The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate
Conception is among the 10 largest churches in the world.
Despite its size, the shrine cannot accommodate the 25,000
people expected at Pope Francis' Sept. 23 canonization Mass
for Blessed Junípero Serra. Thus the Mass will take
place outdoors, but not without an homage to the shrine's
distinctive interior aesthetics. The Archdiocese of
Washington called upon Catholic University in Washington and
a Maryland deacon to create the papal altar and furnishings
to be used outdoors that day. These were the same parties
approached for Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Washington in
Catholic U. turned the honor into a contest around final exam
time, attracting designs for the papal altar, ambo and chair
from 18 student teams in May. The winning team, announced
June 2, consists of Ariadne Cerritelli of Bethesda; Matthew
Hoffman of Pittsburgh; and Joseph Taylor of Elderburg, Md.
"This is so monumental," said Hoffman, 22, who graduated from
Catholic U.'s undergraduate architecture program in May and
started graduate studies there this fall, along with
Cerritelli. He meant that literally and figuratively. He
explained that his team wanted to "retain (the shrine's
monumental) timelessness" in their design and that, as a
cradle Catholic, "doing something for the pope is just about
the best thing you can do."
The team included a statement with their submission:
"In order to respond to the traditional Byzantine Romanesque
style of the basilica, while also maintaining the element of
simplicity, we have combined the use of the arch with a
refined design while incorporating the same materials already
utilized in the shrine. The strength and character of the
stone gives the piece a sense of purpose fit for the holy
liturgies ... The papal chair is designed to bring focus, not
on itself, but on the Vicar of Christ himself who will preach
Randall Ott, who's served as the dean of Catholic U.'s School
of Architecture and Planning since 2003, said that the
student-designed altar and furnishings had to meet two needs:
to be visible from a distance to accommodate a large-scale
outdoor event, and fit - physically and aesthetically - in
the shrine for permanent use.
Ott described the winning team's design as Byzantine, with
mosaics reminiscent of the Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of
St. Mark in Venice, Italy, and symmetrical forms that match
the arches and domes in the shrine.
According to the shrine's architectural webpage, which is
maintained by archives staff, Romanesque architecture is
defined by its symmetry, large scale, substantial walls,
arches, piers, groin vaults, towers and decorative
ambulatories. Compared to Gothic architecture, Romanesque
structures look relatively simple.
"About one-third of the student submissions were
asymmetrical, reflecting a thrust in contemporary church
architecture," said Ott.
Rugo Stone, a Lorton-based stone contracting company founded
by Brett Rugo in 1997, supplied the mensa, or marble top - a
beige Botticino Classico marble as seen in the shrine's
interior pillar - for the papal altar. The company has been
contracted for many of the shrine's chapels.
In the center of the altar is a symbol commemorating the
Virgin Mary, and four columns on the front represent the four
vows taken by Jesuits, such as Pope Francis, to join the
Society of Jesus, as well as three arches representing the
"The detailing and the symbolism are part of a clear vision
to communicate faith in design," said Hoffman, adding that
his personal faith is an important aspect of his own life.
Overall, Ott praises the altar and furnishings for their
"integrated feeling" and "drive toward unity."
"(The design is) appropriate for outside and will fit
beautifully in the shrine," he said.
The jury included Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl; Bishop
Barry Knestout, auxiliary bishop of Washington; Catholic U.
President John Garvey; basilica Rector Msgr. Walter Rossi;
The altar and furnishings have since been constructed by
Deacon Dave Cahoon, who also is a carpenter, and a team of 12
craftsmen at St. Joseph's Carpentry Shop in Poolesville, Md.
Doug Fauth, owner of Carriage Hill Custom Cabinets and
Millwork in Frederick, Md., built the papal chair, chairs for
two deacons and eight benches from medium-density fiberboard.
Each contains a thin veneer of cherry wood. Lawrence Wroten
made the relief carving of the papal seal from cherry wood
for the back of the papal chair, while Karen Kouneski applied
the gold-leaf and Mother of Pearl mosaic tiles to the altar's
When asked about their inspirations, Hoffman, who hopes to
become a church architect one day, said that he and his
fellow architecture students visited the shrine. They also
studied in Rome last spring to enhance their understanding of
Renaissance, Baroque and Revivalist styles and to consider
how to apply some of those "flavors" to American
"We could never replicate what they have in Europe," Hoffman
said, alluding to the investment of capital and human labor
required to build now-historical churches and cathedrals. But
he still aspires toward their aesthetics in his current and
future architectural work.
"Can you imagine these kids going to their first job
interview? They'll pull out their portfolio and lead with a
design for the pope," said Ott.
When your dream is to design Catholic churches, that's not a
bad place to start.
Stoddard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.