National Shrine of St. Alphonsus Liguori in Baltimore

Photos courtesy of Allison Girone and FSSP

The National Shrine of St. Alphonsus Liguori looks with pardonable pride upon the city of Baltimore. Its majestic spire rears aloft within a block of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption, the first cathedral in the nation. The shrine is known as “Baltimore’s Powerhouse of Prayer.” 
St. John Neumann adorns the list of its distinguished early pastors with a halo of sanctity. Neumann, who later became bishop of Philadelphia in 1852, was canonized a saint in 1977. A room is preserved in the attached rectory where he lived. 
In a metropolis of closed and merged parishes, where many locals avoid going into the city, the downtown shrine is flourishing. It was given a second life when it was entrusted to the FSSP in 2017, making it a destination parish where not a few families commute a great distance to attend Sunday services. Already many families were flocking here since 1992, when the Extraordinary From of the Roman Rite was restored on Sundays and made available after a long hiatus.  
The young face of the community brings to mind a Pomeranian proverb to the effect that goats will devour anything fresh and green. After observing the flood of young families at the shrine, it is clear that many young Catholics who are serious about their faith are hungry for more and feel their needs are met here. This phenomenon signifies a common current in the Church today, where many young families are willing to make great sacrifices to return to the organic sources of the liturgical heritage of the Western Church.  

As an apostolate of the FSSP, Mass is celebrated at the shrine exclusively according to the pre-conciliar liturgical rites. The liturgy is therefore clothed in ancient music and chants, a rich treasury of sacred music that has been bequeathed to modern man by the wisdom of centuries past. Billows of smoke and plainchant from these hallowed liturgies sung in Gregorian Chant swirl worshippers and pilgrims into another world, far from city and suburbs into this haven of prayer and peace, ordering souls to God. 

The parish was founded by German Redemptorist priests and it quickly became the prolific mother of all the German parishes in the Archdiocese. Baltimore's earliest chapel for German Catholics was built in 1792 at a nearby location on Pratt Street near Center Market. In 1799 a church was built on the present site and was dedicated to St. John. In 1840 the pastor prevailed upon the Archbishop of Baltimore to invite the Redemptorists to take over. They did and the present church was built and dedicated in 1841. 

Pontifical Vespers with Archbishop Lori of Baltimore 

The shrine church was constructed at a time when the Redemptorists were designing and building beautiful new churches across the country, such as St. Alphonsus in St. Louis, Missouri, a noteworthy example that came later and was dedicated in 1872.  

When the shrine was built in the 1840s, it was the first major project of a new architect, Robert Cary Long, Jr., whose father shared the same profession in Baltimore. He took his inspiration from the steeple of the church of the Stephansdom in Vienna, a Romanesque-Gothic cathedral and the most recognized church in Austria. The outer elements of the highly decorated exterior parallel the inner experience of worship. Great artistic brilliance reflects a harmonious faith. The shrine is of red brick, designed in the South German neo-Gothic style with limestone accents.  The three-level steeple rises 210 feet, lifting up the cross of Christ as a beacon to the neighborhood. 

The church has changed hands before. German pastors remained at the parish until 1917, a time when anti-German sentiments were high during the First World War. In addition, for decades there had been endless feuds among the different German-speaking members of the community. The pastorship was handed over to Lithuanian priests to better minister to the shifting demographic of Lithuanian immigrants who were quickly becoming a majority. 

The interior is a stunning reminder of how refined the artistic tastes were of the early immigrants who built this place of worship. It is only fitting that such a stunningly beautiful church was conceived in such a Catholic city. The Metropolitan Archdiocese of Baltimore is the primatial (or first) episcopal see in the United States and the oldest diocese in the country. It was established in 1789 by Pope Pius VI, the same pope who was taken prisoner by Napoleon and died as a result after many months in France in exile.    

When we consider the general course of religion and society in the last fifty years or so, we cannot but view the re-establishment of the shrine as a key moment in the reconquest and gradual restoration of Christ in the fabric of Baltimore's big city life. The tide of urban renewal plans in Baltimore which have ridden society the past few decades, often neglected the importance of fostering Church communities that already had deep roots, in contrast with constantly breaking with the past. 

Today many young Catholics are struck by discoveries and rediscoveries of the past, including the classical type of liturgy with its ancient liturgical arts and praxis of silent prayer. This connection can hardly be exaggerated. Interestingly, it is not the traditional Christian culture of the past, but the secularized culture of the present which is being tried and found wanting. 

The more we know, the better we see how closely successive eras are bound together and to what extent each new generation is borne by its elders and preserved by traditions handed on from one generation to the next. In turn, modern Catholics owe everything to those who have proceeded us. As Newman has written, we are always building on the foundations others have laid, reaping the fruits of what others have sown (1 Cor. 3:10, John 4:37-38).
May the good work of this community continue, amidst the background static of sirens and the hustle and bustle of busy city life. And may God bless the parishioners who spend hours of prayer in the wonderful nearby adoration chapel found in the crypt of the historic Basilica of the Assumption. God will honor their prayers.   


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