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. Fricsaid

    I better make it a point to go see these thing's. I'm sure at some point, someone will be offended by them and they'll be tore down.

    December 26, 2010 at 8:57 am |
    • Dan

      I'm already offended.

      December 26, 2010 at 9:51 am |
    • JCL

      @Dan ... maybe you were chosen to be offended ... so you seek things that offend you to fulfill your destiny.

      December 26, 2010 at 10:40 am |
  2. kd

    The New Cathedral in St. Louis, Missouri can contend with almost any European church for grandeur.

    December 26, 2010 at 8:23 am |
  3. hereiskorea

    I was awestruck to see the beauty of X-mas Mass scenes 'baby Jesus included' held at Myong Dong Cathedral in S.Korea, especially brilliant lighting decorations and illumination inside.. Christmas not only holy, but especially season of wonder and joy.. I watched X mas Batican Mass broadcast also.. If I get to have a chance to visit Washington D>C i'd definitely not skip Basilica visitation in my 일정!

    December 26, 2010 at 8:17 am |
  4. Rich

    For God's church is not built with stones and bricks, it is built by loving your fellow man, and spreading the Truth. But this building is still beautiful D:

    December 26, 2010 at 8:03 am |
    • Michael

      Amen Rich!, It really breaks my heart to read so many anti-God comments on this blog, what has happened to America? It was your Military Service men overseas who helped me understand and find Christ-in Kosovo of all places!!!!, and I am from ireland... I pray for these angry folks.... and I pray that your great nation will turn back to faith... USA is in spiritual free fall, its sad to see it... for you believers...stay strong...

      December 26, 2010 at 8:37 am |
    • Fricsaid

      I've long said, show me a story about God or religion, and I'll show you an Atheist in close tow. I've Never seen ANY group follow something with such passion. Quite amazing, actually.

      December 26, 2010 at 8:59 am |
  5. Rich

    Beautiful. Just beautiful. hippies need to hush. This is beautiful.

    December 26, 2010 at 8:01 am |
  6. Seraphimo

    I had visited DC so many times and only went to this church as I had 'time to kill'. But this was a glorious surprise....the architecture inside was superb. The shiny gold mosaic work was a throwback to the ancient Byzantine and Romanesque periods. Absolutely stunning!!! You do not have to be a believer or Christian to appreciate great work. A definite must see for any one visiting DC!!

    December 26, 2010 at 7:56 am |
  7. Ms Mwaminifu...

    When a sacred artist or architect designs a place of worship, he tries to make it the most beautiful place on earth, that takes you away from this world into another space.......heaven perhaps. The idea is to give God the very best, thus working and building the very best you can. One cannot outdo giving God....This place is absolutely magnificent...definately takes you out of this world.......

    December 25, 2010 at 8:12 pm |
  8. Kathy

    Beautiful, just heavenly!

    December 22, 2010 at 11:29 pm |
  9. Richard

    The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is truely beautiful. Historic All Saints in Stuart, Iowa was also designed by the same architects in the Romanesque and Byzantine styles. It was destroyed by an anti-Catholic arsonist in 1995 but is now almost completely restored. http://www.restoreallsaints.org

    December 22, 2010 at 3:58 pm |
  10. KellyinCA

    A beautiful space by any standard. One more reason to visit Washington. 8)

    December 22, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
  11. Robert

    It is a beautiful basilica – a hidden treasure in Washington! Must be an awe inspiring place to worship in or visit.

    December 22, 2010 at 2:18 am |
  12. Reality

    Once a day WARNING for new commentators:

    • The moderators of this blog have set up a secret forbidden word filter which unfortunately not only will delete or put your comment in the dreaded "waiting for moderation" category but also will do the same to words having fragments of these words. For example, "t-it" is in the set but the filter will also pick up words like Hitt-ite, t-itle, beati-tude, practi-tioner and const-tution. Then there words like "an-al" thereby flagging words like an-alysis and "c-um" flagging acc-umulate or doc-ument. And there is also "r-a-pe", “a-pe” and “gra-pe”, "s-ex", and "hom-ose-xual". You would think that the moderators would have corrected this by now considering the number of times this has been commented on but they have not. To be safe, I typically add hyphens in any word that said filter might judge "of-fensive".

    • More than one web address will also activate “waiting for moderation”. Make sure the web address does not have any forbidden word or fragment.

    Sum Dude routinely updates the list of forbidden words/fragments.

    Three of the most filtered words are those containing the fragments "s-ex, "t-it" and "c-um". To quickly check your comments for these fragments, click on "Edit" on the Tool Bar and then "Find" on the menu. Add a fragment (without hyphens) one at a time in the "Find" slot and the offending fragment will be highlighted in your comments before you hit the Post button. Hyphenate the fragment(s) and then hit Post. And remember more than one full web address will also gain a "Waiting for Moderation".

    December 21, 2010 at 4:43 pm |
  13. GSA

    That building looks cool. Very similar to styles of religious buildings for Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. I have not seen too many Catholic/Christian buildings like this, very beautiful.

    December 21, 2010 at 4:00 pm |
  14. Reality

    When I was in grade school, the nuns did the normal guilt trip on us to get us to donate to the construction of said basilica. Time to request a refund considering the flawed historical and theological foundations of this and all the other Christian churches of worthless worship.

    December 21, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
    • brad

      There are many worthless places of worship. In front of a mirror would be one. At your 401k website would be another. Worship before any scientist would be worthless even after we knew what they'd use their discoveries for.

      December 21, 2010 at 5:50 pm |
    • kryg

      I was also educated by nuns. I developed good study habits and got my doctorate because of the educational foundation they gave me.

      December 26, 2010 at 7:51 am |
    • Michael

      Reality... his bones would have been produced and marveled at as proof that he did not resurrect the Jewish leaders at that time for sure would have produced them... providing of course that they were available... why dont you take the time to study,read the evidence for yourself before spouting like so many other bitter atheists (that I once was for many years)...give love a try you might enjoy it, it gives live meaning and true purpose, everything finds its place in Christ.....I hope you find hope some day...

      December 26, 2010 at 8:22 am |
    • Reality

      Some references to peruse when studying the highly-embellished and "mythicized" life of simple, preacher man named Jeus:

      1. Historical Jesus Theories, earlychristianwritings.com/theories.htm – the names of many of the contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the ti-tles of their over 100 books on the subject.
      2. Early Christian Writings, earlychristianwritings.com/
      – a list of early Christian doc-uments to include the year of publication–
      30-60 CE Passion Narrative
      40-80 Lost Sayings Gospel Q
      50-60 1 Thessalonians
      50-60 Philippians
      50-60 Galatians
      50-60 1 Corinthians
      50-60 2 Corinthians
      50-60 Romans
      50-60 Philemon
      50-80 Colossians
      50-90 Signs Gospel
      50-95 Book of Hebrews
      50-120 Didache
      50-140 Gospel of Thomas
      50-140 Oxyrhynchus 1224 Gospel
      50-200 Sophia of Jesus Christ
      65-80 Gospel of Mark
      70-100 Epistle of James
      70-120 Egerton Gospel
      70-160 Gospel of Peter
      70-160 Secret Mark
      70-200 Fayyum Fragment
      70-200 Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
      73-200 Mara Bar Serapion
      80-100 2 Thessalonians
      80-100 Ephesians
      80-100 Gospel of Matthew
      80-110 1 Peter
      80-120 Epistle of Barnabas
      80-130 Gospel of Luke
      80-130 Acts of the Apostles
      80-140 1 Clement
      80-150 Gospel of the Egyptians
      80-150 Gospel of the Hebrews
      80-250 Christian Sibyllines
      90-95 Apocalypse of John
      90-120 Gospel of John
      90-120 1 John
      90-120 2 John
      90-120 3 John
      90-120 Epistle of Jude
      93 Flavius Josephus
      100-150 1 Timothy
      100-150 2 Timothy
      100-150 T-itus
      100-150 Apocalypse of Peter
      100-150 Secret Book of James
      100-150 Preaching of Peter
      100-160 Gospel of the Ebionites
      100-160 Gospel of the Nazoreans
      100-160 Shepherd of Hermas
      100-160 2 Peter
      3. Historical Jesus Studies, faithfutures.org/HJstudies.html,
      – "an extensive and constantly expanding literature on historical research into the person and cultural context of Jesus of Nazareth"
      4. Jesus Database, faithfutures.org/JDB/intro.html–"The JESUS DATABASE is an online annotated inventory of the traditions concerning the life and teachings of Jesus that have survived from the first three centuries of the Common Era. It includes both canonical and extra-canonical materials, and is not limited to the traditions found within the Christian New Testament."
      5. Josephus on Jesus mtio.com/articles/bissar24.htm
      6. The Jesus Seminar, mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/seminar.html#Criteria
      7. Writing the New Testament- mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/testament.html
      8. Health and Healing in the Land of Israel By Joe Zias
      9. Economics in First Century Palestine, K.C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Fortress Press, 1998.
      10. 7. The Gnostic Jesus
      (Part One in a Two-Part Series on Ancient and Modern Gnosticism)
      by Douglas Groothuis: equip.org/free/DG040-1.htm
      11. The interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Pontifical Biblical Commission
      Presented on March 18, 1994
      12. The Jesus Database- newer site:
      13. Jesus Database with the example of Supper and Eucharist:
      14. Josephus on Jesus by Paul Maier:
      15. The Journal of Higher Criticism with links to articles on the Historical Jesus:
      16. The Greek New Testament: laparola.net/greco/
      17. Diseases in the Bible:
      18. Religion on Line (6000 articles on the history of religion, churches, theologies,
      theologians, ethics, etc.
      19. The Jesus Seminarians and their search for NT authenticity:
      20. The New Testament Gateway – Internet NT ntgateway.com/
      21. Writing the New Testament- existing copies, oral tradition etc.
      22. The Search for the Historic Jesus by the Jesus Seminarians:
      23. Jesus Decoded by Msgr. Francis J. Maniscalco (Da Vinci Code review)jesusdecoded.com/introduction.php
      24. JD Crossan's scriptural references for his book the Historical Jesus separated into time periods: faithfutures.org/Jesus/Crossan1.rtf
      25. JD Crossan's conclusions about the authencity of most of the NT based on the above plus the conclusions of other NT exegetes in the last 200 years:
      26. Common Sayings from Thomas's Gospel and the Q Gospel: faithfutures.org/Jesus/Crossan3.rtf
      27. Early Jewish Writings- Josephus and his books by t-itle with the complete translated work in English :earlyjewishwritings.com/josephus.html
      28. Luke and Josephus- was there a connection?
      29. NT and beyond time line:
      30. St. Paul's Time line with discussion of important events:
      31. See http://www.amazon.com for a list of JD Crossan's books and those of the other Jesus Seminarians: Reviews of said books are included and selected pages can now be viewed on Amazon. Some books can be found on-line at Google Books.
      32. Father Edward Schillebeeckx's words of wisdom as found in his books.
      33. The books of the following : Professors Marcus Borg, Paula Fredriksen, Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong and Bishop NT Wright.
      34. Father Raymond Brown's An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, NY, 1977, 878 pages, with Nihil obstat and Imprimatur.
      35. Luke Timothy Johnson's book The Real Jesus.

      December 26, 2010 at 11:02 am |
  15. Ann

    I visited this basilica in September - it is worth every minute you spend there. Also visited the National Cathedral and took their tour, also worth the time!

    December 21, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
  16. Nick

    Wow, you just mention the word "catholic" and all the haters crawl out of the woodwork like roaches looking for dropped crumbs.

    December 21, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
    • Reality


      A Holiday gift for you:

      Saving Catholics and other Christians from the Resurrection Con:

      From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul reasoned, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

      Even now Catholic/Christian professors of theology are questioning the bodily resurrection of the simple, preacher man aka Jesus.

      To wit;

      From a major Catholic university's theology grad school white-board notes:

      "Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly – earth bound distractions.
      Jesus and Mary's bodies are therefore not in Heaven.

      Most believe that it to mean that the personal spiritual self that survives death is in continuity with the self we were while living on earth as an embodied person.

      Again, the physical Resurrection (meaning a resuscitated corpse returning to life), Ascension (of Jesus' crucified corpse), and Assumption (Mary's corpse) into heaven did not take place.

      The Ascension symbolizes the end of Jesus' earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church.

      Only Luke's Gospel records it. The Assumption ties Jesus' mission to Pentecost and missionary activity of Jesus' followers The Assumption has multiple layers of symbolism, some are related to Mary's special role as "Christ bearer" (theotokos). It does not seem fitting that Mary, the body of Jesus' Virgin-Mother (another biblically based symbol found in Luke 1) would be derived by worms upon her death. Mary's assumption also shows God's positive regard, not only for Christ's male body, but also for female bodies." "

      "In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world and we exist. In this he is applying the philosophical categories used by the Church in her theology and saying what St. Thomas Aquinas said long before him."

      The Vatican quickly embellished this story with a lot CYAP.

      Of course, we all know that angels are really mythical "pretty wingie talking thingies".

      With respect to rising from the dead, we also have this account:

      An added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue, ( Professors Crossan and Wright are On Faith panelists).

      "Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God's hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus' failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing."

      So where are the bones? As per Professor Crossan's analyses in his many books, the body of Jesus would have ended up in the mass graves of the crucified, eaten by wild dogs, with lime in a shallow grave, or under a pile of stones.

      December 21, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
    • Jon

      @Reality......Nick made a simple comment, you need to get a life. Your like an armchair military commentator.....everythings great in theory. Hope you have a simple day.

      December 26, 2010 at 7:23 am |
  17. CatholicMom

    In architecture, the term basilica signifies a kingly, and secondarily a beautiful, hall. The name indicates the Eastern origin of the building, but it is in the West, above all in Rome, that the finest examples of the basilica are found. Between 184 and 121 B.C. there were built in the Forum at Rome the basilicas of Porcia, Fulvia, Sempronia, and Opimia; after 46 B.C. the great Basilica Julia of Caesar and Augustus was erected. These buildings were designed to beautify the Forum and to be of use both for market purposes and for the administration of justice. They were open to the public and were well lighted.

    December 21, 2010 at 10:30 am |
  18. contina smith

    Thank you, happy holidays. may god bless you all. contina smith

    December 21, 2010 at 10:28 am |
  19. Howard

    Magnificent architecture ... in service of a dubious purpose.

    December 21, 2010 at 10:27 am |
    • Whatever

      Geez, let it go already...

      December 21, 2010 at 11:31 am |
    • Howard

      "Let it go already." Sounds like good advice for those hopelessly addicted to letting self-appointed "holy men" tell them how to live their lives. Between the ones that have been discredited, and the ones who turned a blind eye towards the discredited while they were committing their misdeeds, just how many truly "holy men" do you suppose there really are?

      December 21, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
    • MarylandBill

      So instead we should let the "self-appointed" people who claim to be too smart to practice religion or believe in God tell us what to do?

      If I am going to be a sheep (And I actually don't think I am), I think I will choose to be a sheep of the Good Shepherd.

      December 21, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
    • CatholicMom


      The atheists love calling us sheep and I say… ‘yes, I am of the flock of the Good Shepherd’; every time I hear them call out ‘sheep’ it reminds me of how Jesus goes out into the desert to find even one lost sheep and to do so He leaves the 99 others…those lost sheep are being found every day…some try to hide in the darkest places but all they need to see is just a little Light and they lose their fear.

      Being called a ‘sheep’ is not a baaaaaaaaaad thing!

      December 21, 2010 at 1:59 pm |
  20. Reality

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity by the "bowers", kneelers" and "pew peasants" will quickly converge these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired. Ditto for houses of "worthless worship" aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues no matter how one views their " beauty and awe".

    December 21, 2010 at 10:04 am |
    • Frankly Speaking..

      God has an answer for ya "Chapter 69 Al-Haqq (The reality)"

      You should give chapter 69 of the quran a quick reading, you might stumble upon something concrete..Its quran btw not "koran"..

      December 21, 2010 at 11:39 am |
    • Reality

      koran or Qur·'an (kə-răn', -rän', kô-, kō-)
      The sacred text of Islam, considered by Muslims to contain the revelations of God to Muhammad. Also called Alcoran.

      Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/qur-an#ixzz18lbrGFvc

      December 21, 2010 at 12:08 pm |
    • Something

      @Frankly Speaking,

      From your suggested reading: "what the Prophet says is God's own revealed Word and not the bragging of a poet, nor the idle conjectures of a soothsayer, nor a fabrication, for, if he had forged a lie against God, he would have met with certain and violent death, because a forger is never allowed to prosper."

      Many successful atheist writers lived long lives without violent deaths: Arthur C. Clark – 91 yrs.; Kurt Vonnegut – 85; Robert Heinlein – 82; James Randi, still going at 82; and many others that I don't have time to look up right now. Even a nasty like Mao lived to be 83 with no violent death. A "God" has nothing to do with it.

      December 21, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
    • MarylandBill

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

      December 21, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
    • Jeannot

      I believe faith is a personal experience and Religion is not necessary to talk with your God.
      All the religions I see are being used to extort money or control people anyways.
      That being said, I think of myself as a tolerant agnostic. I have no problem with the Transit Authority maximizing their revenue.

      December 21, 2010 at 6:19 pm |
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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.