Bishop: Basilica title honors church's role in diocese, nation's founding

IMAGE: CNS photo/Zoey Maraist, Catholic Herald

By Zoey Maraist

Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments declared St. Mary Church in
Alexandria a minor basilica, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington announced
to parishioners during Mass Jan. 14.

“It is an extraordinary honor to
announce that the Holy See has designated St. Mary’s in Old Town to be the
newest basilica in the United States. This historic announcement recognizes the
important role St. Mary’s has played in the diocese, the city of Alexandria and
even the very founding of our country,” he said.

To be named a basilica, a church
must have architectural or historic value and meet liturgical requirements,
such as an adequate amount of space in the sanctuary and a fitting number of
priests. There are only four major basilicas, all in Rome — St. Peter’s, St.
John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls and St. Mary Major.

There are thousands of minor
basilicas throughout the world, including the Basilica of the National Shrine
of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, the Basilica of the National Shrine
of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore and the Basilica of
St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk.

Bishop Burbidge congratulated Father
Edward C. Hathaway, pastor of the Alexandria church, and “all of the priests who have served
this parish over the generations for their work in bringing St. Mary’s to this
special day. I pray that Our Lord continues to bless St. Mary’s and its community
for generations to come!”

A committee from St. Mary began
to research the application process for becoming a basilica last January,
according to Father Hathaway. Bishop Burbidge approved the application in June,
and sent it to the U.S. Conference of Catholics Bishops’ Secretariat of Divine Worship. USCCB officials approved the plan in July, and sent it to the Vatican’s
Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

“Today, we are overjoyed and
humbled by the recognition of St. Mary as one of the major churches in the
world dedicated to Christ,” said Father Hathaway. “Thank you so much, Bishop
Burbidge, for being here with us today, and for the encouragement and
enthusiasm you have shown during the many months that led to this

“The naming of St. Mary as a
minor basilica brings honor to the entire diocese and to Roman Catholics
throughout the country,” the priest continued. “As the first Catholic parish in
Virginia and West Virginia, learning its history is to gain a greater insight
into the spread of the Catholic faith in the former English colonies and
throughout our nation.”

In 1788, an Irish aide-de-camp
of George Washington, Col. John Fitzgerald, held a fundraiser in his home for
the construction of a Catholic church. Washington was the first to donate. In
1795, St. Mary was established as a mission of Holy Trinity Church in
Georgetown. Eventually, a church was built on South Royal Street, where the
contemporary church stands, and was dedicated by Jesuit Father Francis Ignatius
Neale in 1827.

Throughout the years, the church
has undergone several repairs and renovations. Ministry buildings and offices
such as the Lyceum as well as the cemetery are scattered around Old Town. The
parish school, one of the largest in the diocese with around 700 students, was
established in 1869 after a wave of poor Irish immigrants arrived in the area.
Today, St. Mary has 7,100 registered parishioners and dozens of liturgical,
fellowship and service ministries.

In the near future, the church
will be marked with special signage indicating its new status. As with all
basilicas, St. Mary will install an “ombrellino,” a silk canopy designed with
stripes of yellow and red — the traditional papal colors — and a “tintinnabulum,”
a bell mounted on a pole and carried during some processions.

“Crossed keys, which are the
symbol of the papacy, will be placed prominently on the church exterior,” said
Father Hathaway.

St. Mary also has designed a
seal, which all basilicas have. The symbols within the seal pay homage to the
diocese, the Jesuits who founded the parish, and to Mary. In the bottom right
quadrant of the shield is a ship, representing Alexandria’s role as an
important port town in colonial times. The vessel further represents the
frigates that brought Catholic immigrants to the New World.

“The Ark and The Dove were the
two famous ships, chartered by Cecil Calvert to transport 140 colonists to the
shores of Maryland,” according to a statement from St. Mary. “Similar ships
brought the Jesuit founders, as well as many Irish and Scottish merchants, to
the port city of Alexandria.”

The seal is one of the many ways
the new basilica will aim to share its past with visitors.

“We will be looking for ways to
communicate our significant history and contribution to Catholicism in the
commonwealth and beyond through printed guides and other means,” said Father

The parishioners at the Jan. 14
Mass applauded the announcement. Sam Lukawski, a fifth-grader at St. Mary
School, was one of the 11 altar servers at the Mass. “I was glad that it became
a minor basilica and that it’ll be (St. Mary Basilica) instead of St. Mary
Church,” he told the Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper.

Pat Troy, a longtime
parishioner, sent his children to the school and used to host Theology on Tap
in his Alexandria bar. He loves the parish for its commitment to Mary, its
priests and the fact that it was founded in part by an Irishman. “This was the
first time (we) walked down the steps of this historic church as St. Mary
Basilica,” he said with reverence.

Jonathan Fililpowski and Nicole
Hendershot are getting married at St. Mary in April. “We’re excited to be able
to get married at a basilica. It’s a beautiful space to come and be able to
worship, tied to the roots of our nation,” she said.

Deborah and Glenn Cooper were
thrilled by the announcement. “I’m so honored to be part of this historic
occasion. It makes me want to go back and probe more into the history of the
church and also into the whole meaning of being a basilica,” she said.

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Maraist is on the staff of the
Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.

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