December 21st, 2010
06:00 AM ET
Editor's note: Sacred Spaces is an occasional series on the Belief Blog. In this installment, CNN Senior Photojournalist Anthony Umrani takes us inside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
By Anthony Umrani, CNN
Sister Miriam MacLean is buzzing around the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. A steady stream of tourists trails closely behind her.
As director of visitor services, she leads the tours of the massive mosaic domed church in Washington. It may be one of Washington’s lesser known tourist attractions, but the shrine gets nearly 1 million visitors a year and keeps its doors open 365 days of the year.
“Many people who traveled in Europe or traveled in other places are surprised when they come to our own country and see such a church of beauty and awe,” MacLean says. She is part of the Religious Sisters of Mercy.
Rising nearly as high as the Washington Monument, the shrine also shares the city’s low-rise skyline with the U.S. Capitol.
Pope Pius X approved plans for the construction of the National Shrine in 1913.
Pope John Paul II was the first reigning pope to visit the shrine in 1979 and on October 12, 1990, by way of decree, he bestowed the honorary status of minor basilica.
The church differs in architectural style from its European counterparts, borrowing from the Romanesque and Byzantine styles. Early planners thought the blending of these two styles was a better fit for Washington’s architecture.
The circular “Great Dome," with its colored mosaic tiles, is the centerpiece of the exterior. It has a diameter more than twice that of the central dome of St. Mark’s in Venice, Italy.
Visitors are steady on this day. Some are regular worshipers, but many come for special occasions, pilgrimages and tours.
With more than 70 chapels and oratories, the basilica appeals to people throughout the world. “We have many different chapels to many different ethnic groups, so depending on the background of the individual group, they tend to like what relates most personally to them," MacLean says.
The Great Upper Church, however, may be the greatest attraction, with its five soaring domes more than 100 feet above the floor.
The National Shrine touts itself as “America’s Catholic Church."
MacLean says, “It is still sustained by the many faithful, devout Americans who allow us to continue every day in what we’re doing.”
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