BALTIMORE – The first Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States reopened to the public Saturday after undergoing a $34 million restoration over the past two years.
Cardinal William Keeler reopened the doors of the Basilica of the Assumption after a ceremony that sought to reassert its place among the nation’s most important historic and religious landmarks.
“What St. Peter’s is to the universal church, the Baltimore Basilica is to the United States of America,” Keeler said. “Pope John Paul II hailed it as, architecturally, the worldwide symbol of religious freedom.”
Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol, the 200-year-old cathedral came to symbolize the acceptance of Catholicism in the fledgling United States.
Construction began in 1806 on what was then called the Baltimore Cathedral, and it was completed in 1821. In 1937, Pope Pius XI designated it a basilica, an honor given to churches with antiquity, dignity, historical importance or significance as places of worship.
The cathedral was renamed the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
During the restoration, workers found the cathedral’s cornerstone and uncovered 140-year-old paintings of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on the walls beneath its 87-foot-high dome. Crews also restored 24 skylights in the dome, which along with a fresh paint job and the removal of heavy stained-glass windows helped to illuminate what had been a dark and dreary interior.
On Saturday, the basilica’s spotless columns were festooned with red, white and blue banners. Cardinal James Francis Stafford represented Pope Benedict XVI at the ceremony.