Serendipity: A surprise tour of Baltimore’s Basilica

The Baltimore Basilica, America's First Cathedral

We arrived at 9 am, but the library did not open until 10 am.  Across the street from the Enoch Pratt Central Library stands the original Baltimore Basilica, the original Cathedral servicing the entire United States, in 1789.  And, sitting in front of it, chatting in the sun, were three volunteer tour guides.  We were set.

We locked our bikes up and crossed the street.  There we were met by Kathie, our tour guide for the next hour or so, who showed us around and explained to us the Basilica’s origins.

Restored in 2004-2006 to its original colors and state of repair

We were introduced first to John Carroll, from Maryland.  His cousin, Charles Carroll, would be the only Catholic to sign the Constitution.  He was educated by Jesuits in Europe, but returned to the New World as his own man during the period of the Order’s suppression, as ordered by the Pope.

Archbishop John Carroll, first Catholic bishop of America, from his seat in Baltimore

Founded in 1540, arriving in the colony of Maryland in 1634 and being officially reinstated in 1805; this commemorative metal was added later in the Basilica's history

Carroll would be given the reigns for the new Church in the young country.  Here in the U.S., a diocese would be set up for all thirteen states, with its seat in Baltimore.

Pope's decree confirming the creation of Baltimore as the first diocese of the country

Through his connections in Maryland, but more so in the young country’s government, Carroll contracted Benjamin Henry Latrobe, important architect and designer working on the nation’s new capital, to design the Church.  Latrobe provided two drawings, one neo-Gothic and one neo-classical.  Carroll, proud of America’s potential and especially of religious pluralism, chose the latter which was to become emblematic of America’s pursuit of a republic and democracy.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe and his neo-classical design

Latrobe offering his services to Carroll, for the design of the U.S.'s first cathedral

Among the records from the cathedral in its early days are the records of payment for family pews.  In their original state, the pews had doors on them–this was also evident in other colonial churches, such as Anglican/Episcopal church in Williamsburg, VA.

Records of Charles Carroll's annual payments for his family pew

The record of Charles Carroll's death

Kathie also pointed out a statue of Mother Theresa, which was donated because of the Basilica’s history in American Catholicism.  In fact, Mother Theresa visited the church during the renewal of vows for the sisters in her order.

Statue of Mother Theresa

A few years ago, it was discovered that the crypt in the basement, in its original state about four feet high, was actually supposed to be dug out in Latrobe’s.  The work commenced with pick axes and wheelbarrows because there was no way to get major machinery into the space.

The Crypt (with several buried bishops of Baltimore) was original earth up to where the arches end. Old, historic bricks were acquired to match the aged look of the of the original foundations.

More than almost any other church in America, this church is as much a capsule of American history as it is that of the Catholic Church.

Letter from George Washington to American Catholics; there are also letters from Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe to Archbishop John Carroll

Babe Ruth with his mentor, Brother Mathias, CFX, from Baltimore's St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, run by the Xaverian Brothers, invited to Baltimore in 1866 by Bishop Martin J. Spalding

The Oblate Sisters of Providence were founded in 1829, in Baltimore, by women in the African-American community for that community's children. Mother Mary Lange, OSP, the foundress is a candidate for canonization. This is a 1912 classroom of orphans in St. Francis Academy in Baltimore.

For more information, the Basilica has its own website with additional information, both historical and practical.

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1 Comment

Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Travel

One response to “Serendipity: A surprise tour of Baltimore’s Basilica

  1. Hi there, just wanted to mention, I enjoyed this blog post.
    It was helpful. Keep on posting!

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