National Shrine of Our Lady of Victory (Diocese of Buffalo, New York)

Throughout the world, wherever the cross of Christ has been planted, the wellspring of beautiful churches follows. This has been seen in virtually every corner of the world, giving rise to other-worldly beauty that nourishes the roots of faith and serves to give glory to God and inspire the Christian faithful to holiness. 
One such church, and one of the grandest churches in the United States is the National Shrine of Our Lady of Victory in Buffalo, New York. This 1920s gem is an earthly expression of heaven. Since its founding it has been a popular pilgrim destination for both Canadians and Americans, located on the upper banks of Lake Erie. The unique design was the creation of Emile Ulrich, a French-born Beau-Arts Renaissance architect who emigrated to the U.S. when he was 18, and for twenty-five years was based in nearby Cleveland. 

The mastermind behind the project was the pastor, Venerable Nelson Baker. A native of Buffalo, he grew up in the area and went on to serve in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He was a later vocation, ordained a priest in his mid-30s. Monsignor Nelson had the vision and drive to build the shrine. He raised the funds, attracted the master artists, and carried the project to the finish line. For 10 years after the church was completed he ministered until his death at age 92 in 1936. In 1999 his remains were reinterred inside the basilica and in 2011 he was declared venerable by Pope Benedict XVI.   

The church, with its exterior made almost entirely of pure white marble, was built between 1921-1925. At every step of the process Msgr. Baker was there, guiding the project to its final completion. With the construction paid for and with no debt, it was consecrated in 1926. The total cost was $4 million, a whopping amount in those days, raised in toto by Christmas Day 1925.  

Two months later the new church was designated a minor basilica by an Apostolic Decree from Pope Pius XI, the second in the nation to receive this distinction after the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. This dignity is a testament to the structure's high level of design and measure of greatness. The decree read: "This sanctuary is truly a masterpiece, in the nobility of its lines, in the splendor of its marbles, in its massive solidarity, and in its artistic finish..."    

In 1936 the future Pope Pius XII flew over from above when he, as Cardinal Secretary of State, was on a flight from Long Island on his way to see Niagara Falls from the air, before a brief stop in Cleveland.  

The shrine is a sight to behold from the air or land with its copper dome with a green patina finish, a symbolic association with the sky and heaven. In addition it is adorned with two matching spires that give hints of the Art Deco, topped with similar green-colored domes. The main dome measures 165 feet in height and is 80 feet in diameter, surrounded by four massive angel statues that stand at 18 feet tall, sounding trumpets to the four corners of the world.

The exterior marble surface has a brilliant shine and resembles that of the Minnesota State Capitol; both structures were made of the same pure white marble from the state of Georgia. The intricacies of the design reveal immense planning and creative thought. The importance of such design increases in ratio to the number and variety of elements that have been disciplined into the unity of effect. The final outcome is a majestic structure that is totally unique in the world. 

One of the most unique architectural features of the overall exterior plan was a domed niche that marks the main entrance (see architectural print below). This unique addition has above it on the front facade a 12-foot-tall, 16,000-pound marble statue of Our Lady of Victory. This small structure brings to mind domed mausoleums which spread in the 5th century, intended to reinforce the theological emphasis on baptism as a re-experience of the death and Resurrection of Christ.   

Also unique to the exterior are colonnades that extend outward in the front and flank the exterior sides of the main entrance, inspired by Bernini's famous colonnade of the Vatican Basilica. 

Below are the towers, with their hint of Art Deco.  

Atop each of the colonnades is a group of marble statues that include children being overseen by an angel. On the left the children are led by a sister of St. Joseph, the order that staffed the parish school since 1856. On the right is a similar statue of Fr. Baker with children. He was of course the founder of the shrine who sought to build a place of pilgrimage in homage to Our Lady. 

The sumptuous interior is a symphony of design features that reflect brilliant hues and are bound together into oneness by the interrelation of lines. No expense was spared to dazzle visitors and give the impression of the church being a precursor to heaven. Visitors leave with a sense of belonging, with their hearts feeling the comfort of heaven. 

The main altar features a baldachin that was inspired by Bernini's bronze version in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. The swirled marble columns are a beautiful allusion to St. Peter's, which took its inspiration from similar styled columns in Solomon's temple in Jerusalem. It is believed the reddish-colored polished marble for these columns came from Spain. 

The baldachin frames a 9 feet tall, 1,600 pound statue of Our Lady of Victory that was sculpted in Italy of the purest Carrara marble and blessed by Pope Pius XI before it was shipped to New York. This beautiful statue and the baldachin covering it constitute a breathtaking sight, a sound contribution to the interior decoration in the style of the French Renaissance. 

The statue is modeled after the original seventeenth century version, found at the very popular church of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires in Paris. The statue depicts both Mary and the Christ Child crowned. This is a rare sight; a privilege granted by popes. The original statue found in Paris is famous. During the French Revolution it was somehow saved when the church was closed and turned into the headquarters of the national lottery and was later the home of the Paris Bourse (stock market). Many famous people have visited this statue in Paris over the years to pray in front of the statue where it is enshrined in the side chapel of the Virgin. These persons have included Mozart, Cardinal Newman, and Thérèse of Lisieux and her parents. 

Because the church is a basilica, near the altar in the sanctuary is a umbraculum canopy, made of brilliant red and yellow fabrics, with hand-stitched coats-of-arms. This large canopy, in important symbol, is kept half open at all times until a pope visits the basilica, at which time it is opened fully during the papal visit. Also present is a tintinnabulum, another symbol of a basilica. This is a small processional bell mounted on a pole with a golden frame, used to lead the procession when the pope visits. Obviously, a papal visit would be a very rare occasion. 

Finally, the interior of the dome is a sight to behold. It depicts the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven with a host of angels as Christ is just about to crown her as Queen of Heaven and Earth. At the pinnacle of the dome is a depiction of the Holy Spirit. Around the dome's outer edge are depicted the 12 Apostles and 3 archangels. From the dome to the choir loft are 5 great murals that depict various titles of Our Lady. The murals on the side walls depict scenes from the life of Mary in the Gospels. The whole typology of art is Marian, reflecting her important role in salvation history.   


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