The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast is the largest Catholic church in the nation. No wonder it takes 350 poinsettias, 50 Christmas trees and a life-size creche to decorate it for Christmas.
“This is a great time for families to visit. It’s just beautiful. Everything is decorated, including all the chapels,” says Peter Sonski, spokesman for the shrine. It will remain decorated until a week or so into the new year, he says.
The shrine has 60 chapels in addition to the 3,600-seat Great Upper Church, the main church where Sunday Mass is celebrated, and the Crypt Church, a smaller space on the lower level.
An average Sunday sees about 500 people attending Mass. Today’s main Christmas Mass, however, is expected to draw up to 4,000 people, Mr. Sonski says.
The shrine is not only a place for worship, however; it also is a place where visitors can learn about Christian history, architecture and art, Mr. Sonski says. Many of the chapels and oratories (unlike chapels, oratories don’t have altars, which means Mass can’t be said there) were built with money donated by Catholic immigrant groups, including the Irish and the Eastern Europeans.
The Irish oratory, which is on the upper level, has green stained glass and green Irish marble walls. It also features a statue of the Madonna and Child.
The Byzantine Ruthenian chapel, which is on the lower level, features icons of Mary and Christ as well as mosaics that depict the spiritual and cultural background of Catholics in Eastern Europe, which is where the Ruthenians come from, says Robert Ryan, tour guide at the shrine.
“The mosaics also depict the history of the Ruthenians once they immigrated to the United States — they worked in the mills and coal mines near Pittsburgh,” Mr. Ryan says, pointing to one of the mosaics showing millworkers. “And, see, there’s the Statue of Liberty.”
Also on this level are dozens of columns with 14,000 engraved names of donors.
“This is probably the most notable one — Babe Ruth,” Mr. Ryan says. The donors in this case were the brothers of Alpha Delta Gamma fraternity.
The lower level is also home to sculptures of the five Americans who have reached sainthood — four are women — and a small exhibit on papal history, which includes Pope Paul VI’s tiara and the gold embroidered stole of Pope John XXIII.
Some of the most magnificent, and certainly largest, artwork is in the upper church.
In the main sanctuary is a mosaic of Jesus, “Christ in Majesty.”
“It’s the largest mosaic of Christ in the world,” Mr. Ryan says. “It consists of 3 million pieces of Venetian glass. … His hands are 34 feet apart.”
Also part of the sanctuary are 15 chapels that represent the 15 mysteries of the rosary (New Testament) accompanied by Old Testament depictions. The birth of Christ, for example, consists of a painting showing the divine infant king in the modest stable and the angelic exultation from the New Testament. The Old Testament companion painting shows the prophesying of the birth of Emmanuel.
A lot to digest?
“Many school groups say they’re just overwhelmed,” Mr. Ryan says. “This is not a place you visit once. … I still learn new things.”
Yet the inside of the shrine isn’t even completed. New art is added continuously to the building, whose exterior construction started in 1920 and was completed in 1959. One of the most recent pieces of art to be installed is the “Universal Call to Holiness,” a sculpture on the wall of the upper church, just beneath the main organ. It’s made of 37 tons of Italian marble and measures 780 square feet. It shows people from all walks of life turning toward a dove representing the Holy Spirit.
Then there are the majestic stained-glass windows, the downstairs Crypt Church, the Byzantine-Romanesque-style architecture.
“The shrine gives people a chance to learn how art and architecture were shaped by the development of Christianity over time,” Mr. Sonski says. “The chapels show the many different devotions immigrant groups have brought to this country.”
A visit to the shrine during the winter holidays can offer lessons in all of the above (and more) or, for many, simply a chance to celebrate Christmas.
When you go:
Location:The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, 400 Michigan Ave. NE.
Directions: From Union Station, take North Capitol Street north. Make a right onto Michigan Avenue. After less than a mile, make a left into the church parking lot.
Hours: The shrine is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; guided tours are given from 9 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday.
Parking: Free parking
Information: 202/526-8300 or www.nationalshrine.com.
Notes: The church has a cafeteria on the first floor, which serves lunch entrees for less than $4 and various snacks and drinks.
Solemn Christmas Mass, noon, celebrated by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington. The Shrine Choir and Brass Ensemble will participate.
Additional Christmas Day masses will be celebrated at 7:30, 9 and 10:30 a.m. as well as at 2:30 (in Spanish) and 4:30 p.m.