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December 21st, 2010
06:00 AM ET

Sacred Spaces: Washington's Basilica

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.
By 1920, the cornerstone was laid and in 1924 the building was completed.

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.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Mass • United States • Vatican

soundoff (51 Responses)
  1. sis

    Wonderful beat ! I would like to apprentice while you amend your website, how can i subscribe for a weblog web site? The account helped me a applicable deal. I had been tiny bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered shiny transparent concept

    May 17, 2013 at 3:33 am |
  2. X-Mas Nutt

    "Why is it that atheists, who claim to simply not believe in God, feel the need to denigrate the beliefs of others?"

    Simple. Not only are we constantly being bombarded by the religious beliefs of the faithful (Christians mostly in America) we can see how religious beliefs are stifling human progress and perpetuating hatred and segregation. We can see how belief in god is preventing advancement in science, medicine, and technology. We can see how people are being discriminated against because of what is written in some old dusty works of fiction. We can see how young children are being indoctrinated into belief systems which promote guilt and shame for acts which are perfectly natural. We can see how people want to teach myths and fantasy in science classrooms to taint their childrens' minds. We can see how religious politicians are trying to infiltrate faith into government when church and state should be separate.

    I counted all the religious symbols I could today while going to work. It is a 23 mile stretch between my home and the office. I counted 113 Christian symbols. No symbols or signs for either atheists or other religions. Perhaps if Atheists weren't bombarded daily with religious propaganda they wouldn't feel the need to address others' beliefs.

    December 27, 2010 at 6:47 am |
  3. Dan

    What a waste of money. I'd prefer to give my money to a reputable charity.

    December 26, 2010 at 9:50 am |
  4. Dennis

    Immaculate Conception : The most misunderstood term in the English dictionary followed by the word "droll"

    December 26, 2010 at 9:14 am |
  5. BuddyKowalsk

    Why didn't they take the money they spent on this building, and help the poor?

    December 26, 2010 at 9:07 am |
    • Dennis

      It's an investment property that brings in money.

      December 26, 2010 at 9:21 am |
    • JCL

      They do help the poor. All the anti-catholics on these pages choose to ignore the billions of dollars Catholics spend feeding, clothing, healing and educating the poor.

      December 26, 2010 at 10:20 am |
  6. Sabina

    I would avoid it because I don't believe that there was an "immaculate conception". And I also believe that too much money is spent on these gaudy, expensive churches. If churches have that much extra cash lying around, they should use some of it to pay taxes like the rest of us.

    December 26, 2010 at 9:03 am |
  7. A.A. Cunningham

    Those Catholics living in the Denver area should know that Sister Miriam's mother, Kathleen, is the organist at The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Stop by and enjoy her beautiful contribution to the celebration of the liturgy. You'll be glad that you did.

    December 26, 2010 at 9:00 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.