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There was a moment of splendor in Baltimore last week as the nation's first cathedral, the Basilica of the Assumption, came back to life after a two year, $34 million restoration. The Basilica has now reclaimed its original neo-classical design by the colonial architect Benjamin Latrobe. Once again the sun pours in through 24 skylights in the dome, skylights which had been painted over during World War II. More light streams in through the translucent side windows, windows which had once been replaced with stained glass. The walls have been returned to a rich cream color, as Latrobe intended. The floor's white marble shines, pink rosettes flower on the ceiling.

The Basilica stands are the corner of Cathedral and Mulberry Streets opposite the old Baltimore Harbor. The Peabody Preparatory Children's Chorus sang at opening festivities.

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LYDEN: Mark Potter is the executive director of the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust. He points out that the Basilica's cornerstone was laid in 1806.

Mr. MARK POTTER (Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust): This church really in the 19th century was known as the St. Peter's of North America. Anything of merit within the Catholic Church in terms of the governance and formation happened here. The Catholic school system was founded here. The Catholic University of America was founded here. So for Catholics this really was the mother church. But for all Americans this building became a symbol of religious freedom. Here you had this recently oppressed minority group rising out of the shadows and building one of the most beautiful churches in all of North America.

LYDEN: The story of Catholic sanctuary in Maryland begins long before the United States was a country. In 1634, Lord Baltimore and his small band of Catholics left England and sailed into the Potomac River on two small ships, the Arc and the Dove. They were seeking refuge from persecution in England. Maryland is named for Henrietta Maria, the French wife of King Charles I. For a time, Catholics thrived in Maryland. In 1649, that colony's assembly passed the Act of Toleration, but it was overturned five years later and persecution began anew.

Mr. POTTER: Later on in the colonial period, when you had the glorious revolution in England, those penal laws that were established against Catholics in England came across the Atlantic and all the Catholic churches that were established here were burned to the ground and the Catholic population went underground. In fact, for the rest of the colonial period it was illegal to practice the Roman Catholic faith. Also, if you were Catholic, you were ineligible to hold elective office or join any of the professions like teachers, doctors, lawyers and so forth.

LYDEN: That all changed in 1789 with the new U.S. Constitution and its guarantee of religious freedom.

Mr. POTTER: And it was at that point that the pope could officially start the Catholic Church in the new country, in the United States. And he chose Baltimore to be America's first diocese and John Carroll as America's first bishop. In fact, if you were Catholic and you lived in the United States in 1789, whether you lived in Massachusetts, Georgia, anywhere east of the Mississippi, John Carroll was your bishop and Baltimore was your diocese.

LYDEN: It wasn't until 1806 that Bishop Carroll felt confident enough to begin the Basilica. Hearing that the Catholic Church wanted to build its first cathedral, Benjamin Latrobe approached the bishop. Latrobe was the architect of the nation's capital and a close friend of Thomas Jefferson's. He drew up two plans, one a more traditional, English gothic cathedral; and the second a neo-classical domed design. Carroll chose the latter because he wanted his cathedral to reflect the new American architecture. He wanted to show the rest of America that Catholics were just as American as anyone else.

Masonry domes were always an architectural challenge. Making it even harder, the plan called for skylights. Latrobe solved the problem by adding a double dome design, one on top of the other. Again, Mark Potter of the Basilica's Historic Trust.

Mr. POTTER: Well, you're standing beneath the interior dome and this dome is six feet of bricks and mortar. There's not a piece of steel holding this building together. It's all piled up stones, bricks and mortar, just like an old European cathedral. Now, on that dome Latrobe placed an outer dome, and that's the dome you see from the street, so to speak, and you can walk in between those faces. And it's in that dome that Jefferson inspired him to place 24 skylights. And from those skylights the natural light comes in and you can see several reflections right here. You can't really see the skylights from down here.

LYDEN: No, you can't.

Mr. POTTER: And that's what makes it very mysterious. And in fact, in the 19th century they refer to that as the lumari mysteria, the mysterious light, and as they were praying they would look up and they would see this beautiful light come in, but they could not see the source of the light.

LYDEN: Eighty-four-year-old Anna Hart(ph) walked in on a light-filled day and marveled at how the restoration had transformed the space. Hart was a choir girl in the Basilica in the late 1930s.

Ms. ANNA HART (Former Choir Girl): I couldn't believe this. When I walked in, you know, I thought how beautiful this is. You know, and I was reading the parts they would print in the Catholic Review about it. So I was really looking forward to this today. But anyhow, I attended Seton High School and every Pentecost Sunday, when Archbishop Curley was in, you know, here living, we sang the Pentecost mass here, and it was like over 1,000 girls. So it was quite impressive. And of course I always came here for the Agony in the Garden on Good Friday. And of course it was not as beautiful as it is today.

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LYDEN: This week, it was Baltimore's Morgan State University Choir that sang, an all African-American chorus.

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LYDEN: High up along the Basilica walls are two galleries, one for cloistered nuns hidden from view by a long curtain, and the other, newly restored at the rear of the Basilica, was where slaves and freed African-Americans came to worship. Basel Encarry(ph) is a student at Archbishop Curley High School, which has long had an association with the Basilica.

Mr. BASEL ENCARRY (High School Student): When we came here for the tour, I remember those used to be, especially over there, that used to be the place where the slaves would sit during mass. And you know, being an African-American here, I mean, things have changed over the years and it's good to see that now that's not a big issue, but it's still historic.

LYDEN: The Basilica is now a beacon for everyone, says Mark Potter.

Mr. POTTER: I think this building has more of a national appeal rather than maybe the archdiocese of Baltimore. I mean we are a national historic landmark. We're a cathedral, we're a Basilica, we're a national shrine, we're a Marian shrine, we're a church, and we're a parish. So it has an appeal that crosses boundaries. And we're very happy that this church has been restored and it's back for all Americans. And as you look around this church today and all the people touring here and everyone that's so interested, you know, I would imagine that a good portion of, you know, the people in here are not Catholic. This building is about American history. It's about Catholic history. I think it's so important in this day and age, when you have all these things happening in the world and mosques being burned and temples being burned to the ground, to see, to experience religious freedom in the United States - and this, of course, if the cradle of that.

LYDEN: To see Benjamin Latrobe's magnificent designs of the Baltimore Basilica, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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LYDEN: Petra Mayer produced our visit to the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore. Special thanks to Sheffield Studios in Maryland for tape of the Morgan State University Choir and the Peabody Preparatory Children's Chorus. And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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