Christmas morning at the Basilica in Baltimore

A light dusting of snow covered the lawns and the rooftops of the red brick homes I passed at 7:00 a.m.  The streets glistened as rock salt and the rising sun melted the previous day’s wintery mix.  The city of 610,000 seemed unusually quaint as I made my quiet drive.  It is Christmas morning, 2012, in Baltimore.

My yuletide tradition is to visit one of the many congregations that still has a midnight service, but fatigue and foul weather kept me in on Christmas Eve.  Christmas morning, however, I was up before dawn.  Seeing that the snowfall had ended, I decided this year I would visit one of the oldest and most venerated churches in town: The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Basilica sits atop a hill in the Mt. Vernon district. (All photos by Justus Heger)

The stately Basilica in Baltimore sits atop a hill in the Mt. Vernon district.  A brief chronicle of the building, found on the Basilica website, recounts that the church was, “the first great metropolitan cathedral constructed in the United States after the adoption of the Constitution.  Built from 1806-1821, the Basilica quickly became a symbol of the country’s newfound religious freedom.”

Steeped in history, the website also notes that the Basilica has hosted ten Provincial and Plenary Councils.  The Third Plenary Council gave American Catholics the famous Baltimore Catechism.
In recent years, famous visitors to the Basilica have included Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa.  According to George Weigel, NBC News Vatican analyst and Distinguished Senior Fellow and Chair of Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., “No other Catholic edifice in America can claim to have seen so much history made inside its walls.”

Unfortunately, those storied walls suffered severe damage in the earthquake which shook the region in August of 2011.  This Christmas, the Basilica, which had recently been meticulously  restored to the original vision of architect Benjamin Latrobe, is once again sheathed in a skeleton of lumber and steel.

George E. Wilk II, project superintendent for the restoration company, Lewis Contracting, told me that most of the interior walls are being completely replastered.  “There is some lathe work in here, particularly in areas where the building has arches, but most of the original plaster was applied directly to the structure’s masonry surfaces.  That didn’t allow any ‘give’ when the building shook, so it all must be replaced.”

Wilk says the project is on schedule and that work will be completed by March 8, 2013.  Aiding the construction crews in their work are two interesting and unique tools.  One is a scaffolding system called space frame.  Primarily used in bridge work, space frames can also be used to span large interior areas with few supports.  Wilk believes this creative approach may be the first such use of this type of scaffolding for interior repair.

The interior of the Basilica is stunning.

The second and most striking feature is the reams of linen which encompass the sanctuary.  The cream colored, fire-proof material was obtained from a company called Fandango which supplies linens, lighting and props for weddings, trade shows and other special events.  Draping the sanctuary ceiling and walls is meant to protect the pews and the altar from the dust of the ongoing construction.  But for me, entering this cocoon-like covering on Christmas morning, I was reminded of the verse in the Gospel of Luke which reads: “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

The service began with the singing of, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  Led by the cantor, accompanied by piano and brass, we sang the first verse in English, the second in Latin, and then returned to English for the remaining stanzas.  Prayers and a recitation of the Nicene Creed were followed by a homily, delivered by the officiant for the mass,  Reverend Monsignor Arthur F. Valenzano, Rector of the Basilica.   Recalling the teaching of Sister Athanasius, Valenzano wished the congregation a “Blessed  Christmas.”  The rector said, “It is good to be merry at Christmas, but now more than ever we need to be Blessed.”

Valenzano confessed that in light of the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy, even his faith in an all-loving, omnipresent God was put to the test.  He said, however, he found strength in a story which was told by the late Fred Rogers of television’s Mr. Rogers Neighborhood:

Exterior of the Basilica stands out in Charm City.

“When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

The rector said his sermons usually have three points, even so, the one point he wanted to stress in his Christmas message is that, “God is always with us.”

Gently driving home his singular message, Valenzano concluded, “If you want to know where God is in the midst of tragedy, just look for the helpers.”

When the mass was over, the service was ended with the singing of, “The First Noel.”  Exiting the sanctuary, one congregant said to me, “This service was just what I needed.  It makes me feel like I would like to start attending church regularly again.”

Editors note: This is the first part of an ongoing series which will look at the places and people that make up the rich history and diverse nature of spirituality, belief and observance in Baltimore and beyond.