Nearly a century after the cornerstone was laid in 1920, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., is complete. On December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the final portion of the church — the largest in the United States — was blessed and dedicated at a solemn Mass where Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, was the principal celebrant.
The last part of the shrine to be completed was the Trinity Dome, which has been covered with a mosaic comprised of 14 million Venetian glass tiles known as tesserae. The tesserae were made in Venice (obviously), and assembled into 30,000 sections, then all boxed up in 60 crates shipped to the United States.
At 30,000 sections, the mosaic must be the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle, but the artists who created the mosaics in Italy pasted onto each section, using a glue made from flour and water, a paper map so the artisans who assembled the mosaic at the shrine would know exactly where each piece of the puzzle should go. If the artisans had used the traditional method, they would have put the mosaic together tesserae by tesserae. In a project of this scale, such a project could have taken three years or more. Yet, thanks to the 30,000-sections method and the map, the craftsmen finished the installation in eight months.
Once the sections were in place and had adhered to the surface, the paper maps were removed using plain water and tools no more elaborate that sponges and soft brushes.
The mosaic depicts the Blessed Trinity, Our Lady under her title the Immaculate Conception, and a company of saints who have a special connection with the United States. Among them are Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, an Italian immigrant and the first American citizen to become a saint; Pope St. John Paul II, the first pope to visit the shrine; St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized; and St. Teresa of Calcutta, whom in 1996 Congress named an Honorary American citizen. The shrine has a connection to another saint — Pope St. Pius X, who, back in 1914, contributed $400 (in lira) toward its construction.
Around the base of the dome is the text of the Nicene Creed which Catholics recite every Sunday at Mass. During his visit to the shrine in 2015, Pope Francis blessed two of the Creed panels — one that reads, “I believe in one God,” and a second that reads, “Amen.”
The shrine church has five domes, but the Trinity Dome is the largest, covering 18,300 square feet. It soars 150 feet off the ground. To bless the mosaic, Cardinal Wuerl insisted on ascending up to the dome using the same elevator-type lift the work crew used to install this massive work of art. Clearly the man has no fear of heights.
From the beginning the church was designed in an updated Byzantine style, and as was true of Byzantine churches more than 1000 years ago, the designers planned a rich collection of mosaics to enrich the interior.
In addition to the mosaics there are many other fine works of art displayed in the shrine’s 80 chapels and oratories. Each was erected by an ethnic group to display the deep devotion of the people of their land — or as we say, “the Old Country” — for the Blessed Virgin Mary. To be honest, some of the sacred artwork in these chapels is more successful than others, but I won’t be so undiplomatic as to point out which is which. Let me just say that etched glass reminds me of shower doors from the 1970s.
The shrine is adjacent to the campus of the Catholic University of America, which is far off the beaten path usually followed by visitors to the capital. Nonetheless, the church welcomes 1 million pilgrims a year who go out of their way to visit it.
When St. John Paul II came to the shrine in 1979, he said of this grand church, “This Shrine speaks to us with the voice of all America, with the voice of all the sons and daughters of America, who have come here from the various countries of the Old World. When they came, they brought with them in their hearts the same love for the Mother of God that was characteristic of their ancestors and of themselves in their native lands.” Now, after 97 years, the vision of American Catholics to have a house worthy of the Mother of God has been accomplished.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life.