James Joseph Sexton, a Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus, set out on pilgrimage in 1920 to a Marian shrine that didn’t yet exist. His destination was Washington, D.C., where construction would soon begin on the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Like many pilgrims, he brought with him an offering of faith and devotion, albeit one heavier than most: a 3.3-ton piece of granite, the first building block of what would become the largest Roman Catholic church in North America.
A member of St. James Council 2370 in Stratford, Conn., Sexton donated the foundation stone and personally delivered it for the dedication ceremony Sept. 23, 1920. It was one of the earliest of many K of C pilgrimages and contributions over the past century to what is now the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Bishop Thomas J. Shahan, rector of The Catholic University of America, received papal approval for the National Shrine in 1913. The university donated the land, and the first pilgrimage took place in May 1920. More than 6,000 people, including 1,500 Knights of Columbus from New York City, were present for an outdoor Mass and a blessing of the site.
John Sexton’s role began a month earlier, when the 54-yearold monument maker wrote to Bishop Shahan offering to donate the foundation stone — not a cornerstone, but the actual first stone — of the church. The offer was accepted.
The first leg of his historic pilgrimage began where the granite block was quarried: the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Once in Sexton’s shop in Stratford, the stone was honed, incised and readied for delivery to Washington.
Sexton had a keen sense of history, and his letters to Bishop Shahan point out the journey’s many intersections with America’s past. The route from New Hampshire followed “part of … the road Paul Revere rode,” and in Cambridge, Mass., the truck “circled the very spot where General Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1775.”
Thus, Sexton saw the second leg of the pilgrimage as the delivery of a piece of Americana as well as a symbol of Catholic devotion. He wanted as many people as possible to view the stone, especially schoolchildren, and to that end arranged stops along the route to the capital for the “many thousands who may never again have a chance to see it.”
The reception in New York City on Sept. 18 was the most enthusiastic. The truck with its precious cargo made its way down Fifth Avenue toward St. Patrick’s Cathedral, escorted by police on bicycles. The people lining the avenue blessed themselves as the stone passed, and some tried to touch or even kiss it. The next day, it reached the shrine site in Washington.
On the day of the ceremony, Sept. 23, 1920, Cardinal James Gibbons, the archbishop of Baltimore who had ordained Father Michael McGivney more than 40 years earlier, made his way down red-carpeted stairs to the foundation stone. A K of C honor guard in silk top hats and frock coats, their swords drawn in a salute, lined his way and then encircled the stone for the rite of blessing and dedication. James Sexton, standing by his donation with his two sons and nephew, assisted in positioning the stone on its base.
Though it remained a construction site for years to come, the future shrine soon became a destination for the faithful. The Knights of Columbus was especially instrumental in promoting it as a place of pilgrimage, organizing an annual trip with the Catholic Tourists of America starting in 1923, a year before the first public Mass was celebrated in the Crypt Church. U.S. Rep. David J. O’Connell, president of the Catholic Tourists and a Knight, escorted the pilgrimage for the next five years. In January 1926, thousands of Knights and family members had the honor of celebrating solemn vespers at the shrine, joined by many high-ranking prelates and government leaders.
Further construction stalled in the 1930s and ’40s, but the centenary of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1953-1954 provided the impetus for a nationwide appeal to complete the structure. In November, John McShain, a building contractor and member of Philadelphia (Pa.) Council 196 whose work included the Pentagon, FDR Library and Jefferson Memorial, agreed to build the massive Upper Church.
At the Order’s 75th anniversary gathering in Waterbury, Conn., in 1957, Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart announced that the Knights of Columbus Board of Directors had unanimously accepted the invitation of the Building Committee of the National Shrine to erect the campanile, or bell tower. Contributions from councils poured in to fund the $1 million project.
When the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was finally dedicated Nov. 20, 1959, the Knights once again formed the honor guard — this time as benefactors as well as pilgrims. Realizing that the Knights Tower would not be complete without bells, a second donation was made for the 56-bell carillon, which was dedicated Sept. 8, 1963.
Over the decades, the Knights of Columbus has continued to act as a patron of the shrine while promoting pilgrimages of Marian devotion. Major projects that have received K of C funding include the construction of the Our Mother of Africa Chapel and the mosaics adorning the Incarnation and Trinity Domes. Ongoing support has also included donations toward the upkeep of the carillon and a Knights-staffed usher ministry, which was established in the 1980s.
The largest pilgrimage hosted by the shrine took place in 2000, when 12,000 Knights and family members came to the basilica to reconsecrate the Order to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Indeed, from the foundation stone to the top of the 329-foot Knights Tower, the Order’s longstanding spiritual and financial support for National Shrine has stood on this solid ground of Marian devotion.
GERALDINE M. ROHLING, Ph.D., M.A.Ed., is archivist-curator at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
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