Maryland is a land of firsts. This land produced the world’s first telegraph line, the first performance of our nation anthem, and–shockingly–America’s first cathedral.
Places of worship dominate the American landscape, and so it is curious that such a small state would house the country’s first cathedral. The reason is all down to history. Maryland was founded by aristocrats interested in creating a haven for persecuted English Roman Catholics, and from then on Maryland has maintained close ties with the Catholic Church.
Those close ties were recognized in 1789 when the Pope created the Diocese of Baltimore. It was the first diocese of the new United States, and Marylander John Carroll was the first US bishop.
Carroll wanted a cathedral to go along with his new diocese. Working with the architect of the US Capitol, he devised a church that would look distinctly American. They opted for neoclassical architecture resembling the new buildings in Washington, DC, rather than the centuries-old buildings of Europe.
Construction of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Baltimore Basilica, began in 1806. By its completion in 1821, Baltimore had been elevated to Archdiocese and was now the premiere see of the Catholic Church in the US.
The basilica is in a regal part of town. A few blocks to the north is the Walters Art Museum; to the west, the historic Enoch Pratt Free Library; to the south, a psychic for hire.
Regarded as one of the top Catholic pilgrimage sites in the US, the basilica welcomes thousands of visitors each year.
The adjacent gift store capitalizes on this religious interest.
There aren’t many tourists when I visit. The 8 AM mass is just wrapping up, and a few men in nice suits are filtering through the thin crowd with collection plates on long wooden handles. There are almost more checks than people.
The nave is surprisingly bright and airy, so unlike the gothic European structures that the Baltimore Basilica architects purposefully eschewed.
High above, the dome’s etchings are reminiscent of Rome’s Pantheon. It’s a false skylight, though, and a new coat of paint gives the space a childlike quality. This part of the building feels ten years old, not more than one hundred.
Down in its underbelly, the basilica gets much more interesting.
The undercroft is dimly lit. Buttressing arches seem to recede to the horizon. Every sound echoes. The ending hymn resonates from the nave above, vibrating through the dark chambers and rattling the mortar.
Posters outline the cathedral’s history, its complete restoration in 2006, the damage it sustained in the same 2011 earthquake that cracked the Washington Monument. In the near darkness I can see vibration sensors on some of the more-worrying structural fissures.
The new crypt is a brightly lit beacon at the end of the undercroft. The vault is all sterile white marble, not in any way the image of what a crypt should be. I don’t even bother to take a picture of it.
The old crypt, on the other hand, is the very definition of a tomb. Dark and dingy, with long, heavy shadows in which any sort of nefarious creature could hide.
I find myself lamenting that renovations took away so much of the basilica’s character. The new paint, the bright tombs–they mute the wonderful history of the building.
As I leave the dark, echoing underbelly, I see another visitor, camera in one hand, self-guided walking map in the other. We nod knowingly at one another. The undercroft is where it’s at.
Climbing the stairs back to the nave, I think of all the European churches I’ve seen. The undercroft is definitely more in line with those historic buildings, all dust and mood. The nave, meanwhile, is bright and new and, well, American.
But, in the end, it’s fitting that our first cathedral should look toward the future rather than to the past. The neoclassical architecture, the updated renovations, even the on-site gift shop all signal a modern side to the Catholic Church, a new direction for a two-thousand-year-old institution.
It’s no wonder that the last Pope to visit the basilica was the fairly liberal John Paul II. Pope Francis surely can’t be far behind him.
If You Go
The basilica and gift shop are open seven days a week. There are guided tours at 9 AM, 11 AM, and 1 PM Monday-Saturday and at noon on Sunday. Maps for self-guided tours are available on a table inside the nave. Parking in this part of town can be expensive; go on a Sunday for free street parking.