I first became aware of Baltimore’s “Old Cathedral” in September 1957, when I began first grade at the Cathedral School, then at 7 W. Mulberry St.
Months later, the entire school was marched across the street to pray the rosary inside what we now know as the Basilica of the Assumption; a fire had broken out at the Fallon & Helen furniture store a few doors away, and it was feared that it might take the school and its adjacent convent with it.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and my further childhood encounters with the Old Cathedral were more conventional: First Holy Communion in May 1959, followed by that staple of 1950s Catholic piety, the May procession; First Friday masses throughout the school year.
The Cathedral School moved up Charles Street when the new Cathedral of Mary Our Queen began operations. But those first memories of the Old Cathedral never left me, and they planted the seed of an idea that I now know to be the simple fact of the matter: that building at Charles and Mulberry is the most historic Catholic church in the United States and one of the most important religious structures in the country.
As we observe the 200th anniversary today of the laying of its cornerstone, it’s good to ask ourselves why that’s the case.
Some of it has to do with what happened in the Old Cathedral.
It was where the Catholic bishops of the nascent United States planned for the spiritual and temporal welfare of millions of immigrants who flooded the country in the 19th century.
It was where the bishops mandated the Catholic school system, the Catholic University of America and the famous Baltimore Catechism, which was once used throughout the land.
It was where the bishops discussed experiments in social welfare and built arguments in defense of trade unionism that preserved the working class for the church in America when it was being lost in Europe.
All of this is important enough, but it’s primarily of interest to Catholics. What ought to be recognized on this anniversary is that the Basilica of the Assumption is a building of great importance for all Americans — for the Old Cathedral was designed to be the physical embodiment of the American commitment to religious freedom.
And in that sense, the Baltimore Basilica is a building of global importance, for Americans have never understood religious freedom as a right for Americans only, but a universal human right.
To express this conviction architecturally, Archbishop John Carroll, the first and arguably the greatest of Catholic bishops in the United States, sought out Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect of the U.S. Capitol.
Mr. Latrobe, the son of a Moravian pastor, hit on the idea of diffused light as the natural metaphor that best expressed the American commitment to freedom of worship and conscience.
Now, because of a courageous restoration that will be completed by November, Americans will be able to experience what Archbishop Carroll and Mr. Latrobe intended: a building whose luminous interior opens the question of faith for every thoughtful person, even as its stately proportions and openness bespeak a profound respect for what Pope John Paul II (who prayed in the Old Cathedral in October 1995) called the “sanctuary of conscience.”
Full disclosure requires that I acknowledge having been involved with the restoration of the Baltimore Basilica for years, and I am not unaware of the controversies surrounding the project. But I am confident that those controversies will quickly fade when the Old Cathedral is reopened. For the restoration is nothing short of stunning, and should go a long way to putting this most noble of Baltimore structures precisely where it deserves to be — at the center of the world’s reflection on the first of human rights, the universal right of religious freedom.
The first years of this century have reminded us just how important that is. The basilica I began to love as a boy should, once again, become a symbol of what is right — much like the Statue of Liberty but built, if you’ll permit the metaphor, on an even surer foundation.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.