- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 2, 2004

BALTIMORE (AP) — The first Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States will close to the public next month and remain closed for nearly two years for a $32 million restoration and modernization.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore told the 475 families of the Basilica of the Assumption that the downtown building will close after Nov. 21 services and stay closed through about October 2006.

Officials hope to have the restorations finished before the church’s upcoming 200th anniversary. The church’s first cornerstone was set in 1806.

Church officials considered keeping the building open during the work, but decided it would be safer and less expensive to close it temporarily and hold services elsewhere.

“If we ask our contractors to break down and clean up each weekend, it would lengthen the completion date of the project and add enormous cost,” Monsignor James V. Hobbs, the rector, wrote in a letter to parishioners.

“It’s the most efficient way to do it,” said Mark J. Potter, executive director of the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, the nonprofit organization overseeing the restoration. “It’s a massive project. The quicker we can all get back into the restored basilica, the better.”

Parishioners said they’re sorry to see the basilica close, but understand the trust’s position.

“It’s only temporary,” said parishioner Sean Keller. “While I’m saddened that we won’t be able to worship there for a couple of years, I’m excited about what it’s going to be like when the work is finished. I think it’s going to be well worth it, considering what the final outcome will be.”

While the basilica is closed, services will be held several blocks away at St. Alphonsus Church.

“This is a national treasure,” said Marie Boursiquot, another parishioner. “We’re eager to get it back open so all Americans can appreciate its significance, both as a house of worship and a part of American history.”

The building, whose formal name is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a masterwork of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect who designed the U.S. Capitol.

Construction began this spring, and the project is intended to restore the building’s interior and exterior and improve its mechanical and structural condition.

Besides improving the building for worshippers, the work is expected to make the basilica more of an attraction for architecture and history buffs.

Among the changes will be the replacement of stained-glass windows that were installed in the 1940s. They will be replaced with clear glass windows identical to those designed by Latrobe.

Some of the basilica’s contents will be put in storage while construction is under way, and some will undergo restoration.

The historic trust has privately raised $23 million of the $32 million needed to complete the work and is seeking the rest through a nationwide fund drive.

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