New Symbols to Designate the Basilica of St. Mary
When St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Old Town Alexandria—the oldest Catholic Church in Virginia and Mother Church of numerous Mission churches across the state—was bestowed the designation of Basilica in January 2018, the honor set in motion multiple upgrades and additions to the historic structure. Officially founded as a Catholic Parish in 1795, St. Mary’s found its first permanent home on its current site on Duke Street in 1826, with a 40’ x 65’ masonry structure which is still the heart of the current church, and the location of its most sacred space, the Sanctuary.
The Basilica designation was given due to its historic importance to the local community. Recent investigations have confirmed that the first donor to the building of a Catholic church in Alexandria was George Washington himself, whose bank ledger shows an expense (equivalent to $1,200 today) for this cause, given in 1778 at the home of his Aide-de-Camp John Fitzgerald.
In its long tradition of employing the visual arts to communicate its message, the Church asked BVA’s Michael Patrick, a St. Mary’s parishioner, to help design a new seal for the Basilica, which would establish its most important associations in the four quarters of its shield.
The shield’s design includes:
- The traditional “Ave Maria” monogram, indicating devotion to Saint Mary.
- The primary image of the Diocese of Arlington that depicts ten stars around a central larger star. It symbolizes the ten New World colonies at the time of Alexandria’s founding with Mary’s star holding them together.
- The “IHS” symbol with a cross of nails, drawn from the symbol of the Jesuit order, as St. Mary’s was originally founded by Jesuits from across the river at Georgetown.
In preparation for its Basilica status, the seal was set against the crossed keys of St. Peter, the first Pope of the Church, and the Ombrellino canopy; together, they indicate St. Mary’s new Basilica status and its special connection to Rome.
This crest anchors the new entrance for St. Mary’s Parish offices, which Michael designed in ironwork and masonry:
The symbols are also etched into the glass of St. Mary’s Lyceum front doors, its nearby assembly building:
Michael was then asked to design symbols required for every basilica across the globe:
- A Tintinnabulum, a symbolic housing for a bell that’s rung whenever the Pope visits;
- Decorative brackets to hold up the Tintinnabulum as well as an Ombrellino, originally derived from traditional ceremonial processional canopies.
- (For more information on the imagery of each symbol, the Arlington Catholic Herald wrote this excellent description, right here.)
On September 8, Bishop Michael Burbidge blessed those symbols during a Mass honoring St. Mary’s new Basilica status, and establishing the feast day of Mary’s birth as a special Saint’s Day for the Church.
As a special feature of this Mass, St. Mary’s also presented newly installed marble Altar railings, exquisitely carved more than a century ago in 1910 and relocated to St. Mary’s in time for the Basilica celebration. The rail is an extension of the main Altar, bringing it out to the people of the Parish and creating a sacred aura in the Sanctuary.
Michael was asked to create a seamless integration of the old and new, installing over 13,000 pounds of Carrera marble into the Altar kneelers and in paving stones throughout the Sanctuary.
Here, you can see Michael’s design process from “before” to “after:”
St. Mary’s is now prepared to enter its new era as a Basilica—the first in the Diocese of Arlington and the second in the Washington region—with a meaning that will allow it to fulfill its new mission as a benchmark for the practice of the Catholic faith through exceptional liturgy and artistic beauty and significance.