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 Home > About the Shrine > History > The Cornerstone

The National Patronal Church of the United States of America

The Dedication of the Cornerstone

At long last, actual construction was within reach and a date for the dedication of the cornerstone was selected, Thursday,  23 September  1920.  This event was to be held in conjunction with the annual fall meeting of the American Catholic Hierarchy at The Catholic University of America.   Grasping the significance of the things that were soon to come, James J. Sexton, a monument maker from Connecticut, wrote to his pastor,  Rev. Michael J. O'Connor, hoping to secure the honor of donating the cornerstone:

As a fitting tribute to Almighty God for His goodness to me during the last fifty years of my business career I wish to present in the name of my family and my self the cornerstone of polished granite suitable for the National Shrine ... convey my request while in Hartford Wednesday to His Eminence Cardinal Gibbons through the Right Reverend Thomas Joseph Shahan, D.D. and if the same is acceptable [sic] I shall begin at once to prepare a block of the best granite so it can be delivered at once to Washington Aug 20th. If arrangements have already been perfected through some other doner [sic] I will donate a beautiful Carrara Marble Statue for one of the Altars instead.

Sexton's offer was accepted.  In a letter to Bishop Shahan (17 June 1920) the text of the inscription for the stone begins to take form, and Sexton's enthusiasm is apparent:

I am in receipt of your letter of the 14th ... and I hasten to reply and to inform you that I have the stone now about ready and I will place the inscription just as you suggested and I am ready and willing to cut any other lettering that you may wish. ... if you wish the name of the Pope and the Cardinal and the Papal Delegate as well as your own name as the Right Rev. Bishop as I would feel very highly honored to have my name among the above named dignitaries of our Church.

Bishop Shahan, an acknowledged scholar of early Church History, also had a talent for prose.  Consequently, the inscription on the cornerstone bears the stroke of his pen, and is written in the tradition of the Roman calendar, harkening back to the proclamations of the early Church:

D[eo] * O[ptimo]  * M[aximo]  / Lapidem Istum Primarium I Ecclesiae Beatae Mariae Virginis  Immaculatae / Posuit Feliciter / Jacobus Cardinalis Gibbons  / VIII [ante diem] Kal[ends]  Octobris  An[no]  MCMXX  /Benedicto XV Pontifice Maximo /   Praeside Stat[uum] Foed[eratorum]   Am[ericae]Woodrow Wilson / Rectore Cath[olica]Univ[ersitatis] Americae / Thoma Joseph Shahan / D[one] D[edit]  Jacobus Joseph Sexton.


That is to say:


To God, [to] the Best, [to] the Greatest  / On the 8th Day [before] the Kalends of October [i.e., 23rd September] / in the Year 1920 / [with the] Supreme Pontiff [being] Benedict XV / [with the] President of the United States of America [being] Woodrow Wilson / [with the] Rector of Catholic University of America [being] / Thomas Joseph Shahan / James Cardinal Gibbons / successfully lays / this First Stone / of the Church of Blessed Mary, Virgin Immaculate. / The benefactor [of the stone] is James Joseph Sexton.

In the three months prior to the September ceremonies, Sexton's correspondence to Bishop Shahan bears witness to a man possessed not only with spiritual fervor, but also an uncanny sense of history and of the magnitude of the events that were unfolding.

I have concluded to take the stone on our auto truck direct from Strattford to Washington, D.C. and our good Priest Father O'Connor is to celebrate a Mass in honor of the departure of the stone and for its safe delivery there.  It is our intention to place this beautiful block of granite upon the truck so that all may see it especially the school children through the cities we will pass through. We shall have a beautiful Silk United States Flag also a beautiful Silk Papal Flag placed beside the stone while in transit and feel safe in saying no such harm will befall it as did the stone placed in the Washington Monument which had been donated by one of the Popes.  [This is in reference to the anti-Papal/anti-Catholic group, the "Know Nothings," who are said to have removed the stone and hurled it into the Potomac where, according to legend, it remains to this day.]

Yet, it is the letter of September 14, which is revealing.   As the first stone of this great Roman Catholic monument, Sexton agreed to deliver to the nation's capital not only a quadrangular four-ton block of highly polished black New Hampshire granite, but also a touchstone of America's past:

It may interest you to know that this is the 115th stone we have given in 50  years to churches and this is the largest and most beautiful. ...  I selected the piece right in the mountain side [sic] and had it taken out while I was there and brought it 300 miles over the historic route, part of which is recorded in history as the road Paul Revere rode.   After arriving in Cambridge Mass., we circled the very spot where General Washington took command of the Constitutional Army in 1775, as my Great Grand Uncle, General O'Sullivan, one of the Green Mountain Boys, was on Washington's staff at the time. After leaving Cambridge we came on to Lexington, then to Woburn Mass. passing over the entire Boston Post Road ... the route of the Continental Army, into New Haven then to Milford and Strattford, where we have rested this past week to letter the stone. We leave on Thursday with our new truck all highly painted in Green and Gold [sic] and have been invited to pass more than 40 schools between here and Philadelphia.  Rev.  M. J. O'Connor, my Pastor, is to celebrate a High Mass for our safe delivery and return, as it is the 29th anniversary of our marriage. We are to be received at Fordham College, St. Patrick's Cathedral, [by] Mayor John Hyland of New York City, also the Newspaper Representatives and Moving Picture Photographers of New York City. We are to place a reath [sic] at the base of [the] Nathan Hale Monument, [and] then ... one at the Statue of Washington on Wall St at Sub Treasury.  Passing through Philadelphia we expect to call on Bishop Doherty [sic] then at Independence Hall, and at Baltimore will pay our respects to Cardinal Gibbons  ...  If we can, we shall pass over to Fort McHenry and encircle the spot where Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the Star Spangled Banner. I have so arranged the route that we expect to arrive in Washington, D. C.  Saturday about 4-30 and I have written to a brother K of C. Sec. [to the President of the U.S.] Tumulty, that I shall be very happy to pass through the White House grounds so our President may look upon this stone if his health permits.

In addition to the cornerstone, Sexton planned to distribute nearly 100 small polished pieces of the Shrine stone to the "high dignitaries."  Cardinal Gibbons and Bishop Shahan were to receive "very handsome" pieces, and the Vatican Museum in Rome, "the only other large piece."

The Journey's End

 

Msgr. Pace, Fr. McKenna, Bp. Shahan,  J. J. Sexton

On Wednesday, September 15, the 4-ton stone (5 ft. long x 3 ft. high x 2 ft. 4 in. wide) was placed on the new green and gold "auto-truck."  The "motorcade" followed the route dictated by Sexton in his letter, with the exception of the visit to the White House.  The arrival of the stone in New York City met with great enthusiasm.   A bicycle squad of police escorted the stone through a dense crowd of spectators on 5th Avenue.   At the intersections, devout people hastened to touch or kiss the stone and bless themselves.  Upon the arrival of the cornerstone at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Archbishop Hayes, surrounded by bishops, prelates and clergy, received the participants and blessed the stone.  The New York daily papers photographed this scene for their publications, as did those newspapers in Baltimore when  Cardinal Gibbons greeted the motorcade.   Finally, four days later, on Sunday, September 19 at 4 p.m., the stone reached its destination: the grounds of The Catholic University of America on the northeast side of the capital of the United States.

September 23, 1920

The site was now ready for the granite block and God's blessing.  The ancient ritual was the manifestation of the belief that the work that begins with God must be built upon the Son of God, Jesus.   In the noble vesper hymn Urbs Jerusalem from the Office of the Dedication of Churches, it is sung,  "Christ, the cornerstone, was sent to be the foundation, bound in both joints of the walls," thereby reminding the faithful of the "perfect first stone" to which all are solidly joined. 

 

At 3:00 p.m., the march of the ecclesiastics began from Divinity (a.k.a. Caldwell) Hall, and moved in a southerly direction towards the plat of land where white wooden crosses and ribbon outlined the future site of the National Shrine.   Members of religious orders of men led the procession and took their place below the pulpit on the eastside of the newly excavated crater.   Next, walked the hierarchy of the American Church (11 archbishops and 56 bishops), followed by the 4th degree Knights of Columbus dressed in their silk hats, frock coats and carrying their swords.   Last in the procession walked the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop (later Cardinal) John Bonzano, James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, and William Cardinal O'Connell, Archbishop of Boston.    They took their places on crimson colored thrones situated on the western rise of the crater.   Inside the crater, where the walls of the north and east apses of the Shrine would one day meet, the cornerstone was suspended with an iron chain from a white wooden pyramid. 

Bishop Thomas J. Shahan, Rector of the University and Founder of the Shrine, welcomed the civil and the ecclesiastical dignitaries.   Among the former were representatives from twenty-nine nations.   Justice Joseph McKenna of the Supreme Court, Admiral Benson, Major General Tasker S. Bliss, Brigadier General I. W. Littell, Colonel H. P. Birmingham of the Soldiers Home, and a delegation of five veterans assembled by Mr. John Storm, himself a Civil War veteran, representing all who fought in the Indian Wars, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and World War I.   Shahan then read aloud two telegrams, the first from Pope Benedict XV and the second from Cardinal Bourne of England. 

 

To Cardinal Gibbons:
The Holy Father was greatly pleased to learn of the laying of the Foundation Stone of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and glad to grant the Apostolic Blessing to your Eminence, the clergy, and faithful present at the sacred ceremony, and to the zealous promoters and contributors of the holy work.
Cardinal Gasparri.

Cardinal Gibbons stood and proceeded down the red-carpeted stairs, flanked by the Knights of Columbus with their swords drawn in salute.   He approached the stone, vested in an amice, alb, cincture, white stole and cope.   On a small table to the side were the items for the blessing: a dish of salt; a vessel of water; an aspergial, a silver-plated ceremonial trowel; the Roman Pontificale; a processional cross; a  trowel and cement, and a small stone slab, which would seal the memorial items inside the cornerstone.

After vesting, the Cardinal was seated and the blessing of the water and the exorcising and blessing of the salt began.   Upon completion of these ancient prayers, blest salt was dropped into the water in the shape of a cross, three times.  With his ministers at his side, Cardinal Gibbons faced the wooden cross designating the site of the main altar in the Crypt, and sprinkled the ground.  He then went to the cornerstone, sprinkling to the left, to the right, and to the middle.  With the silver-plated ceremonial trowel, he traced three crosses on the six sides of the stone, reciting each time: "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

After offering the prayer of blessing over the stone, he inserted the metal container.  Inside the container was the parchment of attestation of the blessing and laying of the stone, coins "of the realm," the membership rolls of the newly established organization Salve Regina, and a stone from Mount Carmel.   As the mason sealed the box in the cornerstone, Cardinal Gibbons knelt and a male chorus of a few hundred sang the Litany of the Saints.  The recitation of Psalm 126 (Unless the Lord builds the house) then followed.

 

As the stoneworkers lowered the cornerstone onto the cement base, Cardinal Gibbons placed his right hand on the stone and prayed:  "In the faith of Jesus Christ, we place this first stone in the foundation."    He then blest the stone three times. While reciting the antiphon for Psalm 51 he again asperged the stone three times.   Psalm 51 (Miserere), the fourth penitential psalm, was then recited in its entirety, followed by Psalm 86 (The foundations thereof are in the holy mountains.)   Facing the direction of what would one day be the main entrance of the Shrine, the Cardinal invoked the divine blessing on the structure and intoned the Veni creator spiritus, which the men's chorus completed. 

 

The ritual blessing concluded, Bishop John T. McNicholas of Duluth, Minnesota, proceeded to the pulpit for the sermon.   Scorning the wave of materialism, which the he believed was sweeping over the world, Bishop McNicholas spoke of the laxity of the marriage tie and the rise of revolutionary doctrines of government.  Challenging the Bolsheviks in Russia and the burgeoning of Communism, he said: "Revolutionary movements promise what is clearly impossible-absolute equality among men and the equal distribution of earthly possessions."     Similarly, he addressed the newly amended rights of women to vote (26 August 1920), saying that he believed they sought "excessive" freedom.  Taking care not to alienate their vital numbers, as it was the women of the United States who were charged with raising the funds to build the Shrine, he compensated by stating that the Shrine would be a monument "to the religious fervor of the Catholic Women of the United States."

At the end of the sermon given by Bishop McNicholas, Cardinal Gibbons gave his blessing.  With the singing of the Te Deum the dedication ceremony came to an end, and the next eighty years began.  To commemorate the day, a bronze medal struck for the occasion, was sold to those who attended the ceremony.

The Foundation Program

Many donations were yet to be solicited and garnered.   Both before and after the dedication ceremony, Fr. Bernard A. McKenna arranged for the sale of the "Foundation Program."  In an open letter to members of the newly established Salve Regina, he wrote: Realizing that every Catholic family should have a copy of the Foundation Program, I have arranged to have a considerable number of extra copies printed, and will continue to receive subscriptions until the supply is exhausted.   For one dollar, a copy of the program, billed as "a work of art produced in 7 colors" could be purchased.  The cover displayed a sketch of the proposed National Shrine in the Romanesque-Byzantine style, with the tower or campanile located at the southeast corner.   It was the centerfold however, which commanded the most attention. 

 

 
The color illustration [shown above] was the work of the Benedictine Father, Raphael, who was considered by some art critics to be an exceptional artist in the painting of religious subjects.  He pictured the Blessed Mother as the Immaculate Conception positioned against a tapestry background.   To her right, is a bishop in full vestments; to her left a mother with a baby in her arms; in the lower right corner are two maidens of Mary dressed in white gowns and veils.  At the feet of the Immaculate Conception, the flag of the United States is held outstretched by another two young maidens; underneath the flag is a map of the United States, held by two Native American girls, who "plead for its protection" through the intercession of the Virgin Immaculate.  In the lower right hand corner, is a toppled Indian totem pole upon which one of the Indian maidens sits, illustrating the power of the Virgin and her Son over all pagan gods and goddesses.  The lower left-hand corner pictures an Indian chief, the mighty warrior, kneeling to the Virgin.   To the left of the tapestry, stands the dome of the Nation's Capitol, to the right, the proposed National Shrine. (NB the location of the campanile.) The illustration is framed with the seals of the states of the Union, woven together with a pure white ribbon, the ends of which are held in the beak of an American Eagle.  This illustration serves as a perfect summation of the times:  God and Country.
Afterthoughts

A week after the dedication, Sexton wrote to Bishop Shahan from his Connecticut home: I think how lucky we were to travel so far, in all 1,540 miles, without any accident and I shall always reverance [sic] the Blessed Virgin Mary [for] how she protected us at Perryville Road when our Auto Truck [sic] dashed down the hill at fully 40 miles an hour.

The following day, Sexton came across an article published in a Bridgeport newspaper and wrote the following to Rev. McKenna:  I am enclosing the copy of the article published [September 15] ... the day we started on our 332 mile trip to Washington, D.C.   Please note the picture on the opposite side of the paper showing what might have happened to us at the noon hour [when the explosion occurred] at the Sub-Treasury if we had started on the time first intended.

Conclusion

 

In the two years that followed, the foundation or cornerstone was the only stone put in place in the construction of the Shrine.  To protect it from the elements and possible damage, it was sealed in a wooden shell.  As the search for a builder continued, the grounds remained as on the day of dedication, until the "turning of the first sod" on 18 September 1922.

 

 

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

© 2006, Geraldine M. Rohling and The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C.  All rights reserved.  The use or reproduction of photographs or text in any fashion without permission is strictly prohibited.

  

                                   

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