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 Home > About the Shrine > History

The National Patronal Church of the United States of America

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., is the pre-eminent Marian shrine of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.    This beautiful votive church of pilgrimage, older than some of the states of the Union, honors the Blessed Mother under the title of the Immaculate Conception as the Patroness of the United States.  Built as the medieval cathedrals of Europe, without structural steel beams, framework, or columns, the Shrine is entirely of stone, brick, tile and mortar.   It is a blending of techniques, both ancient and new, in which architecture mingles with symbol.


Envisioned by its founder, Bishop Thomas J. Shahan (1857-1932) as a “monument to artistic truth” that would speak with “divine eloquence,” the Shrine is home to the largest collection of contemporary ecclesiastical art in the United States.   Amid a rich patina of mosaics, sculptures, and artistic renderings, the more than 65 chapels and oratories reflect not only the devotional traditions of the American Church but also the rich ethnic mélange of the Universal Church.  In 1990, Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) named the National Shrine a minor basilica, the 36th in the United States.


The Early Years


The dreams of the Catholic Church in the United States were as grand as the dreams of the nascent republic.  Even before the Sixth Provincial Council of Baltimore (May 1846) at which the American Hierarchy chose the Blessed Virgin Mary, under the title of the Immaculate Conception, as the Patroness of the country, there was talk of “a magnificent Catholic church ... to be built at Washington ... after the style of the cathedrals of the Old World.” (Lowell Courier Journal, Massachusetts, 29 Jan 1846.)  The growing unrest over slavery, the ensuing civil war, and the resulting years of reconstruction however, placed the building of such a church very low on the list of priorities.


Towards the end of the 19th Century, the “declining state of Catholic literary culture” became a principal concern among members of the American Hierarchy.  They believed that the solution was the establishment of a “national school of philosophy and theology.” (University Education Considered in its Bearing on the Higher Education of Priests, [Baltimore: John Murphy, 1884], 31-32)  After much discussion and debate, it was decided “in these states there should exist a distinguished center of learning” the nucleus of which would be an American seminary, from which “there would blossom forth ... a perfect university of studies."  [1]   With the curricula, faculty, and architecture of the Catholic universities of Europe as their model, the American hierarchy and Holy See established The Catholic University of America (CUA) in 1887, the first pontifical university in an English-speaking country since the Reformation. 


The first two decades were fraught with financial difficulties and academic struggles.   In 1907, there was a concern among the male lay students—first fully admitted in 1904—that the University would close.  The man chosen by Rome  to lead the University out of this turmoil was Reverend Thomas J. Shahan, a Professor of Church History at CUA since 1891.  The fourth and longest tenured rector (1909-1928), Shahan was “a man of books.” Msgr. John Tracy Ellis (1905-1992), the dean of American Catholic church historians, referred to him as the “most learned” of the University’s rectors.   Having studied in Canada, Rome, Germany and Paris, Shahan’s credentials included, but were not limited to, a doctorate in divinity and licentiates in both canon and civil law. 


Shahan’s love of learning was at the core of his vision of “a Catholic Oxford:” an institution of academic and architectural elegance.  The “Shahan plan” included a magnificent tree-lined campus in collegiate Gothic style with its main-entrance directly on the corner of Michigan and Harewood roads.  In direct line with the entrance and situated in the heart of the campus was to be the “university cathedral.”  In 1910, Shahan wrote to a friend and benefactor regarding this new church:

Apropos of our conversation the other day about the University Church, I am sending you a short article that I wrote some years ago at the suggestion of Bishop O’Connell, then Rector of the University.     It contains the gist of the reasons for building such an edifice. … I have always admired a great free open space, unbroken by columns, an ideal space for preaching and singing, for seeing and hearing.   Its wall spaces and ceilings ought to be covered with noble historical frescoes depicting the origin and the glories of Catholics in the United States, and particularly in these parts. … In a word, no one would think he had truly seen the Capital of the Nation unless he had paid a visit to this Church. … it would be a monument of artistic truth and sincerity, and thus a mirror of all the beauties of our venerable and holy religion. [2]

It is during this period that the early history of the National Shrine becomes difficult to exact and to verify.    Early publications read more as an amalgamation of oral traditions rather than that of a written record.  That being said, within the last five years much in-depth research has brought to light new primary sources and data, thereby remedying this problem.


Hidden among the errata, is the name Rev. Jean Joseph Marie Aboulin, C.S.B. (1841-1931) of Detroit.   In 1909—the same year in which Rev. Shahan became Rector of CUA—Abbé Aboulin, as he was known, urged his Vicar-General, Msgr. Francis Van Antwerp,[3] to propose the idea for such a great church to James Cardinal Gibbons (1834-1921), Archbishop of Baltimore.  He further sweetened the proposal with a donation of $1,000. [4]     Thus, Abbé Aboulin  provided the first practical step towards the building of this great church and became the first benefactor.   In his testament, he attributed many of the graces he received during his long life to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, "my most beloved Mother, who protected me from my mother's womb, and to whom I owe the greatest graces I have received, especially the grace of my vocation.”  While the idea for such a church was nothing new, the donation of such a grand sum of money was.   Even then, the envisaged "cathedral" was in actuality a “National Monument or testimony of American devotion toward the Immaculate Mother of God ... to be known as the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin.”


The following year Msgr. Shahan established a committee for the promotion of this cause chaired by Mrs. F. Burrall (Lucy) Hoffman of New York and Miss Fannie Whelan of Washington, D.C.  Recalling that the women of the United States purchased and endowed Mount Vernon, an appeal went out to the Catholic women of America to promote and aid in the building of the National Shrine.   Mrs. Hoffman, a woman well known and respected in social and philanthropic circles of New York, was the ideal candidate to spearhead the task of raising the "start-up" money for Shahan's dream.  She established the National Organization of Catholic Women (NOCW) with local chapters throughout the country, as the official organization for the collection of funds for the building of the National Shrine.


The efforts of Lucy Hoffman were not without motive.    In truth, Mrs. Hoffman hoped to parley her patronage and philanthropy into a commission for her son, F. Burrall Hoffman, Jr. (1882-1980), an architect of some accomplishment.   In his correspondence to Rev. M. J. Foley, editor of The Western Catholic and pastor in Pittsfield, Illinois, Msgr. Shahan explained and justified his agreement with Mrs. Hoffman:

{W}ith regard to our good friend, Mrs. Hoffman. She promised … to collect $50,000 for the Church, but on condition that her son be appointed architect. … [he] is a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux Arts [Paris], and has certainly received thorough and severe training.   He is highly spoken of by his former masters in New York … and has done some small but exquisite pieces of work … If he is truly competent the fact that his mother is helping us ought not to militate against him. … he has no appointment, yet I have talked with him about the Church, giving him my own ideas and listening to him. … he made a few rough sketches … and I think that he grasps quite well my own notions. [5]

The sketches offered by Hoffman, were in keeping with Shahan’s campus plan, i.e., Gothic style, specifically, 14th Century French Gothic. 

Time pressed on and by 1914, the campaign for the construction of the National Shrine became reality, complete with the approbation of Pope Pius X (1835-1914) and a personal, papal donation.  (NB the renowned papal donation was only a little more than one-third of that which  Abbé Aboulin donated in 1909.)    For Msgr. Shahan, it was also the year of his Episcopal ordination.  


In January 1915, in an effort to rouse more financial interest in the project, a plaster model of Hoffman's 14th century French Gothic design toured the country, appearing first in New York City  then at the Palace of Education at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, where it won a gold medal for its architectural beauty and perfection.


In 1918, the Building Committee and the CUA Board of Trustees made three determinations in order ... “to provide a worthy church edifice for the University”:  

  1. To petition the Holy See to approve the new church as the “National Basilica [sic] of Mary Immaculate,”
  2. That the new church be monumental in character and capable of seating several thousand and
  3. That the style of the church be Romanesque, “liberally interpreted.”


The Board of Trustees of The Catholic University, while delighted with Mrs. Hoffman's philanthropic accomplishments, was not inclined to take action and name her son as the architect. 


Salve Regina


 Membership Card   1920s

The inaugural issue of Salve Regina (January 1914)stated that the purpose of the gratis publication was to report on the progress made in the raising of funds for the construction of the Shrine.  Further, the "little magazine" was to be "a bond of union between ... collectors and contributors and the glorious work they [were] founding." [6]  Readers were encouraged to donate "according to their means"; to become a "collector by selling booklets of coupons (one hundred coupons at ten cents each), and to submit names and addresses of other potential members.    The quarterly publication offered to one and all an opportunity to participate in one of the greatest and most colossal adventures ever undertaken by the Roman Catholic Church in America.   For their industry and generosity, collectors and contributors were remembered in the prayers and Masses offered by the rector, his assistants, and the numerous priests of the Catholic University.

From 1914 until July 1915, Mrs. Hoffman and Miss Whelan were the named contacts for this noble cause.   With the appointment of Rev. Bernard A. McKenna (1876-1960) of Philadelphia as secretary to Bishop Shahan, this all changed.  On one level, it is believed that Mrs. Hoffman's nepotism caused the Board of Trustees to seek separation, thereby placing the fund-raising campaign  and the construction under the auspices of the University by way of McKenna.   On a another, practical level and more to the point, it is believed that there was a falling out between Rev. McKenna and Mrs. Hoffman and the NOCW. [7]

World War I


 Fr. Francis P. Duffy Window - Upper Sacristy

With the entrance of the United States into World War I (6 April 1917), the circulation of Salve Regina grew.  As alumni and students of the University were summoned to war,the Shrine publication was soon making the rounds among the doughboys in the trenches of France.  Likewise, various local chapters of the NOCW sent the names of "soldier boy" members to the office of Rev. McKenna. On 20 November 1918, nine days after the signing of the armistice, the cause for the Shrine took a new turn. The American Church was earnestly enjoined with the construction of the national church as a  memorial monument. Cardinal Gibbons, as Chancellor of the University, wrote:

The trustees of the Catholic University, profoundly grateful to our Divine Lord Jesus Christ for the victory ... appeal to our Catholic people to join with them in the erection of a memorial monument of thanksgiving at the National Capital on the grounds of the Catholic University.  We can imagine no better memorial of our common faith in God's overruling providence and our gratitude for the greatest of victories than the erection of the noble  church long contemplated by them in honor of Mary Immaculate, the heavenly patroness of the Catholic Church in our beloved country.

As in 1911 and again in 1914, the target group of the appeal was the Catholic women of the United States:

We are desirous of raising at once a fund of one million dollars with which we may begin the erection of this great edifice which has already received [papal] blessing ... This church will also commemorate the gallant sailors and soldiers who laid down their lives for the Nation, the unity and the tenacity of the American people and the heroic virtues of all true patriots who foiled that we might enjoy in peace the inherited blessings of justice and freedom. ... let our gratitude take permanent shape.  Let us begin soon and finish splendidly this great monument in honor of Our Blessed Mother.

As this new cause was trumpeted, old dominions tumbled: press releases stated that all contributions were to be sent to the Rev. Bernard A. McKenna of Catholic University.  While this news--which was received second-hand--was unsettling to the NOCW, the alarm was sounded in June 1919 with the surprise announcement by the University of its selection of an architect:

The Trustees of the Catholic University of America have appointed Maginnis and Walsh of Boston, as architects of the National Shrine ... both are architects of the first class, and with them is associated Frederick V. Murphy, the Professor of Architecture at the Catholic University.[9]

Directly below this announcement, was a brief article in which the funds that were donated by the New York Chapter of the NOCW several months earlier, finally were reported and credited. The juxtaposition of these two articles was twofold in purpose: first, it acknowledged Fr. McKenna's oversights, which the treasurer Mrs. John Agar pointed out to Bishop Shahan in a rather pointed letter, and secondly, it signaled the beginning of the end of the NOCW.  A flurry of correspondence followed. Mrs. Hoffman, who fulfilled her promise to raise $50,000, was deeply disappointed.  In the end, the members of the New York Chapter resigned.  A check for dues paid for the year 1919 was sent to Rev. McKenna.  Having fulfilled its last obligation, the organization officially disbanded.   Receipt of the money and the dissolution of the NOCW were duly reported in the February 1920 issue of Salve Regina.  The following month heralded the new "official organization" created to expedite the building of the National Shrine, The National Salve Regina League.  Seated squarely in the position previously held by Hoffman, Whelan and the NOCW was Rev. Bernard A. McKenna.  It was an entirely new game.  History would record that Bishop Shahan and Rev. McKenna, were the driving force behind the construction of the National Shrine.

It is often speculated that the reason for the change in architectural style from that of the Gothic to Romanesque-Byzantine was the building of the National Cathedral (1907, cornerstone) on the Northwest side of Washington, D.C.  While there may be a kernel of truth therein, the real reason lies closer to home.  Shahan once stated that he would not “presume to dictate the style . . . [that] it should be settled by the Trustees,” when the time came.[10]   John J. Cardinal Glennon (1862-1946), Archbishop of St. Louis, a member of the CUA Board of Trustees and a close, personal friend of Shahan, was one of the most influential people behind the change from Gothic to Romanesque-Byzantine.  Assessing the advantages and disadvantages of the two styles of architecture, Archbishop Glennon believed “while the Gothic [style] ... appears ... to lift the people to God, the Roman style or the Byzantine ... endeavors to bring God down to earth ... [God] lives with us.” [11]   In practical terms, the Romanesque-Byzantine style did not require the simultaneous ornamentation of the interior with the completion of the exterior, i.e., from the “ground up,” as did the Gothic.  This was a significant financial benefit; one which appealed to the fiscal minds.

Blessing of the Site

The beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century offered the nation many firsts.  Among them: the ratification of the 19th Amendment and the granting of women's suffrage; the founding of the League of Women Voters; the first meeting of the League of Nations in Geneva with the noticeable absence of the United States; the signing of Babe Ruth by the New York Yankees; the sale of the candy bar "Baby Ruth"--named for President Grover Cleveland's daughter--at candy counters across the nation; the premier of the Miss America Pageant at Atlantic City; and the start of Prohibition.  During this same year, two events, which would forever be joined to one another, also entered the annals of history.  On Sunday, the 16th of May, Pope Benedict XV canonized the "Maid of Orleans," Joan of Arc, at St. Peter's in Vatican City.  On that same day in Washington, D.C., Archbishop Giovanni Vincenzo Bonzano, the Apostolic Delegate (1912-1922), blessed the site designated for the National Shrine and then a statue of Joan of Arc. The statue was placed in the Salve Regina Chapel until it could be relocated to a place in the Shrine. [12]

 Blessing of the Site (16 May 1920).  White ribbons outline the site of the future National Shrine..

Archbishop Bonzano blesses the land.


Both events were front-page news for The Washington Post and The Washington Herald, where it was noted that the Mass for Blessing was "celebrated simultaneously with solemn ecclesiastical ceremonies at Rome attendant on the official canonization of the Maid of Orleans."    The joining of these two events was due to the relationship Joan of Arc enjoyed with Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception.   The ceremonies of May 16 also paid tribute to Archbishop John Carroll (1735-1815), the first prelate in the United States and the father of the American Hierarchy (1789-1815).  The altar that was used at this Mass was the same at which Carroll celebrated his first Mass at the home of his mother in Rock Creek, Maryland.   Likewise, the vestments worn by Archbishop Bonzano were those of Archbishop Carroll.   The "Carroll Altar" was the main altar in the Crypt Church until 1927.  It remained at the Shrine for several decades thereafter.  Today that altar is encased inside of another in the chapel at Archbishop Carroll High School.  The vestments are preserved at the Archives of the Catholic University of America.

This concludes Part I of The History of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  Please click here for The Cornerstone.

Geraldine M. Rohling, Ph.D., M.A.Ed.




 Copyright © 2005 Geraldine M. Rohling and The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C.
All rights reserved.  Use or reproduction of photographs or text in any fashion without permission is a violation of copyright and is strictly prohibited.

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  1. Third Plenary Council, n. 182
  2. A-BNSIC, Shahan Correspondence, Rector Years, 1910 July 28, to Mr. Jenkins.
  3. 1927 June 25, Saturday, Rt. Rev. Msgr. Francis J. Van Antwerp,  D.D., LL.D., Prothonotary Apostolic, Vicar General of the Diocese of Detroit, Rector of the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, dies at age 72.   He and Msgr. McGoldrick of Brooklyn, NY, assisted Cardinal Gibbons at the laying of the cornerstone on 23 September 1920.  [See Memorial Hall pier 51-S / McGoldrick at 21-W]
  4. As recorded in a memorial volume for Msgr. Francis Van Antwerp, privately printed, Detroit, 1930: 68. 
  5. A-BNSIC, Shahan Collection, Correspondence, Rector Years, 1913 October 15, to Rev. M. J. Foley, Immaculate Conception Church, Pittsfield, Ill.
  6. Salve Regina (January) 1914: 1.
  7. A-BNSIC, "Conversation with Mr. Fred V. Murphy," 9 September 1957. Murphy was the Professor of Architecture at The Catholic University of America, and associate architect for the National Shrine. See also article in American Ecclesiastical Review (March) 1957.
  8. Numbered among the alums were Fr. Francis Patrick Duffy (1871-1932) of New York's Fighting 69th, whose deeds on the battlefield are well known, and who is memorialized in stain glass in the Upper Sacristy of the Shrine. The untimely death of Joyce Kilmer on 30 July 1918 near Seringes, France, was published in Salve Regina. For his bravery, he was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre. See Salve Regina (September) 1918: 43.
  9. Salve Regina (December) 1918: 60.
  10. Salve Regina (June) 1919: 28.
  11. In 1907, Archbishop Glennon laid the cornerstone for the “new” cathedral in St. Louis.   The architectural style is Romanesque-Byzantine.
  12. In May of 1919, Salve Regina Chapel was erected near the North end of Caldwell Hall. It was a building purchased from Sears-Roebuck for $125. The chapel is no longer there. The fate of the statue of Joan of Arc is unknown.