St. Mary Catholic Church in Alexandria, the first permanent Catholic parish in Virginia, has a new name and a new designation for the new year. It was announced Sunday that the Holy See had decreed the building to be a minor basilica, and the church will now be known as “The Basilica of Saint Mary.”
Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington announced during the 8:30 a.m. Mass Jan. 14 that he had recently received a letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments which decreed that the building would be a minor basilica. The parishioners broke into applause at the news.
The Basilica of Saint Mary is located in Alexandria, Va., fewer than 10 miles south of Arlington.
“Within our Catholic Church, this is indeed a great news, and it’s a very thorough process,” Burbidge said. Burbidge joked that the pastor of St. Mary’s, Fr. Edward Hathaway, inquired about the process to pursue the title “about three minutes” after he was named Bishop of Arlington last year.
“We are overjoyed and humbled by the recognition of St. Mary’s as one of the major churches in the world,” said Fr. Hathaway.
The designation of the building as a basilica means that the parish “has a special relationship with the Holy See,” and Burbidge emphasized that this was a “great honor” for the church. St. Mary’s was chosen due to its importance in the community, its history as a parish, and its significance in the history of the United States.
The Basilica of Saint Mary is the 84th basilica in the United States, and the first in the Diocese of Arlington. Throughout the world there are just under 1,800 minor basilicas, and there are four major basilicas in Rome.
The parish was founded in 1795, a time when Catholicism was heavily restricted in Virginia, with Catholics barred from voting or holding public office. The first donor to the church was George Washington, who was not Catholic; though his close aide, Col. John Fitzgerald, was. The president gave the parish the equivalent of $1,200 today.
The church moved to its current location in 1810, and the current building was dedicated in 1827. The site of the original church is now the parish's cemetery.
Now that St. Mary’s has been recognized as a minor basilica, it will be outfitted with an umbraculum, a canopy of yellow and red silk; a tintinnabulum, a bell mounted on a pole which is used when the Pope visits a basilica; and the display of the papal symbol of the keys of St. Peter.
As a basilica, St. Mary's has a new seal, which includes the umbraculum and the papal keys. It has adopted the motto Omnes cum Petro ad Jesum per Mariam, or “All with Peter to Jesus through Mary.”
Three signs indicate that a church has been designated as a basilica: an ombrellino (umbrella), tintinnabulum (bell to alert the Pope’s arrival) and the display of the Papal Symbol on church furnishings. More about @stmaryoldtown, now #StMaryBasilica! https://t.co/UtGIeZWGTt pic.twitter.com/Bw6ZOWV5Ir
rn— Diocese of Arlington (@arlingtonchurch) January 15, 2018
Dr. Chad Pecknold, a professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and a parishioner of St. Mary’s, appeared on EWTN’s “Morning Glory” radio program on Tuesday to discuss what this means for his home parish.
According to Pecknold, the historical significance of a basilica is that it is where an emperor would sit. Nowadays, given the relative lack of emperors, the designation of a basilica is more of a symbol of a church’s connection to Rome.
“It shows our special connection to the See of St. Peter,” said Pecknold. He said the process began about a year ago, and that the Vatican moved remarkably fast in making its decision.
“It was exactly a year from the beginning of our application to the end — of a great result,” said Pecknold. “We were absolutely thrilled that the Vatican worked so quickly. I think our case was strong,” he added.
The Basilica of Saint Mary will celebrate its 220th anniversary in 2020.