I’m just going to say it—the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the most beautiful building in DC. I know, I know, some National Cathedral and Library of Congress devotees may get upset at my pronouncement, but Catholic University’s Basilica makes my jaw drop and fills me with awe more than any other place in the District.
The concept of the Basilica is to pay tribute to different identities of the Virgin Mary across the world. All along the sides of the main hall, there are small alcoves and shrines to various incarnations of the Virgin and countries’ patron saints, such as Mary Queen of Ireland, Our Lady of Czestochova (Poland), Our Lady of Bistrica (Croatia), and Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico). In fact, the Basilica’s flier lists over 30 versions of Our Lady that are paid tribute to in the building.
Also featured prominently are female saints, such as St. Katherine Drexel of Philadelphia in the Hall of American saints. The Basilica also has dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces of sacred art, including extraordinarily detailed mosaics and artifacts from many papal visits.
The beginnings of the Basilica were completed in 1926, but the building was not completed and finally dedicated until 1959. From the start, the place had the blessing of the Pope and was heavily financed by the Knights of Columbus. It is still a working church, with six masses every Sunday and also throughout the week.
I’m no religious scholar, but I will say that there is something strangely comforting and delightful about a building dedicated to women helping other women. There is no doubt that these female saints and embodiments of Mary provided guidance to women across cultures for thousands of years, especially immigrants to America whose stories are frequently detailed on plaques across the Basilica.
The place is well worth a visit, especially if you have a soft spot in your heart for grand, sweeping Byzantine-style churches. Enjoy!
To visit: a short walk from the Brookland/Catholic University Metro station, 400 Michigan Ave. NE. 202-526-8300. Hours seasonal, but usually 7am-6pm or 7pm.