary (or Miriam, Maura, Marie, etc.) make a contribution of $1 toward the altar.
Marys from across the United States responded to this request, and now all of their 30,000 names are sealed inside of that altar, made of gold Algerian onyx and Roman Tavertine marble. The Mary Memorial Altar was formally presented to the shrine in 1928 and still stands in the Crypt Church today.
On the crypt level of the shrine, Memorial Hall holds Travertine marble tablets and black marble walls that have inscriptions of the names of benefactors and people whom they wished to memorialize. The inscriptions include Baltimore Archbishop John Carroll, S.J., who in 1789 became the first Catholic bishop of the new Unitd States of America and founded Georgetown University, the nation’s first Catholic college; St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who played a pioneering role in helping to begin the nation’s system of Catholic schools; George Herman “Babe” Ruth, the famous home run hitter for the New York Yankees; and Knute Rockne, the legendary former head football coach of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.
In 1953-54, the centenary of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the National Shrine held a national collection inviting Catholics across the country to donate to help complete the building of its Great Upper Church, which today houses the main sanctuary of the basilica.
This past Mother’s Day, the National Shrine had another national collection to raise funds to complete the Trinity Dome Mosaic. On May 14, 2017, Catholics around the United States who were attending Mass in parishes small and large, urban and rural, old and new, were all invited to contribute to the final piece of their National Shrine.
Those who accepted the invitation to donate toward the completion of the Trinity Dome Mosaic are remembered in a window sill beneath one of the Trinity Dome windows, with an inscription on the mosaic that reads, “Please pray for the benefactors of the Trinity Dome.” The message is located underneath a stained glass window depicting a Hebrew scroll, three windows to the left of Mary.
Like each of the almost 15 million pieces of Venetian glass that make up the new Trinity Dome Mosaic, each of those Catholics who donated to the National Shrine play an important role in the bigger picture of the basilica. Because of them, “America’s Catholic Church” can continue to be a place where the diverse nation gathers for pilgrimage and prayer in the middle of the nation’s capital.
The latest local and global Catholic news delivered to your inbox.