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