Basilica!?! What is This Jargon?!?

Part deux of my adventures in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

The really cool part of being at the National Emergency Training Center is that it is right next door to the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. A tour was offered of the Basilica after hours if you were at the training center, so I took the opportunity to see the Shrine.

National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
This is a view of the basilica for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. This building was constructed in 1965 and it is a very Italianate style basilica.

The grounds of the Shrine consists of a walking path, a number of buildings, and a cemetery. If you find yourself in the area, the grounds are open to walk around until dusk, while the Basilica and museum are open almost daily from 10- 4:30 pm.

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) is the first native born United States citizen to be canonized, which means to be named a saint. She was canonized in 1975 by Pope Paul VI. In 1991 the chapel, which was originally designed as the chapel for the sisters in the Daughters of Charity, was designated as a minor basilica by Pope John Paul II; it was already the national shrine prior to this.

So, I’m sure you have some questions:

1. What exactly did Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton do during her life to be canonized?

2. What is a basilica, it sounds like architectural jargon!?! It is….

Anyways, I’ll answer the easier of the two.

Who exactly was Mother Seton?

The shortened biography goes something like this…Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born in 1774 into an Anglican family in New York City. In 1794, she married William Magee Seton and they had five children. William was not in the greatest health and because of this he, Elizabeth, and their eldest child, Anna Marie, sailed to Italy for warmer weather believing this would help William’s health. William also had business partners in Italy, Filippo and Antonio Filicchi, who they planned to stay with.

Sadly, the warmer weather did not help. William passed away before the end of 1803. While in Italy though, Elizabeth was introduced to the Catholic faith through the Filicchi family. Upon returning to the United States, she converted to the Roman Catholic Faith in 1805. By 1808, she was traveling with her family and companions, to Emmitsburg to start a school for girls. She was successful in starting a school, St. Joseph’s Academy, which eventually morphed into Saint Joseph’s College. She also created the congregation of religious sisters called, the Sisters of Charity.

This leads us to the other question.

What exactly is a basilica?

So historically a basilica was a type of large public building found in Rome. It was used for business or legal matters- not religious matters. It typically would have been a semi-circular space roofed with a half dome. Finally, when Christianity was no longer illegal in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, Christians began to publicly construct basilicas. 

The most basic interior layout of the basilica would have consisted of:

Nave – This is the central aisle that religious processions walk down

Aisles– One on each side of the central nave

Apse– This is the location where the altar is, typically it is opposite of the main entrance

From this basic interior plan, a basilica can greatly vary. For example there could be transepts, which would go off of the outer aisles expanding the layout into a “cross” plan. There can also be differences in the ceiling vaults. Examples: the central nave has a ceiling that extends upwards another story allowing for windows while the ceilings above the aisles are not as tall OR the height of all three ceilings and their vaults are all similar in size meaning there might not be windows.

To confuse matters a little more, “basilica” can also refer to an ecclesiastical status for a church.

There are two rankings for basilicas with this type of status: major and minor.

There are only four major or papal basilicas, these are all located in Rome and have something called a “holy door” it’s a very specific type of door.

Then there are minor basilicas, these are churches, chapels, etc. that have been decreed by the acting Pope to be designated as a minor basilica (typically a Papal brief is issued). This allows that building the right to conopaeum, a specific type of canopy to be displayed. It’s red and gold and looks like an umbrella. There is also the right to display a bell called, tintinnabulum, and the cappa magna, which is a robe. All of these link the basilica to the Pope.

The basilica at Emmitsburg was completed in 1965 and the interior was made entirely by German and Italian craftsmen and artisans. I tried researching more on the architecture of the basilica but I could find nothing! The church is definitely Italianate in style. It’s beautiful.

The following are images from within the basilica for Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. You should be able to “right click” on any of the images to open into a new page, this will allow you to slightly zoom into the images to see more details.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Altar of Relics
This is where Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s remains are located within the Basilica. The statue was sculpted in Italy and beneath the altar is a small copper casket that contains the saint’s remains. This has been enclosed in marble.
Looking Down the Nave
One final look down the Basilica.

I have written about one other basilica and that is located in Ottawa, Canada. It’s the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica in Ottawa was declared in minor basilica in 1879: https://adventurewithcourtney.wordpress.com/2017/03/17/st-patricks-day-historic-ads-and-buildings/

Stay tune for the next post on Gettysburg, which has a link to the Sisters of Charity!

Thanks for reading!

For More Information:

All of my information came from a handout I received at the Basilica and from the Shrine’s website. I attached the National Register nomination again because it does discuss the Stone House, the White House, and the cemetery. I can’t seem to conclude whether or not the Basilica is actually included in the district. I assume it is, but there’s no real information about the building and it’s construction, which is weird.

The National Shrine for Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton: https://setonshrine.org/

National Register Nomination: https://mht.maryland.gov/secure/medusa/PDF/NR_PDFs/NR-355.pdf

Basilicas: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica

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