Published March 1, 2006
St. Patrick’s is, arguably, the most famous Catholic cathedral in the United States. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is, arguably, the most beautiful. But Baltimore’s Old Cathedral, now the Basilica of the Assumption, is indisputably the most historic.
It was conceived by Archbishop John Carroll, the founder of the American hierarchy, whose diocese originally encompassed the entire United States. Archbishop Carroll wanted the first Catholic cathedral in the new republic to embody the nation’s commitment to religious freedom and turned to Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol (and son of a Moravian minister), the leading architectural practitioner of the day. Latrobe designed the building to be bathed in light; Thomas Jefferson may have helped inspire Latrobe’s design of the Old Cathedral’s unique double-dome and skylights. Like similar projects down through the ages, the Baltimore Cathedral was originally financed by a lottery; and as luck would have it, Archbishop Carroll, reaching into hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lottery tickets to choose the winner, picked his own ticket — and promptly gave his winnings back to the building fund. (Nary an eyebrow was raised.)
In the most extensive Catholic exercise in conciliar decision-making between Trent and Vatican I, the bishops of the United States met in seven provincial and three plenary councils during the nineteenth century; every one of those councils began and ended in the Baltimore Cathedral. Thus the Old Cathedral saw the bishops legislate to met the needs of immigrants, erect the parish system, mandate parochial schools, launch the Catholic University of America, and commission the famous Baltimore Catechism, which taught generations of Catholics the basics of their faith. No other Catholic edifice in America can claim to have seen so much history made within its walls.
My own experience of the Old Cathedral began early: when I was six, to be precise, and began attending the Cathedral School, just across Mulberry Street from the great building. Under Latrobe’s magnificent dome I made my first communion; under that same dome I graduated from college; my son was baptized in the Old Cathedral in 1987. But the building I first knew as a boy was not the building Carroll and Latrobe had planned. Years of leaks in the dome — caused, it now seems, by imprudent fiddling with the innovative drainage system Latrobe had devised — led to the skylights being removed after World War II. Two redecorations, however well intended, made the Old Cathedral a dark, shadowy place, rather than the living symbol of the light of religious freedom Carroll wanted and Latrobe provided. There was no access from the interior of the building to what should have been one of the great Catholic shrines in America: the crypt, where such giants as Carroll, Archbishop Martin John Spaulding, and James Cardinal Gibbons are buried.
All of that is now changing, as Baltimore’s Old Cathedral is undergoing a massive restoration, the completion of which will be marked with appropriate ceremony in November. The dome’s skylights are back, and their restoration, combined with a brave decision to restore the original plain glass to the basilica’s windows, will let twenty-first century Americans experience the luminosity that Carroll and Latrobe intended. The rear of the apse will now open into the crypt, so that 21st century Catholics can pay their respects to the men who laid the foundations of Catholicism in America. The Old Cathedral’s decorations and furnishings will follow Latrobe’s original plans, so that for the first time in a very long time, pilgrims, parishioners, and visitors will experience this religious and architectural gem as it was intended to be.
A restoration project of this magnitude — which includes modernizing all the Old Cathedral’s operating systems — is enormously expensive. And as the Basilica of the Assumption belongs, in a sense, to every Catholic in America, the thought occurs that many Catholics today might want to participate in its restoration to glory. If, as we begin Lent 2006, you would like to help reclaim the most historic Catholic building in America, go to www.baltimorebasilica.org., or mail your tax-deductible contribution to the Basilica Historic Trust, 408 North Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21201.
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.