Washington DC, US
Religion Unplugged

Washington, DC, is loaded with tourist sights. From the White House to the Lincoln Memorial, the city is rich in architecture and history. What the US capitol also has is many churches. St John’s Episcopal Church, across the street from the White House, dates back to 1816. Georgetown Presbyterian Church, a congregation that formed in 1780, has been housed in its current building since 1871. Washington National Cathedral, host to many important memorial services and celebrations, was officially completed in 1990 following 83 years of construction.  

The largest house of worship, however, is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It isn’t only the largest in the Washington, but in all of the United States. The basilica’s interior measures 129,910 square feet and built in the style of a medieval church. Construction of the Byzantine and Romanesque Revival architecture began on 23rd September, 1920, and was officially completed on 8th December, 2017, following the dedication of the Trinity Dome mosaic.

US Washington DC Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

The main altar of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, decorated for the Christmas season. PICTURE: Courtesy of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Creative Commons image.

The basilica - featuring an astounding 81 Marian chapels - is considered the national Catholic church of the United States and honors the Immaculate Conception as its patroness, a designation given to this country by the Vatican in 1847. As a result, Pope Pius XI donated a mosaic of the image in 1923, one of many that would eventually adorn the building.  

The basilica has also hosted three popes: Saint John Paul II on 12th October, 1990, Benedict XVI on 16th April, 2008 and Francis on 23rd September, 2015. Although it does not have its own parish community, the basilica serves the nearby Catholic University of America and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The basilica is also not considered a cathedral because it is not the seat of the Archdiocese of Washington. That honour is reserved to the Cathedral of St Matthew the Apostle.

“The shrine speaks to us with the voice of all America, with the voice of all the sons and daughters of America, who have come here from various countries of the Old World,” Pope John Paul II said of the basilica. “When they came, they brought with them in their hearts the same love of the Mother of God that was characteristic of their ancestors and of themselves in their native lands. These people speaking different languages, coming from different backgrounds of history and traditions in their own countries, came together around the heart of a mother they all had in common.” 

Aside from its rich history and architectural majesty, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception may very well be one of the most under-appreciated places to visit in Washington. In a city dominated by so many architectural wonders connected to politics, it’s easy to neglect that Washington also has a very large Roman Catholic presence in the form of this church. With Joe Biden just the second Catholic to be elected president in US history after John F Kennedy, now is a good time to rediscover the basilica.

One of the basilica’s greatest features is its dome. In fact, this is a place where one can’t help but look up in awe at its splendor. The dedication of the Trinity Dome mosaic marked the basilica’s official completion. Described by many as the crowning jewel of American Catholicism, the mosaic depicts the Holy Trinity in addition to the Virgin Mary, a procession of saints and the four evangelists encircled by the Nicene Creed.

The basilica, located at 400 Michigan Avenue NE, attracts over a million visitors each year - although the pandemic has limited the number of pilgrims since last March given the travel restrictions. The basilica’s capacity has been limited to 250 people at a time since June in accordance to heath guidelines. Guided tours, a great way to learn about this massive structure, have been put on hold due to the coronavirus. Those interested in taking a virtual tour can do so via the basilica’s website. It’s a great way to learn about the place as a way to prepare for a potential future visit.

US Washington DC The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. PICTURE: NCinDC (licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

For those who do want to travel to the basilica at this time or just sick of attending their local church via Zoom, it is currently open every day from 7:30am to 5pm. Daily Mass is celebrated Monday through Saturday in the crypt church (located on the lower level) at 8am and at 12:10pm. Mass on Sunday in the upper church takes place at 4:30pm. The crypt church, where it is common for visitors to recite the rosary, was completed in 1926, one of the first places where Mass was conducted. The gift shop is also open at this time.

At the centre of the lower level is Memorial Hall, which features 14,400 marble and granite tablets inscribed with the names of benefactors who contributed to the basilica’s construction over the decades. The basilica is a wonderful way to learn about the church’s history and traditions in this country. Whether one is Catholic looking to connect with their faith or a curious tourist interested in art and sacred spaces, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is proof you don’t need to fly to Europe to see amazing Christian art.

To plan your visit to the Basilica of the National Shrine, visit www.nationalshrine.org.

Clemente Lisi is a senior editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the former deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.