Basilica parish celebrates 150 years of prayer, service in the city

| Susan Klemond | September 18, 2018 | 0 Comments

Construction of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis around 1909. Courtesy the Basilica of St. Mary

The Basilica of St. Mary’s most lasting structure isn’t the wooden shed where its first parishioners attended Mass in 1868. Nor is it the majestic co-cathedral where parishioners now worship on the edge of downtown Minneapolis.

Rather, its leaders say, it’s the Basilica community, who, for 150 years, have worshipped, served, welcomed immigrants and raised generations of Catholics while continuing to look outward to the needs of the city.

“The Basilica would not be what it is without the involvement of the people — not just on our parish council, the finance committee and our trustees — but without the people that make up the Basilica,” said Father John Bauer, its rector and pastor.

The Basilica of St. Mary kicks off its 150th anniversary celebration the final weekend of September with two Masses celebrated by Archbishop Bernard Hebda Sept. 30. Over the next year, the parish will host a sculpture exhibit, Basilica wedding and school reunions, and a St. Vincent de Paul outreach program celebration.

On Oct. 4, 1868, several hundred members of the newly formed Immaculate Conception parish — which was later renamed the Basilica of St. Mary — gathered for the parish’s inaugural parish Mass in a shed at the corner of North Third Street and Third Avenue in Minneapolis. It was the first Catholic church in Minneapolis west of the Mississippi. The shed was attached to the parish school, which had opened two years earlier and was staffed by sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

The first building of Immaculate Conception parish, which would later become the Basilica parish. Parishioners worshipped in this shed from 1868-1873. Courtesy the Basilica

Over the next four years, as parishioners built a new limestone church on the property, they also helped their founding pastor, Father James McGolrick, launch a St. Vincent de Paul Conference to serve parishioners in need. 

That laid the foundation for later parish ministries and charitable outreaching, according to Msgr. James Reardon, a former Basilica rector who, in 1932, chronicled the parish’s history to that point in a book, “The Basilica of St. Mary of Minneapolis.”

Those early parishioners’ 21st-century counterparts still serve persons in need, although their focus goes well beyond the families of the parish. Its St. Vincent de Paul ministry continues today, offering emergency relief to the homeless, refugees and others.

By the 1890s, the growing parish needed a new church.  In 1903, Archbishop John Ireland, archbishop of St. Paul from 1888 until his 1918 death, proposed building a Minneapolis cathedral designed in the Beaux Arts style by Emmanuel Masqueray, who was drawing up plans for the Cathedral of St. Paul. The archbishop also changed the parish name to the “Pro-Cathedral of St. Mary.”

“Archbishop Ireland intended for both the Cathedral and Basilica to be more than just houses of worship,” said Johan van Parys, the Basilica’s liturgy and sacred arts director. “He wanted the cathedral presence to make a difference in both St. Paul and Minneapolis.”

From the beginning, the “pro-cathedral” (nicknamed “The Pro”), was recognized as something significant for Minneapolis. In 1908, an estimated 20,000 Catholics and non-Catholics attended a celebration as Archbishop Ireland laid the structure’s cornerstone at 16th Street and Hennepin Avenue, Msgr. Reardon wrote. In 1913, Protestant and government leaders attended a civic dedication of the structure the year before its solemn dedication.  

Community involvement continued as the Basilica’s interior was completed with marble wrought iron and stained glass. In 1926, it was the first U.S. church elevated by the pope to the status of a minor basilica.

Some of the Basilica’s side altars were dedicated to immigrants’ patron saints, but acquiring the limited space was not without incident. Italian and Irish parishioners competed for an altar, and the Italians prevailed by obtaining a statue of St. Anthony first.

“The story is, the Italians threatened to steal and sink a statue of St. Patrick if they installed it in the church,” Father Bauer said.

Enlivened by immigrants’ faith from the beginning, the Basilica now welcomes immigrants from West Africa, Central and South America and Asia. Newer shrines to Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of La’Vang from Vietnam reflect their devotion.

 Jerry Piazza’s Italian family has had parish ties for 100 years. The 86-year-old remembers being assigned as a fourth grader to fill the church’s flower vases during the Ninth Eucharistic Congress in 1941. Thousands of bishops, priests and laity attended the liturgies and procession.

Later as an altar boy, Piazza remembers reciting Mass prayers in Latin. “You had to yell it out because [Msgr. Reardon] wanted people in the back of the church to hear it,” he recalled of the longtime rector, who led the church from 1921 to 1963.

The Basilica’s Mass attendance dwindled in the 1960s as Interstate 94 was constructed nearby, and then again, when the Basilica closed its school in 1975. Cut off by the freeway from neighborhoods it serves, the parish “made a concerted effort to reach out to the community around us, to invite that community into our parish to be part of our parish, to make sure that anyone that comes here feels welcome,” Father Bauer said.

As Pope Paul VI added “Minneapolis” to the name of the Archdiocese of St. Paul in 1966, he raised the Basilica to its current status as co-cathedral to the archdiocese’s principal cathedral, the Cathedral of St. Paul. In 1975, it was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Ecclesial and historical significance, however, didn’t protect it from structural deterioration. By the 1980s, the building, damaged by water and age, needed massive repairs and restoration. Staff and parishioners considered tearing it down, but instead, they organized a capital campaign, van Parys said. 

Then, in 1995, they staged the first Basilica Block Party on the Basilica grounds to attract younger Catholics and fund building needs. The concert series still meets those goals, Father Bauer said, as it raises funds for The Basilica Landmark, a separate nonprofit focused on Basilica preservation.

This year, it helped to fund stone tuck-pointing under the Basilica’s dome and the installation of LED sanctuary lighting.

As in its earliest years, the Basilica remains a community meeting place as well as sacred worship space for its nearly 13,000 parishioners. It tries to “seek the wellbeing of the city to which I have sent you,” Father Bauer said, citing Jeremiah 29:7. This fall, the parish will host a photographic exhibit and concerts; faith formation, prayer and justice groups; Bible studies and book clubs.

“We really see ourselves as part of the downtown community,” Father Bauer said. “We’re not separate or apart from the community.”

Looking forward, the Basilica seeks to welcome the next generation of parishioners, Father Bauer said, adding that parish leaders want programs, services and ministries to meet current needs. 

One reminder of what has endured is a statue of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, brought from the previous church and now located near its main doors.

 “There has been a sense of trying to better people’s lives,” van Parys said, “and that has evolved over the years.”

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