Religious studies scholar offers uniquely broad perspective on Catholic presence in nation’s capital
In 1913, Bishop Thomas J. Shahan received the pope’s blessing to pursue his vision for a church in Washington, D.C. — a national shrine that would honor the Virgin Mary, serve as a destination for pilgrims and stake a Catholic claim in the civic arena.
In “America’s Church: The National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital” (Oxford, 2011), Thomas Tweed provides a richly detailed history of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and its impact on religion and public life.
The shrine took decades to build — construction was suspended during the Great Depression and World War II — and required a massive fundraising effort that included an appeal to school children. But upon completion in 1959, the imposing sanctuary was the largest Catholic church in North America and one of the largest churches in the world.
It served as a rejoinder to the Gothic-style National Cathedral — an Episcopal church commissioned at the turn of the century — making a bold statement with its trend-bucking Byzantine- Romanesque architecture and rallying millions of Catholics around a national symbol of their faith.
Tweed, who is the Gwyn Shive, Anita Nordan Lindsay, and Joe and Cherry Gray Professor of the History of Christianity in the Department of Religious Studies, views the shrine as the threshold to Catholic America. The story of the basilica, he says, is the story of Catholicism in the United States. And therein lies an even broader story about religion and its place in American civic life as other denominations and religions built their own monuments in Washington.
“From the shrine’s portal you can get out to the wider history of Catholicism,” he says, “but you can also get some glimpse into what’s going on in American culture at the time.”
Tweed has written and edited several books on religion, including the widely influential “Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion” (Harvard, 2008) and “Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami” (Oxford, 1997), which won the American Academy of Religion’s Award for Excellence.
But “America’s Church” takes an unusual approach with perspective.
In decades past, historians delivered the history of Catholicism through the in the 1980s, scholars started featuring eyes of the bishops and priests. Then, the lives of ordinary lay people and deemphasizing clergy and institution. Tweed sought to combine both points of view, painting an all-encompassing picture of Catholicism in the United States.
“What I wanted to do to some extent was try to consider both the leaders and the people in the pew,” he says, “women as well as men, children as well as adults, new immigrants as well as those who have been here for generations.”
Tweed sifted through census records, letters and the shrine’s guest book as well as archival documents and other church records to bring to life the believers who had a hand in building the basilica — from the bishops and cardinals to the ladies’ parish groups to school children who read promotional comic books about the shrine and dug into their piggy banks for donations. The “popular devotion of ordinary people,” Tweed says, ensured the shrine’s completion.
Steve Friesen, interim chair of the Department of Religious Studies, praised Tweed’s ability to weave in multiple story lines.
“Tom has been a leader in that enhanced examination of lived religion,” Friesen says. “With ‘America’s Church,’ he takes the field forward in a couple of ways. One important advance is Tom’s analysis of how people’s actual religious practice intersects with church institutions and hierarchies. It’s clearly not enough to examine only what the officials say, or only what practitioners do, so a robust analysis needs to bring both of those aspects together.”
Friesen also lauded Tweed for framing his subjects in a broad historical context rather than in a snapshot of a particular era.
“America’s Church” plays out against the backdrop of World Wars I and II, the Depression, the Cold War, Vietnam, and the election of the country’s first Catholic president in 1960.
What Tweed calls the “era of consolidation” in the first half of the 20th century gave way to fragmentation among Catholics.
The shrine now stands as a symbol of division between traditionalists who embrace Marian devotion and progressive Catholics who are uncomfortable with the scale of the building and what it represents. One man Tweed interviewed complained that the shrine was “all about the bishops.” With its proximity to the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops headquarters — bishops worship at the shrine during their annual meetings — and its use for important public ceremonies, the shrine is important to the hierarchy, Tweed says.
But as in decades past, the shrine still holds an appeal to ordinary Catholics, which is evident in the shrine’s many chapels dedicated to ethnic depictions of the Virgin Mary.
And though it is still overshadowed by the National Cathedral in terms of popular recognition, the basilica has made its way onto Washington tours and has again become a frequently visited pilgrimage site.
“It’s about religion and public life,” Tweed says, “and how religion has had to find its way in the nation’s capital.”