The “crowning jewel” of America’s Catholic church

An interview with Msgr. Walter Rossi on the completion of the Trinity Dome at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Mosaic tiles depicting the Immaculate Conception and various saints are seen in the Trinity Dome at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. The mosaic was dedicated Dec. 8. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

The crowning jewel of “America’s Catholic church”—that is, of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception—was finally unveiled and blessed yesterday. The ceremony presided over by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington and the director of the Board of Trustees of the Shrine, symbolically marked the completion of the largest Catholic Church in America, construction of which begun in 1920.

Nearly a century in the making, the National Shrine was fittingly completed on the patronal feast of the American Catholic Church, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. The “Trinity Dome,” as it is called, is the central and largest dome of the basilica. Now, only two years away from the centenary year commemorating the founding of this glorious basilica, pilgrims can behold with awe, 180 feet in the air, the amazing site of the completed mosaic on its interior. Made in Italy, the mosaic consists of 14 million tesserae (pieces of Venetian glass) across 18,000 square feet, making it one of the largest mosaics of its kind in the world. It depicts the Most Holy Trinity, the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Immaculate Conception, and a procession of saints associated with the United States and the National Shrine.

In 1789, the same year that George Washington was inaugurated the first president of the United States, the Catholic hierarchy was established in this country. The first diocese in the American missionary territory was erected in Baltimore on November 6, 1789 with John Carroll as its first bishop. Seeking aid from heaven to assist the fledgling mission territory entrusted to his pastoral care, Bishop Carroll consecrated the United States to the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception, making her the patroness of the new country.

As years passed, the Catholics of America yearned for a visible sign of their nation’s consecration to Our Lady, the Immaculate Conception. In 1846, an excerpt from a Massachusetts newspaper told of “a magnificent Catholic church [to] be built at Washington, DC after the manner of the great cathedrals of the Old World from subscriptions of every Catholic parish in America.” From this initial desire, American Catholics worked to build a National Shrine through the late-19th, into the 20th and now the 21st century.

Bishop Thomas Joseph Shahan, the fourth rector of the Catholic University of America in Washington, spearheaded the project in its earliest stages of construction. He won the support of Pope St. Pius X (along with his personal contribution of $400) and convinced the board of trustees of his university to donate the land for the construction of the National Shrine in Mary’s honor. In a fundraising newsletter, Bishop Shahan wrote that the Shrine would be a “monument of love and gratitude, a great hymn in stone as perfect as the art of man can make it and as holy as the intentions of its builders could wish it to be.” Donations poured in from across the country and construction began in 1920. The Great Depression and World War II slowed the work. In 1953 a nationwide collection was taken in support of the construction as work on the Great Upper Church was beginning; this was finally completed and consecrated in 1959.

The design of the National Shrine is Byzantine and Romanesque revival. Its more than 80 unique chapels and oratories are each dedicated to different Marian titles from the diverse cultures and ethnicities that comprise the American Catholic Church, all of which fall under the unifying umbrella of the national patroness of American Catholics, the Immaculate Conception.

(CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

However, a number of the original architectural plans were only recently completed. The mosaic covering the interior of two domes, depicting the Resurrection and birth of our Lord, were completed in 2006 and 2007, respectively. And now finally, as of yesterday, the crowning jewel not only of the domes of the basilica, but of the whole National Shrine itself, is complete.

Work began on the completion of the Trinity Dome last year. In support of the project, the bishops of the United States approved a special one-time in-pew second collection on Mother’s Day in honor of our Blessed Mother, to whom our nation and the National Shrine are dedicated. This capstone project completing the construction of the basilica after a century was done according to its original architectural plans and iconographic scheme. The mosaic ornamentation completing the Trinity Dome depicts a unique procession of saints besides the Holy Trinity and Our Lady. The procession of saints consists of those who have a connection to the United States or the Shrine itself, including, among others, St. Juan Diego (the first canonized male Native American), St. Kateri Tekakwitha (the first canonized female Native American), St. Teresa of Calcutta (an honorary American citizen), St. Francis Cabrini, MSC (the first US citizen to be canonized), St. John Paul II (the first pope to visit the National Shrine), and St. Junipero Serra (declared a saint by Pope Francis at the National Shrine in 2015 for the first canonization ever to take place on American soil). In addition to this, the mosaic also includes the Nicene Creed, which encircles the base of the dome, while the dome’s four pendentives feature the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. During his visit to the National Shrine on September 23, 2015, Pope Francis blessed the preliminary segment of mosaic created for the Trinity Dome containing the words of the beginning and end of the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God.” “Amen.”

Some of the saints in the Trinity Dome Mosaic at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington are seen in this illustration. The mosaic was dedicated Dec. 8. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

We are grateful to Msgr. Walter Rossi, the rector of the National Shrine, who oversaw the completion of this project, for making time to answer a few questions.

Father Seán Connolly, for CWR: What are your responsibilities as the rector of the National Shrine?

Msgr. Walter Rossi: I am responsible for the overall care of the Shrine and our guests in the same way as a pastor is responsible for his parish and parishioners.

CWR: Why wasn’t the Trinity Dome completed with the construction of the basilica?

Msgr. Rossi: The Shrine has been a “work in progress” since the placing of the Foundation Stone in 1920. As a matter of fact, the Shrine was built in two stages, first from 1920-1931. The Great Depression and World War II brought construction to a halt. The Upper Church was built between 1955 and 1959. However, since that time we have been working to “finish” the Upper Church. This has been done through the addition of chapels, mosaics, and marble facing. The Trinity Dome is the last part of the Upper Church to be completed.

CWR: When you began your tenure as rector, did you envision completing the Trinity Dome?

Msgr. Rossi: It was a hope which has now become a reality thanks to the support of Catholics throughout the United States, our bishops, and the leadership of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who serves as the chairman of the National Shrine Board of Trustees.

CWR: When was the completion of the Trinity Dome decided upon? What was the process of completing it like?

Msgr. Rossi: This project was approved by our Board of Trustees in 2014 and since that time we have been working on the project. This involved many individuals, including our Iconography Committee and Plant and Facilities Committee, who were an integral part of the process, as well as contractors both here in the United States and in Italy.

CWR: Who decided upon the images depicted upon the mosaic that adorns the dome, and why were they chosen?

Msgr. Rossi: The design is based on the 1953 Iconography Committee design for the Upper Church. We are simply completing what was envisioned and begun when the Upper Church was built. We made an adjustment to the original design so as to include the 13 saints of the United States as well as saints who have had an association with the Shrine and those saints who are reflective of the peoples who visit or make pilgrimage to the Shrine.

CWR: What is your own favorite aspect of the mosaic adorning the Trinity Dome?

Msgr. Rossi: I’m quite pleased with the entire dome and am particularly happy that all the images are readily recognizable for who they represent.

CWR: What is your primary hope for pilgrims who come to pray at the National Shrine?

Msgr. Rossi: The goal of any pilgrimage is to leave the sacred place different than when you arrived. So, for those who come on pilgrimage to Mary’s Shrine, we hope that as they spend time at the National Shrine and invoke the intercession of Our Lady, they will draw closer to Mary, and strive to follow her Son more completely by “doing whatever He tells” them.

About Father Seán Connolly 8 Articles
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He currently serves as parochial vicar at Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Our Lady Parish in Tuckahoe, New York.

10 Comments

  1. Permit me to express several notes of disappointment with the “crown jewel” Trinity Dome. While Americans are reputed to be great admirers of things that are “one of the biggest in the world” and “one of the most expensive in the world”, the artistic conception and execution of the mosaic, which should be of primary importance, appear quite commercial and pedestrian and in any event well below the masterpieces in Ravenna, Rome, and Sicily, to name only a few. Also, the choice of “American saints” appears haphazard and political and even bizarre. Few if any American Catholics would consider Mother Teresa of Calcutta as an American saint, despite her honorary citizenship, still less do Popes John XXIII, Paul Vi, and John Paul II have any significant connection with America as a nation or even with the Basilica itself. Similarly, it appears that although the mosaic was planned almost a century ago, the only popes included are all post-Vatican II popes, even though Pius VI was pope when the country and national hierarchy were established, Pius X when construction of the Basilica begun, and Pius XII when the Greater Upper Church was not only begun but also finished, yet all of them are ignored and omitted. Since the hundredth anniversary of the Basilica is set for 2020, it is rather surprising that the dedication was accelerated to 2017. The only reason I can ascribe for this is that Cardinal Donald Wuerl was required to submit his resignation over two years ago when he reached 75 and would be unlikely to be chairman of the Basilica’s board of trustees in 2020 when his successor would likely hold that office. Observing the 2020 hundredth anniversary would not only allow time for the inclusion of such truly American saints as St. Solanus Casey and perhaps Bishop Fulton Sheen who are now forever omitted from the Dome but also mark the solemnity the anniversary with a fitting memorial of the Basilica’s completion.

    • Paul, you’re premature regarding Blessed Solanus Casey. He’s not canonized yet, but many are praying for it, and for Ven. Fulton J. Sheen as well.

      Regarding the dome I understand your points. Artistic depictions are often subject to second guessing. Personally, I regard it as a magnificent work, which does great homage to The Holy Trinity, and Our Blessed Mother. St. Pius X is well honored in the Shrine with a marvelous prayer chapel.

    • I agree completely. The flat gold background with figures standing like cartoon cutouts on the surface is completely disappointing. Why are the figures not standing in the new garden of the Heavenly Jerusalem? Why is there so much empty space, compared to say, San Clemente of other Roman models. The level of artistic rendering is quite low… right off of a pious holy card. We have great mosaic artists like Aidan Hart living in our own back yard, and instead we wasted money on this amateurish, pious, second-rate kitsch.

    • While we discuss the artistic merit of this “crowning jewel”, or the lack of it, should we not discuss instead the sustainability of such a church against the background of falling church attendance throughout the USA? Will there even be a Catholic Church in this country in the face of a mass apostasy in this country?

  2. In any event, the Shrine overall is flat-out breathtaking. It would be a miracle on a par with Fatima if there were no blunders in judgement by the current project management, given the state of the American Church. I mean, can you remotely imagine moderns approving of the Jesus in Judgement mosaic now in place? So I’m grateful despite what sound like smart criticisms.

  3. Perhaps when I visit (again) some day I will find it beautiful by standing under it. But if the good Monsignor could only say of the best of it “I’m … particularly happy that all the images are readily recognizable for who they represent” (high artistic praise indeed!) then I think I might be in for a disappointment. I can only think of the more ancient and beautiful mosaic apses (e.g. Santa Maria in Trastevere for example) and cry. The placement of the figures and the figures themselves look like interchangeable children’s decals. It could be worse though; if I had been the artist the saints would all look like stick-men!

  4. My reaction to the Dome is mixed. It certainly is artistically beautiful. However, iconographically, the inclusion of the image of the Father as an “old man” is theologically wrong. As a Being of purs spirit, the Father may not be depicted in an image. The Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicaea II), which defined the validity of making and venerating images makes this abundantly clear. It is a doctrinal definition of the Incarnation of Jesus. He can be depicted in an image ONLY because he took the form of man and became flesh. That was was physically real meant that images can and should be made of Him. But to so depict the Father is theologically confusing at best (revealing the depth of confusion about the theological/doctrinal aspect of images that has weighed on the Latin Church since the Middle Ages). The only two images of the Trinity that are “legit” are the Baptism of Christ (where all three Persons of the Trinity are manifest) and the Hospitality of Abraham (although the Latin rite specifically denies, in contrast to the Byzantine Catholic Churches and Orthodox Churches, that this image is an image of the Trinity).

  5. While I welcome the construction of a Catholic church in principle, what about all the other Catholic churches throughout the USA that have been closed in the last few decades because of poor attendance? Against such background this “crowning jewel” appears more like a white elephant. As the congregations are thinning out in the existing Catholic churches, where will the congregation come from to sustain this “crowning jewel”?

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