Reflections of a congregation


The Basilica of St. Mary celebrates 100 years as a renewed, revitalized church

Several decades ago, one of Downtown’s most majestic landmarks was facing an uncertain future.

The Basilica of St. Mary, a grand piece of architecture dominating its own city block along Hennepin Avenue, had fallen into disrepair and was hanging on to a dwindling congregation. Water leaked through the Basilica’s dome and many of the building’s support beams had rotted. The number of buckets placed under the Basilica’s leaky roof often outnumbered the parishioners seated in the pews, and the church had to close the Basilica School in 1975 because too few students had enrolled.

The construction of Interstates 94 and 394 in the 1960s had wedged the Basilica between freeways, physically separating it from parish neighborhoods like Kenwood and Bryn Mawr and subjecting it to noise, vibration and pollution. A trend favoring more contemporary worship spaces contributed to the congregation’s declining numbers, with many of the remaining parishioners elderly or confined to nursing homes.

By the 1980s, leaders of the Catholic Church and the parish faced a pivotal question: could the Basilica of St. Mary be saved?

The conclusion they arrived at is apparent to anyone who passes by the Basilica today. As the Basilica celebrates its 100th anniversary as a Hennepin Avenue landmark, the church has been renovated and its congregation revitalized.

“I think it becomes more alive each year,” said Diana Gulden, a resident of the Fulton neighborhood who attended the church occasionally as a child and was married there before becoming a member in 1993.

The Basilica’s parish is larger than ever, with a congregation of more than 5,500 families. Its membership is young, diverse and often fills the large worship space that can seat 1,200. An estimated 55 percent of the members are under the age of 40.

“We have many more weddings than funerals here,” said Johan van Parys, Ph.D., director of liturgy and sacred arts at the Basilica, who noted that the church also performs several hundred baptisms a year.

While it is primarily a worship space, the Basilica’s leaders are also continually working to make it more than that. Van Parys said the church’s goal is to be a place for people of all races and religions to gather, where the needy can come for help, and where art is displayed and preserved.

“It’s not a temple to Catholicism. It’s a temple for justice, a place where people find a hand when they’re in need,” van Parys said.

‘A meeting of the minds’

The Basilica was the vision of two men who came together in a “meeting of the minds,” van Parys said. Archbishop John Ireland, an Irish immigrant, met internationally famed architect Emmanuel Masqueray at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and together they formed a vision for a cathedral in St. Paul and a pro-cathedral — or a church that would later become a cathedral — in Minneapolis.

The Pro-Cathedral of St. Mary, as the Basilica was originally named, would be the new home for the parish of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which had been the first parish west of the river in downtown Minneapolis. The congregation, largely comprised of working-class immigrants from Ireland and Italy, was in many ways an unlikely group to build a church as opulent as the Basilica. Yet working to support and construct such a majestic worship space gave them something to be proud of, van Parys said.

Just three years after Ireland and Masqueray met, a groundbreaking ceremony kicked off construction of the Basilica on Aug. 7, 1907.

The exterior of the Basilica was completed seven years later at a cost of $775,000, and the first Mass was held at the church in 1914. But it wasn’t until the mid-1920s that the community raised the funds needed to finish the interior of the building. The interior cost another $860,000, bringing the total to more than $1.6 million. In today’s dollars, the Basilica would have cost at least $25 million to build.

Masqueray designed the church using principles he learned while attending the Ecole des Beaux Arts, a school of fine arts in Paris. Constructed of granite, the Basilica is rich with sweeping arches and decorative details. The central worship space, lined with rows of pews, is said to be the widest of any church in the world and is unhindered by architectural elements such as columns that could block the view of the altar and sanctuary. Three rose-shaped windows, which feature a central section 15 feet across surrounded by 24 circular lights 16 inches across, depict the Madonna and Child surrounded by rows of angels. Color splashes through their stained glass, as it does through the 20 stained-glass windows lining the walls of the Basilica’s main worship space. Those windows, designed and built by a local company, illustrate scenes from the life of Mary. Chapels line the edges of the Basilica, with an apse — a semicircular space — in the back of the church that features stained-glass windows and choir stalls that form an amphitheater. Capped with a bronze dome, the church is 187 feet tall and covers more than 33,000 square feet.

When it was completed, the church had all the grandeur befitting a cathedral. Rather than becoming a cathedral, however, the worship space along Hennepin Avenue was named a basilica in 1926 by Pope Pius XI. It was the first church in the United States to be given the title, which honors its beauty and designates it as a place of pilgrimage. If the Pope were ever to visit the immediate area, the Basilica would be the church he would visit.

A reflection of the people

While a red chair is symbolically reserved at the front of the church for the Pope, church leaders spend their time focusing on the people that make up the Basilica’s diverse congregation.

One of the church’s goals is to be a space where people from all walks of life can see a reflection of themselves.

“Our goal is that everyone who comes in here recognizes themselves in something,” van Parys said, noting that it could be a painting or a sculpture or a song.

As part of that mission, in recent years, the Basilica has dedicated chapels and works of art to figures such as Our Lady of La’Vang — which commemorates a vision of Mary that Vietnamese Catholics saw in the forest of La’Vang in 1789 — and Our Lady of Guadalupe — which commemorates a similar vision of the Virgin Mary in Mexico in 1531. The Basilica also incorporates a wide range of cultural music, such as Filipino songs and mariachi bands, into its services.

James Van Sloun, a parishioner who lives in the Longfellow neighborhood and works in Uptown, said he and his wife, who is from Taiwan, were looking for a place that was comfortable and welcoming for both of them when they started attending the Basilica in the mid-1990s. They found a congregation that was much more diverse than many parishes in the city, including neighborhood churches closer to their home.

“There’s really something for everyone at the Basilica,” said Van Sloun, who is on the Parish Council and is a hospitality minister. “No matter what your interests are, your background is, your economic status … there’s a way for everyone to participate, to share their talents.”

The Basilica also works to fill its mission through efforts such as its St. Vincent de Paul Outreach, which provides support for the needy.

As part of its rebuilding effort, the church began an annual weekend music festival in 1995 dubbed the Basilica Block Party. In addition to drawing more than 20,000 people Downtown, the event has helped fund the ongoing restoration of the Basilica.

Restoring the future

Much of the Basilica’s success in rebuilding its congregation was driven by the restoration of its building, which is still under way and has cost tens of millions of dollars. The first restoration campaign began in 1991 with major repairs such as reinforcing and repairing the dome and replacing the copper roof. The next round of restoration efforts began in 1999 with the remodeling and development of the space below the Basilica. The creation of a modern chapel, four meeting rooms, an art gallery and a large multipurpose room dramatically expanded the space church leaders had in which to perform their work. The basement and chapel are new, but leaders worked to ensure they still fit in with the rest of the church.

A 2004 restoration campaign allowed for the tuck-pointing of the entire building and the cleaning and replacement of windows. Yet another restoration campaign is under way this year that will eventually result in a restored organ, redeveloped rectory basement and greater access to the rectory.

As progress continues with the building, van Parys said its restoration has become an interest not just of the Catholic community, but of the surrounding community as well.

Celebrating its centennial

The Basilica kicked off its centennial celebration in August, and it will continue throughout the year with festivities that include: the St. Francis Festival in October that includes the blessing of live animals; the Patron Feast Festivities in December; the Basilica Marriage Reunion in February wherein couples can celebrate their wedding day all over again; and closing events in May that will include fireworks, Sunday brunch, a commemorative placing of the cornerstone and a Masqueray ball, named for the Basilica’s French architect.

Reach Kari VanDerVeen at or 436-4373.