Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Washington, D.C., United States

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the largest Catholic church in the United States and North America, one of the ten largest churches in the world, and the tallest habitable building in Washington, D.C. Construction of this church, notable for its Neo-Byzantine architecture, began in 1920 under Philadelphia contractor John McShain. It opened unfinished in 1959. An estimated one million pilgrims visit the basilica each year.

The basilica is designated both as the national and patronal Catholic Church of the United States, honoring the Virgin Mary, under the title Immaculate Conception, by which Pope Pius XI donated a mosaic of the same image in 1923.

The basilica houses 70 chapels honoring Mary and reflecting the origins of the Catholic immigrants and religious orders whose generosity erected them. Its Greek-styled interior is crowned with numerous domes decorated in mosaics, similar to the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, Italy, but much larger. The mosaics feature American renditions of traditional Catholic images. Artist Jan Henryk De Rosen, who presided over the shrine's iconography committee was also responsible for much of its decor, including composing the large mosaic over the northern apse.

The exterior of the basilica is 152m long, 73m wide, and 72 m tall to the top of the cross on the dome. The shrine was built in the style of medieval churches, relying on masonry walls and columns in place of structural steel and reinforced concrete. It was designed to hold 10,000 worshipers.

In all, 70 chapels and sacred images flank the sides of the upper church and crypt. It contains many works of art. There are arches outlined with iridescent Pewabic Pottery tile, large ceramic medallions set in the ceiling, and fourteen Stations of the Cross for the crypt.



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Founded: 1920
Category: Religious sites in United States


4.9/5 (based on Google user reviews)

User Reviews

Anthony Uzodinma (22 months ago)
This place is quite the architectural gem, and the ceiling and stain glass art are all stunning to see in person. There’s a meditative peacefulness about this place that just amplifies one’s overall spiritual experience. I’ve on multiple occasions just wandered around exploring the place and just been in awe with the beauty and history of this place. If you get a chance, sticky around for a service. The masses are very well social distanced and mask wearing is enforced at all times.
Don Snyder (22 months ago)
We have visited the National Shrine many time over the years. Amazing that something whose construction started a hundred years ago can still have things yet to do. One of those things was just recently complete: the Trinity Dome. The Trinity Dome is absolutely spectacular. Even if you are not Catholic treat yourself to a visit to this amazing work of art and architectural amazement. It is stunning. While you are there, visit the Catholic University and some of the other religious sites in the area. You won't be disappointed. Try to go in the Spring when the various gardens are starting to bloom. Nearby, there is also the Lincoln Cottage. Talk about history...visit the house where President Lincoln tried to get some peace during the tough times of his administration. Remember, DC is more than the National Mall which unfortunately is starting to look a bit like a war zone!
Vanessa J Panaligan (23 months ago)
An architectural gem and an awe-inspiring environment filled with beautiful artwork—exquisite mosaics, statuary, paintings, and more! As someone who doesn’t drive, it’s a bit a ways away from the center of town/the more easily accessible areas, but it’s always worth it. For me, it brings back memories of the church affiliated with my elementary school back in the day. Pre-COVID, it seemed there was always a sizable group of visitors. It definitely was/is a place of gathering, bringing people together. Despite this though, I felt I could always find privacy and calm—my own space—to reflect and meditate. The basilica is incredibly peaceful and serene with a number of chapels showcasing beautifully crafted altars devoted to the Virgin Mary. I usually go to the Sunday noon Mass, which has a great, moving choral accompaniment. By the way, it warmly welcomes people of all backgrounds, even those who aren’t Catholic. I’ve brought many friends there over the years, who enjoyed the visit.
Rosemarie Archer (2 years ago)
Beautiful testimonial to the Queen of Heaven. A true gem in Washington DC. If you love the Virgin Mary, this is a great place to go.
Tokoubo Adoutan (2 years ago)
Incredible! Beautiful and charming spiritual home.
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The Church of St Eustace was built between 1532-1632. St Eustace"s is considered a masterpiece of late Gothic architecture. The church’s reputation was strong enough of the time for it to be chosen as the location for a young Louis XIV to receive communion. Mozart also chose the sanctuary as the location for his mother’s funeral. Among those baptised here as children were Richelieu, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, future Madame de Pompadour and Molière, who was also married here in the 17th century. The last rites for Anne of Austria, Turenne and Mirabeau were pronounced within its walls. Marie de Gournay is buried there.

The origins of Saint Eustache date back to 13th century. The church became a parish church in 1223, thanks to a man named Jean Alais who achieved this by taxing the baskets of fish sold nearby, as granted by King Philip Augustus. To thank such divine generosity, Alais constructed a chapel dedicated to Sainte-Agnès, a Roman martyr. The construction of the current church began in 1532, the work not being finally completed until 1637. The name of the church refers to Saint Eustace, a Roman general of the second century AD who was burned, along with his family, for converting to Christianity, and it is believed that it was the transfer of a relic of Saint Eustache from the Abbey to Saint-Denis to the Church of Saint Eustache which resulted in its naming. Jeanne Baptiste d"Albert de Luynes was baptised here.

According to tourist literature on-site, during the French Revolution the church, like most churches in Paris, was desecrated, looted, and used for a time as a barn. The church was restored after the Revolution had run its course and remains in use today. Several impressive paintings by Rubens remain in the church today. Each summer, organ concerts commemorate the premieres of Berlioz’s Te Deum and Liszt’s Christus here in 1886.

The church is an example of a Gothic structure clothed in Renaissance detail. The church is relatively short in length at 105m, but its interior is 33.45m high to the vaulting. At the main façade, the left tower has been completed in Renaissance style, while the right tower remains a stump. The front and rear aspects provide a remarkable contrast between the comparatively sober classical front and the exuberant rear, which integrates Gothic forms and organization with Classical details. The L"écoute sculpture by Henri de Miller appears outside the church, to the south. A Keith Haring sculpture stands in a chapel of the church.

The Chapel of the Virgin was built in 1640 and restored from 1801 to 1804. It was inaugurated by Pius VII on the 22nd of December, 1804 when he came to Paris for the coronation of Napoleon. The apse chapel, with a ribbed cul-de-four vault, has at its centre a sculpture of the Virgin and Child of Jean-Baptiste Pigalle that the painter Thomas Couture highlighted by three large paintings.

With 8,000 pipes, the organ is reputed to be the largest pipe organ in France, surpassing the organs of Saint Sulpice and Notre Dame de Paris. The organ originally constructed by P.-A. Ducroquet was powerful enough for the premiere of Hector Berlioz" titanic Te Deum to be performed at St-Eustache in 1855.