Side trip: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Side trip: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

We sadly had to miss the Archdiocese pilgrimage to National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes on October 12, led by the Bishop (see here for Arlington Catholic Herald article), so we very much anticipated a tour of the National Shrine arranged by our Parish, the Cathedral of St. Thomas More. Turns out to be new discoveries at a familiar place.

Visit date: Saturday, November 4, 2023

Mass: Private Mass, Mary, Queen of Missions Chapel

Address: 400 Michigan Avenue, Northeast Washington, D.C. 20017

Website: The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Memorial of Saint Charles Borromeo
Readings for the Memorial of Saint Charles Borromeo, Bishop (instead of Lectionary 484)

Jesus said:
“I am the good shepherd.
A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
A hired man, who is not a shepherd
and whose sheep are not his own,
sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away,
and the wolf catches and scatters them.
This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd,
and I know mine and mine know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father;
and I will lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice,
and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”


by Michael

Our Pastor, Father Posey, at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More, kindly arranged a parish visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Terry was very excited about this, especially since her 90-year old father wanted to go. He is Presbyterian but has been enjoying going to Mass at the Cathedral, as it remind him of his wife, Maureen, who was a devoted Catholic and church organist, and who raised Terry in the Church.

It’s been a while since our last Mary-named church visit, so we were anxious to get back out on a Saturday, which we had become accustomed to over the summer and have missed. It was a great excuse to get back out there as we anticipate our final four Mary-named church visits at the end November.

I taught at the nearby Catholic high school, Archbishop Carroll, so I know the Basilica well — we held school events there, including Baccalaureate masses and graduation (including for my daughter in 2009). But I attended as teacher and school employee. This was my first visit to the Shrine as a Catholic. Very special for me, then. Terry visits the National Shrine with some regularity (she likes the fourth pew in to the left, which is underneath a statue of St. Joan of Arc), but she had never received a tour. So for both of us, it was new discoveries on familiar ground.

Ther logistics of Terry’s dad and our dogs meant that we couldn’t attend the JPII Shrine visit, so we joined the group for the 1:00 pm tour of the Cathedral, led by a very knowledgeable guide, whose name I did not catch. He walked us through the Crypt-level, then on the main-level of the Basilica. You can walk through the Basilica using his Interactive Map, which shows all the chapels we visited on both levels. Having visited Mexico City only a few months before, I had the Catedral Metropolitan (see our photo gallery) in mind as we walked through the Basilica. The Catedral was built over several centuries, so it is a conglomeration of statues and shrines, one on top of the other. The National Shrine is a modern construction, so it is more organized — and less visceral. Each shrine is it’s own room, which is fine, but I better enjoyed the experience at the Catedral Metropolitan, which overwhelms the visitor and worshipper. That said, since the chapels at the National Shrine are isolated, they each offer a distinct and isolated experience.

The guide was careful to let us know who donated for the construction of each chapel, which is, indeed, important, as it’s a matter of money — and devotion. (He did emphasize the million-dollar donation from his Knights of Columbus). So it was interesting to hear what he emphasized, and there were plenty of fascinating facts and ideas we learned from him about the various statues, reliefs, paintings, etc. as well as the origins of the individual chapels, each of which represent a particular devotion or movement.

I was taken aback, however, to learn that the Pieta statue in the Mother of Sorrows Chapel, a donation of the Slovak Union of the United States and Canada, as sculpted by the actor Ernest Borgnine. I’ve done a bit of learning about the remarkable history of the Church in Slovakia, so I paid special attention to our guide’s description of this chapel. As Terry was pushing her father around in a wheelchair, she was behind us, so I traced my way back to her and said excitedly, “Look, that statue was made by Ernest Borgnine!” “Wow!” she replied.

While I wasn’t overwhelmed at the moment by images of Our Lady in McHale’s Navy (I remember him more from The Dirty Dozen and Ice Station Zebra, but, yeah, McHale…), I did wonder a bit about this famous actor and his Marian devotion. While the group moved on, I circled back to the Mother of Sorrows Chapel to check in on Ernest Borgnine and his statue. Turns out it was created by “Ernest Morenon,” not “Borgnine”, so I had misheard our guide. I quickly caught up with Terry and whispered, “Not Ernest Borgnine!” to which we both chuckled. At the end of our tour, I mentioned it to our guide, and he replied, “The actor?” He then tried a few ways to pronounce the name, “Morenon,” finally falling back on, “Morenine”, which is what I had likely misheard. I apologized, but he took it in good humor, so we departed laughing about it. Later, I mentioned to a fellow parishioner that I had thought I heard that the artist of the Pieta statue was “Ernest Borgnine,” and she said, “That’s what I heard, too, I couldn’t believe it!” Borgnine, by the way, is Italian and not Slavic, as Morenon. There’s not much on the web on Morenon, but I do find from an interesting brochure of artwork or contributions to the nation in Washington DC by Slavic-Americans, which notes about the Our Lady of Sorrows chapel,

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Roman Catholic Church in North America, was built between 1920-1961. Since September 1965, it has also beautiful chapel dedicated to Our Mother of Sorrows, Patroness of Slovakia. Life-size Trani marble pieta by Ernest Morenon dominates the Chapel of Our Mother of Sorrows, which is a gift of the First Catholic Slovak Union of the United States and Canada (Jednota).

Slovak Footsteps in Washington

As we had to take ramps and elevators instead of stairs to move her wheel-chair bound father, Terry and I were usually behind the group, which allowed us to sneak into the various chapels after the group viewed them. This gave us a few extra moments to view and process the signs and to take a deeper look into them all. One that stood out to us was the Ave Maria / Founder’s Chapel in the Crypt level, with the sarcophagus of Bishop Thomas Shahan, founder of the National Shrine, and the only person buried in the Basilica (see Bishop Thomas Shahan: Founder of “America’s Catholic Church”). Terry noticed that the statue of Bishop Shahan on his sarcophagus depicts a mark of some sort on the back of his hands (in the form of prayer), and we wondered if it was a stigmata, although I find no reference to it.

I learned in the Chapel that Bishop Shahan had petitioned Pope Pius X to bless the project — Saint Pius X has long been a hero of mine for his brave stands against socialism. Now a Catholic, I appreciate more his defense of the Church against modernism and for ordering the first codification of Chruch law since 1150, the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Pius X personally sent four hundred dollars for the new church, some $12-20,000 in today’s money.

Bishop Shahan named the Chapel, “Ave Maria,” and, as we can see from his appeal for the creation of the national Catholic church, that “every nation has some great National Monument in honor of our Blessed Mother,” devotion to Mary was fundamental to his vision for it. Furthermore, he named his bulletin that promoted the project, Salve Regina. These details and more are from an excellent article on Shahan’s efforts to build the church, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception – Catholic Historical Research ( (be sure to use the excellent links in the footnotes).

Bishop Shahan insisted that the church design reflect the beauty and mystique of early Byzantine and Romanesque churches, as opposed to the, later, Gothic style, which, by the way, was the design of the Episcopalian National Cathedral still being built across town. Bishop Shahan had it right. The Basilica ended up fulfilling his vision with a combination of the grandeur of a Byzantine dome with a Romanesque facade and tower:

A glorious Church sheds a warm, emotional, sacramental light, and speaks with a divine eloquence that nothing can equal. I would not presume to dictate the style of it… But I have always admired a great, free open space, unbroken by columns, an ideal space for preaching and singing, for seeing and hearing. Its wall spaces and ceilings ought to be covered with noble historical frescoes depicting the origins and glories of Catholics in the United States, and particularly in these parts. Little by little, it would become a museum of the finest statuary, of all the loveliest art in Church plate, vestments, etc., etc. In a word, no one would think he had truly seen the Capital of the Nation unless he had paid a visit to this Church. Inside and outside, it would be a monument of artistic truth and sincerity, and thus a mirror of all the beauties of our venerable and holy religion…”

Bishop Thomas Shahan: Founder of “America’s Catholic Church” – National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

The vision was fulfilled, and more, by the architects who led the project. Although originally proposing a neo-Gothic style, they embraced the Bishop’s vision and infused it with early 20th century American enthusiasm, which we can see in the magnificent “Christ in Majesty” mosaic, an Art Deco celebration of the kingship of the Lord Jesus Christ:

Suboptimal image is mine, but see here for details: Basilica Insider: The Christ in Majesty Mosaic – National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception; and here for the wiki entry on the artist, a Polish migrant who landed in Washington DC just before the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939: Jan Henryk de Rosen – Wikipedia

Aside from that dominating, towering display of Christ’s majesty, my favorite piece of art is to its left, of Mary from Revelation, crushing the serpent, an image clearly drawn from Our Lady of Guadalupe, who has her own Chapel in the Basilica:

“The Woman Clothed with the Sun Mosaic,” the scene depicts Rev. 12:

Along the way, our guide pointed to a wonderful depiction of Judgment, the “The Second Coming Mosaic,” which adorns the ceiling of the West Transept. Terry had earlier pointed out to me that the Saint at the bottom right was Thomas More, so asked our guide to let our fellow Saint Thomas More parishioners know that our man was up there amidst the “power and glory” of Judgment (Mk 13:26). The guide hadn’t realized that the group was from a parish by his name (he does these tours all day long, every day), so he kindly stopped and asked me to point out to him where. “There,” I said, “the dude with the funny hat and old English shoes.” “Oh, him,” he replied, and pointed out our Saint to others:

You can see the distinctive figure of St. Thomas More and his hat on the bottom right of the Saints

We celebrated Mass at the Mary, Queen of Missions Chapel, which our little group filled out nicely. Father Posey gave a wonderful and adept homily, connecting our experience to the Feast Day of Saint Charles Borromeo and St. Pauls’ words from Romans 12:3-13 that

Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,
let us exercise them:
if prophecy, in proportion to the faith;
if ministry, in ministering;
if one is a teacher, in teaching;
if one exhorts, in exhortation;
if one contributes, in generosity;
if one is over others, with diligence;
if one does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

We all knew that this Chapel would be special to Father Posey, as he ran a missionary to Dominican Republic and works with the Diocesan missions, so it was expected and nice to hear his lesson about a school girl, who with small donations by the penny, started what has become today a tremendous missionary program. What we did not expect was to hear about Saint Borromeo and how Father tied the scripture in to the concept of missionary work — each contributing what he or she can according to one another’s talents and abilities. It was the very first time I had ever heard Father Posey re-read an Epistle in its entirety, and it was very appropriate and moving.

After Mass, we had a nice chat with Grace, who is from St. Agnes but who frequently attends Mass at the Cathedral and joins events such as this one. Grace was super kindly to Terry’s father (as was everyone) and enthusiastic about this visit — and everything — fun to meet and speak with her!

Terry then led use to light candles at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Chapel for her mother, who was a Carmelite. I failed to take photos there and through most of the tour, but once we were in the Sanctuary, where neither of us had been before, the phone was out. In addition to the “Christ in Majesty” and “Mary from Revelation” mosaics, I was amazed by the dominant canopy, called a “baldachin,” that holds high a stature of “Mary Immaculate.” Encompassing the sanctuary from above is the beautiful the “Triumph of the Lamb Dome Mosaic,” again, from Revelation:

We are very pleased to have joined this little pilgrimage, and we encourage local area residents to break out of the routine of only visiting such sites when visitors are in town. A quick visit on an autumn Saturday has rejuvenated and inspired us beyond expectations.


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