View of the Altar inside Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption.

Altar in Baltimore’s Basilica of the Assumption. Photo © Jim, the Photographer, licensed Creative Common Attribution.

Map of Mount Vernon, Baltimore, Maryland

Mount Vernon

Maryland was founded by Lord Baltimore as a place of religious tolerance, at least in terms of the 17th century; this meant that Catholics (like Lord Baltimore) were more welcome here than in other English colonies. Fittingly, Baltimore is the nation’s oldest Catholic diocese, and the first Catholic cathedral in America was the Basilica of the Assumption (409 Cathedral St., 410/727-3565, Mon.-Fri. 7am-4pm, Sat. 7am-conclusion of 5:30pm mass, Sun. 7am-conclusion of 4:30pm mass; $2 donation requested for tour), completed in 1821. (The official name of the cathedral is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.)

The imposing building was designed and brought to life by two men: John Carroll, the first American Catholic bishop (and a member of the storied Carroll family), and Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect of the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC. The two wanted to create a uniquely American cathedral, one that spoke of a new architecture combined with Rome’s building codes—but a building that did not merely echo European designs. Latrobe’s work in DC gave him the experience and ideas that led to the basilica’s massive dome. The dome can be seen more clearly today than in recent decades, due to a massive, multimillion-dollar restoration, completed in 2006, that gave the building new life and vitality.

The sweeping skylights, domes, rosettes, and curves of the interior of the basilica have a delicacy and stately nature that echoes that of the Capitol, but the architecture has a more sacred style—though it doesn’t invoke the often ominous feel of European cathedrals. Tours offered Monday through Friday at 9am, 11am, and 1pm, and some Saturdays at the same times include the main chapel and church, as well as the undercroft and crypt, where almost all of Baltimore’s archbishops are laid to rest.

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Baltimore.