Friday, August 03, 2007

In Charm City, 100K Have Seen the Light

When he announced plans for a stem-to-stern restoration of the US' first cathedral, Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption, Cardinal William Keeler was met with no small amount of intense criticism. Neighborhood groups railed against the removal of the century-old stained glass as some of his presbyterate griped that the cardinal had proposed what one cleric deemed "a monument to himself."

Ever the wise student of history, Keeler forged ahead anyway with the two-year, $35 million project. And since its completion in November, every outcome he foresaw at its inception has come to pass -- the conversion of his doubters included.

Yesterday, the cardinal -- the Premier See's apostolic administrator following his retirement as archbishop last month -- welcomed the 100,000th visitor to the resurrected landmark, dedicated in 1820. The milestone was but another marker of what's been quite the turnaround for American Catholicism's most-storied sanctuary, which previously saw few visitors (and even endured a 1998 stabbing on its front portico) as its luster had fallen on hard times.

Since last fall's re-opening, the surge of pilgrims and curiosity-seekers spurred a bulk-up by half of the initial corps of tour guides and docents. The group now numbers about 65, according to Mark Potter, executive director of the Basilica Historic Trust. Given that its parish only has about 400 registered members, most of the guides hail from outside its boundaries, as do an overwhelming majority of its post-restoration Mass-goers and wedding-seekers; the site of 30 Nuptial Masses since the re-opening, close to 80 more have been booked at the Basilica through the end of 2008.

Reflecting both the widespread interest in the project and Catholic Baltimore's longstanding emphasis on the church's role as the "friend of the people," the Trust also reported that, while half of the visitors to date are Catholic or have come with church-affiliated groups, the balance has been drawn from the ecumenical and interfaith communities, and the even larger catch-all of believers in the power of art and architecture. The rebirth has extended into the Mount Vernon district, with local businesses reporting spikes of their own thanks to the flood of pilgrims and daytrippers. And, in the definitive urban sign of heavy pedestrian traffic, a hot-dog cart recently set up shop outside its gates.

The influx has come from all over the map: appearing more like a parish pastor than the Holy See's third-ranking official, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal William Levada celebrated a Sunday Mass at the Basilica in late April, and among last Saturday's 500-plus tour-takers was a lone traveler from China. What's more, the restoration might just be the catalyst that lures another ecclesiastical beauty buff -- Benedict XVI -- to Baltimore on his US trek in Spring 2008 (a papal journey which, sources say, will likely have its first leg in the archdiocese of Boston).

However, taking the resources and programs of the renewed gem to "the next level" first requires putting a bit of unfinished business to rest, Potter said. Nine months after its reopening, the debt on the restoration still hovers in the area of $5 million.

While a round of national outreach by Keeler last year brought the funding closer to goal, the cardinal's retirement will be largely devoted to the continuing care of the place he's called "my Basilica," where he'll remain in residence after Archbishop Edwin O'Brien takes the reins of the archdiocese on 1 October.

An installation-eve Vespers service is planned for the Assumption, now Baltimore's co-cathedral.