America's First Basilica: The Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Co-Cathedral of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis

The Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis (Basilicae Sanctae Mariae Minneapolitanae) has always been my favorite church in North America.  Every time I visit this "modern" French Renaissance gem my heart is full.  The incredible size and proportions, variety of marbles and colorful Venetian mosaics speak to the soul.  The exterior of white Hardwick Vermont granite soars upward as it points up to heaven.  

The Basilica was the first church in the United States given this honorary designation, raised to the rank of minor basilica by Pope Pius XI in February 1926.  Several years later it was also solemnly consecrated in conjunction with the Ninth National Eucharistic Congress that was held in the Twin Cities in late July, 1941.  In 1967 the Basilica was formally named the Co-Cathedral of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.  

The copper clad dome, designed uniquely on a square drum, is a city landmark - 280 feet above grade.  Totally original in its design, the dome is in a continuous process of being oxidized into a green patina).  It holds at its top a 13-foot stainless steel cross, visible to all who drive by on the Interstate highway. The cavernous interior is one giant barrel vault with a powerful superstructure to assume the weight.  When the Basilica was built it was the second tallest building in Minneapolis (after City Hall) and it has the widest nave in this style of any church in the world.  

The architect's approach to creating a liturgical space versus simply a devotional one is something that shines with the sanctuary layout. In fact, it is arguably one of the most intelligently designed liturgical spaces, ideal for intricate pontifical liturgies with many servers and assistants at the throne.  

The architect was the Franco-American, E.L. Masqueray, a French-born architect trained in the Beaux-Arts tradition. Masqueray was a firm believer in wide naves and short transepts, with no columns to obstruct the view of the faithful.  His aim was for everyone to be able to see the altar clearly without any obstructions, such as supporting column.  He also wished to bring the priest, choir and faithful closer together.  His solution was to avoid a long chancel connected to the sanctuary, a common sight in many larger European churches.   

The coat-of-arms of the Basilica depicts a shield or crest under an open umbrella, the traditional sign of a basilica.  Depicted in the crest is a crenelated castle rampart, in medieval heraldry a symbol of a strong city.  Above it in the sky is a crescent moon, a symbol of Our Lady under the title of Immaculate Conception.  Below are waves that represent the waters of the mighty Mississippi River.  Thus the arms read: "The Basilica of Saint Mary in the City of Waters."  

Historic antique vestments from the treasury of the Basilica sacristy

The History

The Basilica was designed as a reinforced steel structure with a granite shell. The location chosen was the edge of downtown, overlooking a charming park.  In those days the city was booming with flour mills, railroad industry, and other prosperous business initiatives. It was only natural that a bold, new church would be designed, although the scale and magnitude of the final version still baffle the imagination.   

In 2017 the Classical Rite made a return with Pontifical Mass at the Faldstool

Archbishop John Ireland was the man behind the vision and construction. He was the local ordinary of the Diocese of St. Paul and had seen Masqueray's work at the St. Louis World's Fair. Ireland was impressed. He invited the architect to take up residence in St. Paul and work full-time designing churches.  Ireland believed the modern world and new nation, as found quintessentially in the American experiment, was to have its own grand ecclesiastical architecture.  Winning the age for Christianity was Ireland's goal.  Masqueray agreed and moved to St. Paul.  In 1905 he set up shop downtown in the Dispatch Building and later built for himself a beautiful residence in 1915 at 427 Portland Ave.  

In those halcyon building days in the Twin Cities, construction was booming everywhere.  That period was a height of architectural fashion.  There was a tangible sense of optimism that everything was possible.  It was a time for passage to a welcoming new future of unlimited opportunity. There was an energy and optimism and zest in the air for big projects and big ideas.  Local Catholics were equally forceful in their drive and vision to build grand churches to keep up with the age.  

Masqueray proposed a vision to create a grand and serene edifice that would also be representative of the democratic, fast-paced society of the New World.  The design he created was a modified Renaissance style, twentieth century in is purpose and ambience.  The dimensions were enormous and the majesty of design was unparalleled.  The groundbreaking ceremony took place in 1907.  The school was built on the property also by Masqueray in 1913 (it opened in 1914 and sadly closed in 1975).

Finally, the first Mass was celebrated in the interior of the church in 1914, at which time only the exterior shell was completed.  The first part of the interior that was decorated was the ceiling and pews were installed.  From that day the Sacraments were offered at the Basilica.  The interior finishing began in 1922 and was completed mostly by the time the church was designated a basilica in 1926.  Because the architect died in 1917, the interior decoration came under the direction of the Boston firm Maginnis & Walsh, the same architectural firm that built nearby Nazareth Hall and decorated the interior of the St. Paul Seminary chapel and much of the interior of the Cathedral of St. Paul.

The beautiful rectory was built in 1927-1928 by the St. Paul architects Slifer and Abrahamson.  Construction and decoration were finally completed in time just before the grinding decline and economic bottom of the 1929 financial crash. 

Vestment from the Eucharistic Congress in 1941 worn at Consecration Ceremony of the Basilica

The Exterior and Interior Dimensions

The exterior is made of white granite from Bethel, Vermont.  The exterior dimensions are 120 feet wide by 278 feet long exclusive of the front steps.  The dome is 250 feet high.  The twin towers are 133 feet high and the one on the east side houses a 3,000-pound bell, that hung in the original church in 1877.  In 1998, 6 new bells were installed, cast in the Netherlands.  In the pediment of the front facade between the two towers is a hand-carved statue of Our Lady of the Assumption, which was carved on site.  

The interior walls are faced with Mankato stone.  The carved ornamental coffered ceiling of plaster is up to 12 inches deep in some places.  The nave is 82 feet from pillar to pillar and 140 feel long.  The ceiling height in the center of the nave is 75 feet.  The rear choir loft is 35 feet above the ground.   

The Interior Decoration 

The interior of the dome above the altar is topped by an interior carved plaster dome containing oil-on-canvas marouflage paintings of the four Evangelists.  The apse behind the sanctuary houses the organ and choir stalls: these wooden stalls were installed in 1927.  

The sanctuary area is surrounded by a square of marble pillars and a hand forged wrought iron grille that depicts nine engraved scenes from the life of Our Lady after the crucifixion.  The exquisite columns that support the square entablature around the sanctuary are of Botticino marble, supported by columns of Swiss Cipolin marble.  This in turn forms a pedestal for the statues of the 12 Apostles, replicas of the statues of the Apostles seen in the inside nave of the Lateran Archbasilica in Rome. 

In every minor basilica there are signs to indicate its designation: the "umbraculum" canopy and the "tintinnabulum" bell. The canopy displays the coat-of-arms of Pope John Paul II.  In the sanctuary of the Basilica can be seen the umbraculum, resembling a half-opened umbrella, held over the pope when he visits. Also, visible is the tintinnabulum (roughly "little bell" in Latin), a processional bell mounted on a pole for processions when the pope visits.  Both of these are symbols of a basilica status, acquired in 1926.  

In the center of the sanctuary is the towering marble baldachin and altar made at the Benzinger Brothers Studios in Pietrasanta, Italy.  It stands tall with four solid marble pillars and stone canopy.  This 40 foot high canopy structure serves as the pedestal for the 9-foot statue of Our Lady of Grace (Mater Divinae Gratiae) that rises above the high altar.  The inside dome of the baldachin is decorated in blue and gold Venetian mosaicsa, depicting a dove in a sunburst, the descent of the Holy Spirit. 

Carved in Latin on the front of the high altar are the words: TABERNACULUM DEI CUM HOMINIBUS ("The Tabernacle of God with Men"), taken from Revelation 21:3.   

Because it is a "Co-Cathedral," the sanctuary has its own red upholstered oak cathedra throne for when the bishop visits.  

Also in the sanctuary is the console for a 56-rank pipe organ for a schola cantorum.  

Visitors notice a rare sight on the front interior, carved on the right-side pier of the sanctuary, facing the nave.  It is a wall tableau carving of the crucifixion, modeled after the miraculous crucifix of Limpias in Santander, Spain (where Christ is said to have come alive).  It was carved on site by the sculptor John Garratti.  The Sorrowful Mother and the Beloved Apostle St. John flank the crucifix.  Mary Magdalene is left out of the scene so that we may take her place as the faithful kneel before this great work of sacred art.    

Archbishop John Gregory Murray celebrates Solemn Mass at the Basilica

The Stations and Confessionals

The Stations of the Cross are recessed in the outer walls beside the confessional boxes.  They are of cream Botticino marble, with realistic figures carved in bas-relief, in cameo.  

Even the confessional boxes are works of art, situated on the side of the nave.  They are eight in number, made of Tavernelle marble, with four on each side of the church.  Their Latin inscriptions refer to repentance and the peace of God.  Unfortunately these gems are no longer used for Confession (they are currently used for storage for janitors).  

 The Side Altar Shrines

There are six side altars.  The first at the front on the left is dedicated to St. Anne, the mother of Our Lady.  She is depicted in stone with Mary as a child.  The second at the front on the right is dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua, a powerful patron of lost objects.  

The two side altars in the ambulatory honor saints canonized in 1925.  The first is dedicated to St. John Vianney on the left, the patron of parish priests.  The dome area here boasts a Venetian mosaic depicting a pelican with her babies, symbolizing the self-sacrifice of Christ.  On the right is the altar dedicated to St. Thérèse of Lisieuxthe Little Flower, patroness of foreign missions. The Venetian mosaic in the dome above portrays the Lamb of God.  

The final side altars are one dedicated to St. Joseph, spouse of Our Lady.  The second is the altar of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a marble statue carved in Italy in 1912 and installed here in 1988.

In the rear of the church on the right is a special place for quiet prayer amid flickering candlelight, the Lady Chapel.  The needlepoint cushions invite the faithful to kneel and bask in the light of heaven.  The chapel contains a window under the title of Our Lady of Lourdes with the Latin inscription: "I am the Immaculate Conception."  This very old nineteenth century statue (as well as one of the bells in the eastern tower), were brought from the original parish church that existed before the Basilica was built, originally dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.  The statue was placed in that church in 1876.  

  The Windows

The stained glass windows of the Basilica are the creation of one man, Thomas Gaytee of France.  He had worked under Louis Tiffany in New York after he emigrated to the U.S.

That being said, the interior is rather dark thanks to the stained glass, allowing in light that is perhaps slightly subtler than normal.  Eastern light illumines the windows for morning services, filling the church with a warm skein of colors that convey a sense of eternal comfort and effort fulfilled.    

The French style rose window that is framed by the front facade is 15 feet in diameter.  It depicts the enthroned Madonna and Child.  The architect further included two more rose windows on either side of the sanctuary which depict the Immaculate Conception and the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth.  Four angel windows flank this, illustrating the angels Jophiel, Uriel, Gabriel, and Chamuel.  The Archangels Michael and Raphael are portrayed in the windows over the west and east side doors, symbolic of spiritual protection.  

The windows of the apse depict the Four Evangelists and the great Doctors of the Church.  In the upper areas are angels playing musical instruments.  

The windows on the clerestory level above the side aisles depict the life of Our Lady.  They start with the betrothal of Mary and Joseph, proceeding on the left side through the death of St. Joseph.  They continue on the opposite side with the miracle at the wedding feast at Cana through the passion and death of Christ to the death of Our Lady on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, near the high altar.  The windows below these in the ambulatory (side aisles) are of prophets and saints whose lives foreshadowed or gave context to the events depicted in the above windows.  

The windows in the square drum of the dome are 12 in number.  They illustrate attributes of Mary from the Song of Solomon, allowing light to enter and shower the baldachin below in a cascade of color. 

The semi-circular apse showcases windows that depict some of the Doctors of the Church along with choirs of angels playing musical instruments.  

The Organ

The Wickes organ is a powerful instrument that has garnered for itself a warm renown though its high reputation, quality, tonal beauty, and unparalleled acoustical environs. The present organ was installed in 1949, a Wicks Opus 3047, formally dedicated in the Holy Year 1950. It boats 82 ranks across 4 manuals and pedal in 6 divisions. All of the original Willis-influenced pipework remains unaltered and has been carefully preserved.  

The Basilica Today

Fortunately the Basilica was spared the curse of being "wreckovated" during the foreboding days of the post-Vatican II era.  Just about the only major change was the gorgeous Siena marble baptismal font with its beautifully forged bronze cover was placed near the entrance of the church, unfortunately removed from its original location in the baptistry - hopefully it will one day be returned in a spirit of conservation, faithful to the wishes of the architect.  

In 2017 the Classical Rite made a return with Pontifical Mass at the Faldstool for Confirmations - photos can be seen here.  

Why Does Art and Beauty Matter?

The Basilica is imbued with beauty on many levels.  It seems to ask in gentle, yet powerful tones: "Where are you going?"  "Who are you?"  "What is life's purpose?"  "Are you not a child of God, a human person dedicated to The One?"  A church is closed in by four walls and open only to the heavens, it is an image of the life of a Christian: for the soul, freed from earthly desires, to take flight towards God.  Even the interior silence inside leads nowhere as it parallels the circular contemplation of which Denis the Areopagite speaks; the object of this endless meditation is a glimpse of heaven above.  

Beautiful architecture responds to the deepest and most eternal aspirations of the human soul.  Historically Catholics have felt themselves attracted by the challenge and greatness of age-old formulas of beauty, in preference to allowing themselves to be carried along by the current of modernist ideas of art and beauty than result in an interminable adventure in search of self expression.  Catholic ecclesiastical architecture is intended to be a miracle of balance and wisdom, which responds perfectly to our present needs thanks to its combination of rigor and freedom, a balance between tradition and innovation.  

The Basilica's architecture is in a spirit of harmony with the beauty of creation.  Its stone is of the earth, rising to give glory and praise to God, defined by its own verticality, rising up and pointing to the heavens.  This is a deliberate project in itself, a response to a hidden instinct which encourages us to harmonize the environment of our earthly sojourn with the deepest needs of the interior life.  As if our life on earth is a type of parable of the kingdom of heaven.  It is easy to understand, therefore, why the choice of architectural style was chosen, principally inspired by the great Cathedrals of France.

There are three principle characteristic of traditional Catholic architectural style: solidity, purity, and fullness.  To these is always added a respect for mystery.  This is the setting in which the Basilica was chosen to celebrate sung Mass in Latin with Gregorian chant, the most beautiful liturgy possible.  The modern landscape of the downtown, with its clear and pure lines seems to call for a sober structure in local stone, identifying with a style which is clearly rooted in both tradition and exactitude.  After all, beauty is not merely an amalgam of decorative elements, it is something through which we glimpse God.

The Basilica of St. Mary is not just a monument to external beauty or an example of architecture that is integrally Catholic.  It brings through its beauty to the forefront the idea of flight from the world to a life orientated towards the vision of God.  We are linked to our forebears by a thirst for this, for transcendence, with an intense desire to look towards the invisible, a desire to live this out in the context of a community whose life engenders those virtues which lead to eternal life.  


There is a serious obligation to continue the maintenance and upkeep of such a historical and beautiful structure.  Our modern age of functional and economic pretentions runs the danger of not affording a beautiful structure like this the honor that it merits with the excuse that there is not enough money or there are more important things to finance.   

Let us be brave and beware: the abandonment and even more the disdain for beautiful and worthy old buildings like this is a serious breach of the common good and common-sense observance. It is the suppression of an aspect of our life and history, the consequences of which will be felt in a variety of ways - it is the shattering of the equilibrium, it is an alteration of the physiognomy of ourselves and our natural human strive to build great monuments and grasp the spiritual realm.   

The Basilica of St. Mary is like a spiritual ark where on earth God will be loved and served as He is in heaven by the angels; a place where, in spite of ever-increasing iniquities of this age, souls will live for Him and serve Him with the fidelity to which He calls us.  May God be praised in this great temple for hundreds of years to come.  Amen.   


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