One of Cardinal William H. Keeler’s major efforts was the $32 million campaign to restore the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore.
After more than two years of construction, the building was rededicated on Nov. 4, 2006 – 200 years after the basilica’s cornerstone was laid. More than 240 bishops from across the nation gathered in Baltimore for the celebration, marking the first time all the country’s bishops gathered in the basilica since 1989 when the archdiocese marked its bicentennial.
During the restoration, the basilica’s dome skylights, which had long been closed, were reopened. Stained-glass windows that had been installed in the 20th century were relocated to a new church at St. Louis, Clarksville, to make way for clear glass windows that allowed the basilica’s interior to be bathed in natural light in keeping with the original vision of Archbishop John Carroll and architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
In addition to updating the basilica’s infrastructure, long-lost statues of angels were recovered and restored. The interior was repainted, white marble floors were installed, the organ was restored and statues of St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Kolkata were added. A new chapel dedicated to Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, was created in the basilica’s undercroft and the building’s exterior was illuminated at night.
Cardinal Keeler, who once said there is “no place on earth like the basilica,” received the personal blessing of St. John Paul II for the restoration project and viewed it as one of his most important undertakings.
“I saw this as the most precious place of worship in the United States,” Cardinal Keeler told the Catholic Review in a 2005 interview. “The basilica will be a main attraction for pilgrims and visitors. They will stop here to visit and to pray, and they will return home to tell others that they visited this cathedral.”
Michael Ruck, chairman of the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust Board of Trustees, said the basilica’s restoration was possible “only through Cardinal Keeler’s heroic and extraordinary efforts.”
The cardinal recognized that the basilica was the preeminent symbol of religious freedom in the United States, Ruck said, and that the archdiocese had a duty to care for it.
“The cardinal knew that as important as the past is, it’s just as important to know there’s a church in the future,” Ruck said.
A few years after the basilica was rededicated, the Pope John Paul II Prayer Garden was established on the grounds of the former Rochambeau apartment building on Charles Street, a structure erected in 1906 and acquired by the archdiocese in 2001. Cardinal Keeler underwent a public struggle with a small group of historic preservationists who opposed tearing down the long-vacant structure. He ultimately won a legal battle that allowed the building to come down to make way for the prayer garden, which featured a large bronze statue of St. John Paul II modeled on the pope’s visit to Baltimore.
“The building that was there, as everybody in the neighborhood knows, was a dump,” Cardinal Keeler told the Catholic Review in a 2008 interview. “Thank heavens, it is now history.”
Cardinal Keeler said he viewed the prayer garden as a place of solitude in an often-noisy city.
“I pray that people of every background, of every race and creed will be able to use the garden,” he said. “Pope John Paul II himself was one who promoted interfaith harmony in a very personal way.”
This is an excerpt from the Catholic Review obituary on Cardinal Keeler by George P. Matysek Jr. For the complete article, click here.