Mary’s House

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Gracing one of the Crypt sacristy windows of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., is the stained-glass image of Father Michael J. McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus. Amidst other examples of the Order’s support of the majestic basilica — the Knights’ Tower campanile that houses a 56-bell carillon or the recently dedicated Knights of Columbus Incarnation Dome — this window is a simple but fitting reminder of the Knights’ relationship with the Shrine that has endured for nearly a century.

The bond the Order shares with the Shrine is very real to Patrick McAleer, one of the chairmen for the Knights’ usher ministry at the basilica.

“There are so many visible signs of the Knights of Columbus’ history tied to the basilica,” McAleer said. His service as an usher “keeps the tradition going,” he added.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the basilica and nearly 90 years since construction began. Today, it remains the largest Roman Catholic church in North America and is among the 10 largest in the world. The vision of a national shrine was being promoted among America’s bishops as early as 1913. The Order was involved literally from the start, with 1,500 Knights attending the blessing of the shrine’s site even before the cornerstone was laid in 1920.


In 1959, more than 1,000 Fourth Degree Knights lined the procession route of civil and religious dignitaries who attended the basilica’s dedication. To this day, Knights of Columbus serve as ushers at every Sunday Mass.

“Everywhere you turn, you see the Knights of Columbus present,” said Msgr. Walter Rossi, rector of the National Shrine and a member of Queen of the Americas Council 11304 in Takoma Park, Md. “You can’t help but notice the Knights’ presence as soon as you drive up to the shrine,” he added, citing the Knights’ Tower and the carillon that rings at 15-minute intervals.

Nicknamed “America’s Catholic Church,” the National Shrine is just that. It is located within three miles of the U.S. Capitol building and takes its name from the patroness of the United States. In 1847, at the request of the U.S. bishops, Pope Pius IX dedicated America and its people to Mary under her title of the Immaculate Conception.

The shrine’s 329-ft. tower makes a distinct mark on the District of Columbia’s skyline, joining other recognizable landmarks such as the Washington Monument. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI visited the National Shrine during their trips to the United States, honoring it as a place of spiritual significance in America’s history.

The multitude of chapels, oratories, mosaics and other works of art within the basilica give testimony to the rich fabric of this history: the crypt-level Hall of American Saints; the new chapel in honor of Our Lady of Pompei, funded by the Italian-American Catholic community; and works of art like the Father McGivney window that remind worshippers of the humble heroes who brought the spirit of Catholicism to the United States.

“We’re really very much like a demographics map,” said Geraldine M. Rohling, shrine archivist and curator. “Every time a group of immigrants comes of age…they ask to include a representative of their devotion, which they brought with them from their homeland, in the National Shrine.”

In that sense, it is especially fitting that the Knights have such a presence at the shrine. After all, the Order was founded, in part, in response to the argument that to be Catholic was somehow to be less American.


Only one person has been buried at the National Shrine during its history: Bishop Thomas J. Shahan of Baltimore, who served as rector of The Catholic University of America in the early 1900s and who was the chief advocate for the building of a national church in honor of the Immaculate Conception.

In 1913, then-Father Shahan proposed the idea to Pope Pius X, who readily agreed and even made a personal donation to the shrine’s construction.

“Nothing could be too beautiful or too magnificent for the dwelling of God himself,” Father Shahan wrote. He saw such a church not only as a place of worship, but also as a place of education, where everything ought to teach something about the glories of the faith.

Finally, in the spring of 1920, the shrine’s site was blessed. Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore laid the cornerstone later that year as Fourth Degree Knights stood at attention.

The Crypt Church was built first, and pilgrims were drawn to the shrine even before its completion. In 1923, a large group of Knights from Brooklyn made up the first official pilgrimage; their group picture depicts the crowd smiling in the middle of a construction site and an otherwise open field.

The Great Depression and World War II put a halt to the building, and when construction began again in the 1950s, there were no funds left for the bell tower. The shrine’s supervisor, and Archbishop Patrick A. O’Boyle of Washington, approached Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart with a unanimous request from the American Catholic hierarchy — would the Knights of Columbus commit to funding the completion of the shrine’s bell tower?

Hart accepted the daunting challenge as a “privilege” for the Order and an opportunity to give thanks for its 75-year history. Upon delivering a $500,000 check — the halfway point — to Archbishop O’Boyle, Hart said the Order awaited the shrine’s dedication with “joyful anticipation.”

The Vatican took note of the Knights’ actions, and Secretary of State Cardinal Domenico Tardini praised the Order’s “outstanding effort” under Supreme Knight Hart. “The generosity with which your Order responded to the appeal of the hierarchy in this instance is but the latest in a long series of benefactions in the cause of the Church,” the cardinal wrote.

While councils across the country raised $1 million for the Knights’ Tower, Knights in Texas went even further in their support and commissioned a chalice for the shrine. The Texas State Council collected gold and precious stones for the chalice; within weeks of resolving to donate such a gift, the state council’s headquarters began receiving small boxes from Knights and their friends, all containing rings, watches, eyeglasses and family jewelry to be melted down or set aside for their jewels. The finished product bore the Knights of Columbus emblem on its side and a two-star design on the base, representing Mary, the Morning Star, and Texas, the Lone Star State. The estimated value of the completed chalice was between $8,500 and $10,000.

As New York’s Cardinal Francis J. Spellman celebrated the shrine’s dedication Mass Nov. 20, 1959, it was the Texas Knights’ chalice that he elevated above the main altar of the basilica’s Great Upper Church.

When the shrine was finally dedicated, it was amidst a 1,000-member Fourth Degree honor guard. The Order’s Supreme Officers and Directors were recognized at the event, along with foreign dignitaries and Church prelates, including a Vatican representative who read a message from Pope John XXIII.

This shrine, the pope wrote, had been built with “magnificent daring, by the common consent and energetic will of your sacred hierarchy, by the generous help of the faithful and with the piety and faith of all.”

Four years later, in 1963, the Order financed 56 bells for the Knights’ Tower, and, in keeping with medieval tradition, the bells were individually named. The largest bell bears the Knights’ insignia and an inscription: Mary is my name, Mary is my sound. For Knights to God and country bound and all who hear my voice, I sing the praises of God.


A list of every instance in which the Knights of Columbus have offered support to the shrine or held major events in its sanctuary would be too long to recount. Suffice it to say that over the past 50 years, the shrine and the Knights have maintained a very special relationship, with the latter continuing to avail itself of the privilege of serving the shrine, and the basilica providing the Order with a national site of pilgrimage at which to gather and worship.

When the Order’s Supreme Conventions have been held in Washington, D.C. — as it will be again in 2010 — the National Shrine has hosted the opening liturgy. In 2000, to mark the Church’s Jubilee Year, more than 12,000 Knights and their families participated in the Order’s pilgrimage to the shrine. The first Knights of Columbus Eucharistic Congress was held there in the summer of 2002, and later that year, the Knights marked the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks with a special Blue Mass and patriotic program at the basilica.

When Virgil C. Dechant became supreme knight in 1977, he placed the Order under Mary’s protection during a visit to the shrine. Soon after, the Knights’ board established the Luke E. Hart Memorial Fund, which has provided more than $1.4 million for the shrine’s upkeep. Today, Dechant sits on the National Shrine’s Board of Trustees, along with his successor, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson.

In 1982, the Knights of Columbus usher ministry was officially formed, although Knights had been volunteer ushers at the shrine for many years prior. The Saturday vigil Mass had even been nicknamed the “Knights’ Mass.” Today, the ministry has about 400 members from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., including college Knights from The Catholic University of America Council 9542.

A recent and noteworthy project is the Knights of Columbus Incarnation Dome with its magnificent, mosaic portrayals of the life of Christ — “yet another tangible expression of the Knights’ dedication to Mary’s House,” as Cardinal Justin F. Rigali said at a dinner following the dome’s dedication.

At the event, Msgr. Rossi had his own words of affirmation for the Knights, who pledged $1 million for the project, including $500,000 raised by the Fourth Degree. The Knights of Columbus has been called the “strong right arm of the Church,” he said. But in its particular support of the National Shrine, the Order has become “part of the foundation.”

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the shrine’s dedication, this year is a jubilee year at the basilica. All pilgrims who visit between November 2008 and November 2009 can receive a plenary indulgence with their visit, as long as they complete the traditional requirements, including confession and reception of the Eucharist.

Msgr. Rossi hopes the jubilee year will bear the fruit of more visitors discovering the National Shrine as a place of worship. As for future plans, he said, the shrine will continue to live out its mission “by doing what we do” — offering pilgrims a place of prayer and respite, and the sacraments frequently and in abundance.

Of course, the Knights will continue to be an instrumental part of that task.

“You can always rely on the Knights of Columbus,” Msgr. Rossi said. “Without the Knights and their support for all these years, it would be very difficult for us to fulfill our mission.”

Elizabeth Ela is editor of the Knights of Columbus news site, Headline Bistro.