So Many Stories About Mary: A Visit to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC

Dear Henry,

One of the most amazing things I did during my trip to Washington, DC, for the Hallow Summit (read about that here) was to see the Basilica for the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  

Let me tell you all about it. 

The idea of the Basicila of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception began in 1846 when the 6th Provincial Council of  Baltimore petitioned the Blessed Pope Pius IX for an American shrine dedicated to the Blessed Mother. It took nearly 75 years, though, for the first stone to be laid, and it wasn't until 1920 that the land was blessed, and the foundation stone was laid by the Archbishop of Baltimore, James Cardinal Gibbons.  

During the 1920s, the architects were Maginnis and Walsh of Boston, assisted by the Catholic University of America, Professor Fredrick V. Murphy. The Charles J. Cassidy and Company was the construction company that finished the lower-level crypt. The first mass in the crypt church was performed on April 20, 1924.   The Chapel to Our Lady of Lourdes (also on the lower level) was completed by R.P. Whitty Co and John McCloskey and Company. However, the chapel wouldn't be completed and dedicated until 1931.  

Then, due to the Great Depression and WWII, construction stopped on the shrine for nearly 20 years. 

Finally, in 1954 construction on the upper level resumed under the supervision of Maginnis and Walsh, with Eugene F. Kennedy Jr, as the head architect and construction work performed by John McShain Inc. The Basilica was dedicated on November 20, 1959.

The bell towers wouldn't be completed and consecrated until 1963 (construction performed by the John A. Volpe Company), and the mosaics on the domes were not finished until 2005, 

Unlike many other American shrines, the design of this building wasn't based upon any other cathedral and is an utterly unique blending of Romanesque and Byzantine styles. It is constructed entirely of stone, brick, tile, and mortar and has a footprint of about 130,000 square feet or 12,050 square meters.  

It is the largest Catholic church in North America and one of the world's top ten largest Catholic churches. 

The Basicilia has about 200,000 square feet / 18,580 square meters of interior floor space when you combine the upper and lower floors and has 80(!) different chapels. Most of them are devoted to the Blessed Mother. 

The shrine also contains the most extensive collection of contemporary (20th/21st century) religious art, and, again, there are a great many representations of the Blessed Mother.

The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is a shrine built as a place of pilgrimage only (there are no baptisms or weddings here). The shrine offers four masses a day, 365 days a year, and four confessional times a day, except holidays. A plenary indulgence is granted for visits on November 20, December 8, June 29, and October 12. 

The entire building is stunning. I couldn't get enough of the art, most of it mosaic and sculpture, and I went through the shrine twice. Still, after returning home and flipping through the book I purchased about the shrine's art, I realized that I had missed several pieces. 

Much of the art at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception you would expect to find, for example, the chapels of Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, are standard features in many shrines, but several other chapels have Marian devotions that aren't quite as well known, such as Our Lady of Hostyn, Our Lady of Brezje, and Our Lady of Africa.   

The nook devoted to Our Lady of La Vang was one I had never heard about until this visit, and it is an absolutely stunning chapel, and I returned to it three or four times.

Still, despite my love of Marian art, two consecrations, and daily rosary practice, I struggle with "Mary, Our Mother."  As the unwanted child from an unwanted marriage between two addicts, I have no workable frame of reference to apply to either "God the Father." or "Mary, Our Mother." Those relationships are still so elusive to me.

However, I was able to come to a bit of an understanding in the chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows. In the Magnificat (Gospel of Luke 1:46-56), Mary rightly predicted that all generations would call her blessed. But let's unpack what that looked like.

Immediately following the Visitation, Mary faced divorce and public scandal. She gave birth in a barn. She had to opt for the poor person's offering at Jesus's presentation at the temple (that one must have really stung) and then relocated to Egypt, fleeing for her and her child's life with the said infant in her arms. Mary also got to experience the fear and frustration of a child who wanders off and, I'm sure, the "mom shaming" that accompanies such an event. But, most profoundly, she had to witness the Passion, and not only from a disciple's perspective. 

The Blessed Mother witnessed the false accusation, the brutal beating, and the gruesome public execution of her only son from the perspective of a mother, too. 

Despite having such a special relationship with God, the realization that Mary's life was so very dark helped unknot a little bit of the hurt and resentment I carry in my heart. 

And it was that realization that made this latest pilgrimage so very impactful to me.

xoxo a.d. elliott


a.d. elliott is a wanderer, writer, and photographer currently living in Salem, Virginia. 

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