Encounter the Basilica of St. Mary

 Basilica seal               basilica front exterior


Encounter the Basilica of St. Mary! Explore Virginia's oldest Catholic Church and one of the region's most significant churches! Discover this historic church located right here in the Diocese of Arlington. Uncover the meaning and significance of a basilica church. Experience this Basilica and its rich Catholic culture. Visit the church where within its storied walls “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever!” (Hebrews 13:8).

What is a Basilica?

“Praise God in his holy sanctuary” (Psalm 150)

Named after centuries-old kingly and beautiful halls, a Catholic basilica is a special kind of church that possesses a unique honor among churches. Basilicas have a special connection to the Holy Father, the Pope, and are seen as particular churches set apart for his honor. A basilica possesses certain architectural beauty, historical significance and liturgical renown. There are four Major Basilicas - one in the Vatican and three in Rome. These churches bear great meaning for the history and tradition of the Catholic Church. The most highly ranked Catholic church in the world is that of the Major Basilica of St. John Lateran, Cathedral Church of the Pope. The other three Major Basilicas include St. Peter's Basilica (in the Vatican), St. Mary Major and St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome.    

The Four Major Basilicas

St. Peter's Basilica

According to tradition, St. Peter's Basilica is built over the tomb of St. Peter, the first Pope, and also not far from where he was crucified in the Circus of Nero. Filled with an abundance of sacred and classical art, St. Peter's is the destination of many tourists who visit the Vatican. It is the largest Christian church in the world. The current structure was completed in 1615. The previous edifice, also known as Old St. Peter's Basilica was completed in the 4th century. Pope Julius II chose to completely tear down this building in the early 16th century, and then the current Basilica was built. 

St. Peter's Basilica

“St. Peter's Basilica view from Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City, Rome, Italy” by Mstyslav Chernov , http://mstyslav-chernov.com/

St. John Lateran

San Giovanni Laterano, as it is known in Italian, is the cathedral church for the Pope. It is the oldest church in Rome. Groundbreaking for this church began in the 4th century, under the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine I. Although damaged by fire in the 14th century, the original structure is no longer standing. The current edifice was completed in the 18th century. The Basilica of St. John Lateran is dedicated to Christ the Savior and Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. Lateran gets its name from the Laterani family who held the land on which the church was built. 

St. John Lateran

St. John Lateran Basilica

 “Basilica of St. John Laterancathedral of the Bishop of RomeItaly” by Pedro Reis, http://www.ferras.at

St. Mary Major

Sometimes called Our Lady of the Snow, legend tells us that this church was built over a spot where snow fell in Rome in midsummer. According to this legend, around 350 A.D., Pope Liberius was told by the Blessed Virgin Mary to build a church where snow would fall. On August 5, snow fell in the outline of a church. A church was built here in Mary's honor.

Known for a time as St. Mary of the Crib, this Basilica is home to relics of the crib of Jesus. The Basilica also contains relics of the true Cross and relics of St. Matthew. The most grand of the churches dedicated to Our Lady in Rome, it is given the title Mary Major. The 4th century Bible scholar and Doctor of the Church, St. Jerome, is buried in St. Mary Major.

St. Mary Major

The Basilica of St. Mary Major

"Sta Maria Maggiore" by Lawrence OP is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0   

 St. Paul Outside the Walls 

Built over the tomb of St. Paul, the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls is dedicated to the Apostle Paul. The original church, which was damaged in a fire in 1823, was built in the 4th century. It is situated outside the ancient city walls of Rome - hence the name “outside the walls”. The Basilica boasts mosaics of popes stretching back to St. Peter, our first pope. All of the popes from St. Peter to Francis are depicted in the Basilica.

After renovations, the current structure was reopened in 1840. Not all features of the old church were destroyed, some art and fixtures from the 12th and 13th centuries remain.

St. Paul outside walls exterior

St. Paul Outside the Walls - pixy.org 

St. Paul outside walls interior

St. Paul Outside the Walls central nave. Image by loveombra from Pixabay

What is a Minor Basilica?

A minor basilica is a church of lesser status than the four Major Basilicas but still possesses great meaning and is granted the title “basilica” by the Pope. There are six conditions which must be met in order for a church to be considered for receiving the title “basilica”.

In 1989, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued Norms for the Granting of the Title of Minor Basilica in a document entitled Domus Ecclesiae, found here:  https://www.usccb.org/committees/divine-worship/policies/minor-basilica. The six conditions are outlined in the Norms:

  1. The church must have an active pastoral liturgy.
  2. The church must be sufficiently large.
  3. The church must have a certain renown in the diocese.
  4. The church must have a fitting number of priests in order to carry out the liturgical and pastoral functions of the church.
  5. The church must have a sufficient number of ministers.
  6. The church must have a choir trained in sacred music to encourage the participation of the faithful.

Churches who believe they meet these requirements for being named a “basilica” are free to begin the application process with the support of their Bishop and the assistance of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (U.S.C.C.B.) Several questions must be answered and a report sent to Rome.

Namely because of the Church's significant history, the Church of St. Mary's in Old Town,  Alexandria, began this process in 2017, with the support of Bishop Burbidge.

The pronouncement that a church is to be listed among Catholic churches as a basilica - an honor bestowed upon only 89 churches in the U.S.A.- is the crowning recognition upon a church rooted in Catholic and local history and particular religious devotion.

There are approximately 1,700 minor basilicas across the globe. 

History of St. Mary's Basilica

“The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:49)


St. Mary basilica - interior 1953
Interior of Church, 1953


St. Mary basilica exterior 1941
Exterior of Church, 1941


historical marker near basilica               

To serve the needs of the growing number of Catholics in the area surrounding the City of Alexandria, the Church of St. Mary's was founded in 1795. The Catholics of the Commonwealth of Virginia faced a difficult time practicing their faith before the Statute for Religious Freedom was announced in 1786.  In 1795, Fr. Francis Ignatius Neale, S.J., and Colonel John Fitzgerald founded St. Mary's. Neale was the first pastor of Georgetown Chapel which would later be Holy Trinity Catholic Church in D.C. Fitzgerald was General George Washington's aide de camp and an Irish-born Catholic. Together, and with a gift of land from Colonel Robert Hooe, they established this Catholic parish dedicated to Our Blessed Mother. The land donated by Colonel Hooe was at the corner of Church Street and what is now called the George Washington Memorial Parkway - where the St. Mary's cemetery is located to this day. 

In 1810, a second church was secured from a local Methodist assembly, near where the present day church resides. The majority of the current church, now named basilica, was built in 1826. The narthex was added in the 1830's. The transepts of the basilica were added after the Civil War in the 1870s.

 Basilica seal transept entrance

The Church of St. Mary was founded as a parish of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which was founded in 1789 as the first and only diocese in the U.S.A.  

George Washington himself donated what would be the equivalent of $1,200 toward the founding of St. Mary's. 

The Church of St. Mary's underwent a fire in 1929, which resulted in renovations to the ceiling and other parts of the Church. 

With over 50 apostolates, including the Knights of Columbus, American Heritage Girls, and Youth and Young Adult Ministries, the Basilica of St. Mary's is a thriving parish today.

Much information can be found about the Basilica of St. Mary on their website: https://stmaryoldtown.org/

For more on the history and founding of St. Mary's, click here: https://stmaryoldtown.org/history-founding


Basilica front vintage filter

Being Named a Basilica…

“May we be filled with the good things of your house, your holy temple!” (Psalm 65)

In 2017, Fr. Edward Hathaway, pastor of the Church of St. Mary, lead the cause for the parish to be named a basilica. A committee was formed that set about the task of answering many questions from Rome regarding the church. Upon completion of this document, Bishop Burbidge submitted the findings to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (U.S.C.C.B.). From there it went to the Vatican for their consideration.

In January of 2018, the parish learned from Rome that it had been named a basilica – the 84th in the United States. On Sunday, January 14, 2018, Bishop Burbidge publicly announced to the parish that the Church of St. Mary had been given the designation of “minor basilica.” To learn more about the application process and journey to this historic recognition, click here: https://stmaryoldtown.org/basilica/application-process/

Check out this video where Bishop Burbidge officially proclaims the Church of St. Mary’s a Basilica: https://youtu.be/m-ML8LmtdB4

A long-time parishioner shares in the excitement: https://tinyurl.com/37nhs84e

Basilica interior inside church nave

Three Symbols of a Basilica

Three symbols are present in every basilica and signify the church’s special status and connection to the Holy Father: the ombrellino, the tintinnabulum, and the papal cross keys


In the Middle Ages, an umbrella was used as a canopy over the Holy Father when he travelled in procession. A basilica has a similar umbrella displayed prominently in the church as a sign of the basilica’s connection to the Pope. The umbrella, called an ombrellino, is left slightly opened to signify that the people of the basilica are always ready to welcome the Pope. Red and gold are traditional papal colors. 




Bishop Burbidge blesses ombrellino
Bishop Burbidge blesses the ombrellino, September 8, 2018


Photo credit: Alex Solsma


Also in the Middle Ages, a bell would be used to alert the faithful of the Pope coming near in procession. It is a tradition that a basilica possess such a bell, called a tintinnabulum, as a sign of the basilica’s link with the Holy Father. The Basilica of St. Mary, a church with special connection to the Holy Father himself, stands ready to welcome the Pope. 

Basilica of St. Mary - tintinnabulum




Vatican flag

Papal Cross Keys

“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church … I will give you the keys to the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 16:18,19)

The keys which serve as an emblem for the papacy are found prominently throughout a basilica. The keys symbolize the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, as mentioned by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. In designating Peter as the first Pope, Jesus gave to Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, saying, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). The leadership of the Pope has a heavenly significance. The display of the papal keys in the basilica indicate the connection of the basilica to the Holy Father.

Among other places, the papal keys can be seen on top of the tintinnabulum in the Basilica of St. Mary’s.  

Check out this video montage from the Mass (and reception) in which Bishop Burbidge blessed the symbols of the Basilica:  https://youtu.be/I9HUHF5iSCI

For more info on the Basilica symbols, click here: https://stmaryoldtown.org/nativity-of-the-blessed-virgin-mary-and-reception-of-basilica-symbols-with-bishop-michael-burbidge/

Check out these Arlington Catholic Herald stories on the Basilica symbols: https://www.catholicherald.com/News/Local_News/New_symbols_arrive_at_the_basilica/


A parishioner reflects on the importance of the new Basilica symbols: https://tinyurl.com/2wu7gtuq

The Basilica has been gifted with relics – including relics from Ss. Joachim and Anne (the Blessed Mother’s parents) from Fr. Carroll Oubre, Parochial Vicar at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale. 

Basilica of St. Mary’s Podcast

Listen to this podcast with Fr. Edward Hathaway, rector of the Basilica, as he addresses these symbols, saints’ relics that will be on display, and other items related to the significance of the Basilica. Louis DiCocco, of St. Jude Liturgical Arts Studio – who constructed the ombrellino and tintinnabulum – is also interviewed and explains the process of creating these special symbols.   https://tinyurl.com/4rv57vn4.

A complete list of Catholic basilicas in the USA can be found here: http://www.gcatholic.org/churches/data/basUS.htm

The Seal of the Basilica of St. Mary 

Basilica of St. Mary seal with text border

With the ombrellino adorning the top and the papal keys spanning the shield, the Seal of the Basilica conveys the meaning and history of this distinguished Church.  

More info on the seal can be found here: https://stmaryoldtown.org/basilica/seal

Plenary Indulgence

“So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.” (Hebrews 4:16)

The faithful may receive a plenary indulgence for visiting the Basilica. A plenary indulgence is the full remission of punishment due to one’s sins already forgiven. The indulgence may be obtained by visiting the Basilica on the days listed below and participating in any sacred rite, such as Mass or Adoration, or at least praying the Lord’s Prayer and a profession of faith (i.e., the Apostle’s Creed). 

  1. March 4 – the anniversary of the dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary (the church was dedicated in 1827)
  2. June 29 – The Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul, Apostles
  3. September 8 – The Birthday of Mary (day chosen by Bishop Burbidge)
  4. December 6 – The anniversary of the official granting of the title of “minor basilica” by the Vatican
  5. Any day chosen by the faithful (such as a birthday, anniversary, or another appropriate occasion)

The indulgence is granted by the merits of Jesus, through the ministry and authority of the Church. Three other conditions must also be met in order to receive the indulgence: 1) Go to confession, 2) Receive Holy Communion, and 3) Pray for the intentions of the Holy Father.

More info can be found here https://stmaryoldtown.org/basilica/plenary-indulgence/.

Check out this helpful video on indulgences: https://tinyurl.com/1hrvqa7d  


Mary: Model Disciple and Our Mother

The Basilica is named after the Blessed Virgin Mary. The short Bible study below can draw our attention to Mary, who is our spiritual mother, faithful intercessor, and model disciple. 

The Annunciation. Read Luke 1:26-38. Mary says to the angel Gabriel after being told that she will be the mother of Jesus, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Reflect for a moment on the great trust in God Mary had. Even as a teenage girl, she wholeheartedly places her trust in the Lord’s plan. Do I trust in the Lord in this way?

The Wedding at Cana. Read John 2:1-11. Mary teaches us to do what Jesus asks of us. When wine had run short at the wedding feast in Cana, Mary intercedes – letting Jesus know that there is no more wine. “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the servers (John 2:5). Jesus turns water into the best wine of the evening. Mary has complete trust that Jesus can transform a situation; and passes that trust on to us. She points us to Jesus. Do I do whatever Jesus asks of me?

At the Foot of the Cross. Read John19:25-27. From the cross, Jesus gives Mary to us as our mother. “Woman behold your son,” he says to Mary (John 19:26). To John the beloved disciple, who represents all of his followers, he says “Behold, your mother” (John 19:27). The Gospel of John continues, “and from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (19:27). John became a devoted son to a devoted mother. Do I see Mary as a mother to me?

O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you!

For an entertaining and insightful presentation of Mary’s intercession and concern for God’s People, watch the Wedding at Cana episode (“The Wedding Gift”, Episode 5, Season 1) of The Chosen series. Watch here: http://bit.ly/canawedding.

Tour the Basilica

Experience this Basilica first hand! There is much to see in the Basilica of St. Mary. This tour and walking reflection provides some highlights for your visit: Basilica of St. Mary Tour

Take a virtual tour of the Basilica here: https://stmaryoldtown.org/virtual-tour/

The Basilica’s website also provides an extensive description of the floor plan and major features of the Basilica: https://stmaryoldtown.org/basilica-floor-plans

Check out this website to plan your visit: https://stmaryoldtown.org/basilica/plan-your-visit/

Basilica St. Mary - parking

Parking for the Basilica

Extra parking for the Basilica can be found at 308 Pitt Street – south of Duke and north of Wolfe streets. 

St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery

When visiting the Basilica, stop by the cemetery down Royal Street (head south, six blocks) and walk the grounds where the original Church of St. Mary’s stood. Say a prayer for the souls of the faithful departed as you visit. 



Basilica of St. Mary - historical marker at cemetery
Historical marker at cemetery



Basilica of St. Mary - Eucharistic procession
A Basilica of St. Mary Eucharistic Procession stops at St. Mary's cemetery


Sample Schedule for a Family’s Saturday Visit


This visit is designed around attending the Basilica’s Vigil Mass on Saturday. An alternative schedule could be designed around attending Saturday morning Mass (8:30 am). Mass and confession times for the Basilica can be found here: https://stmaryoldtown.org/mass-confession-times

 9:00 am   Breakfast as a family

                During this time you can review the Encounter’s website. You can talk about:

                What is a Basilica? What are the Four Major Basilicas?

                What is the history of St. Mary’s Basilica?

                The symbols of a Basilica. What is a plenary indulgence and how do you receive one?

                Print off the Basilica tour (2-3 copies). You can also look at it on your phone.

10:00 am  Pack up your items and your family! 

10:30 am  Head to the Basilica

What to do in the car? Perhaps one of you can look over the tour and explain to your family what you’ll be looking at. Listed to the podcast shared above on the Basilica and two symbols of a basilica (https://tinyurl.com/4rv57vn4). Or, Check out this podcast on the Year of Saint Joseph and how it will be marked at the Basilica: https://tinyurl.com/ozxqoq6b.  

11:00 am         Basilica visit: tour and reflection

12:00 pm         Head out to lunch and fun activity (see ideas below!)

4:00 pm          Confessions and prayer time. Pray the Litany of Loreto, renown litany to our                                                           Blessed Mother: https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/devotions/litany-of-loreto-246

 5:00 pm          Vigil Mass (or you can head out for dinner after confession and come back for                                                     Mass the next day)

 6:00 pm          Head out or head home for dinner

                       Perhaps talk about the Tying It All Together section of the Encounter

 8:00 pm          Head home – Discuss what’s next in your journey of faith as a family

At home, watch Remember the Titans, the 2000 film based on a true story about a high school football team in Alexandria and overcoming racial differences.  

Things To Do in Alexandria

There is much to do in Old Town Alexandria! Old Town is a great spot for families to walk and window shop. Take a stroll down by the Potomac River, tour local art, and grab a bite to eat!

Check out this link to find out more:  https://www.visitalexandriava.com/things-to-do/waterfront-activities/


Walk the waterfront – Take in the attractions down by the Potomac River. Like boats? Check out the marina. Oronoco Bay Park offers walking trails and benches on the waterfront. Take in views of D.C. monuments across the river!  Get ice cream at the nearby Ben & Jerry’s (on Union St. near King St.

Out with the kids? Check out these attractions in Alexandria to do as a family: https://www.visitalexandriava.com/things-to-do/family-fun/. Montgomery Park and Armory Tot Lot park offer outdoor recreation for the kids. Jones Point Park provides views of the Potomac River and two playgrounds for the kids. Find out more on parks in the area here: https://www.visitalexandriava.com/things-to-do/outdoor-activities-and-wellness/parks/#FamilyParks 

King Street & Old Town - Walk historic King Street in Old Town. Explore the adjacent streets filled with centuries-old row homes and unique shops. Take a ride on the King Street Trolley (service is currently discontinued due to COVID, check here for updates: https://tinyurl.com/4z3nlssv).

Peruse the free art galleries at the Torpedo Art Center -http://torpedofactory.org/

The Gadsby’s Museum offers a stunning look at Alexandria’s history. Find out more here: https://www.alexandriava.gov/GadsbysTavern

Check out the 18th century mansion, Carlyle House – more info can be found here: https://www.novaparks.com/parks/carlyle-house-historic-park

The Alexandria Archaeology Museum will interest those who are fascinated by what lies beneath: https://www.alexandriava.gov/Archaeology.

Mount Vernon – Visit historic Mt. Vernon, former home of George Washington – about 10 miles down George Washington Memorial Parkway. Check out more info here: https://www.mountvernon.org/

Visit the Tall Ship Providence – Although a bit pricey for a family, take a tour of this reproduction of the 18th century naval vessel. Find out more here: https://tallshipprovidence.org/

Check out this list of free things to do in Alexandriahttps://www.visitalexandriava.com/things-to-do/free-things-to-do/

Places to Eat:

Some highly rated places to eat in Alexandria:

In the mood for Italian? Try Mia’s Italian Kitchen - https://www.miasitalian.com/alexandria-va/alexandria-menus

Southside 815 offers southern cuisine in a family friendly atmosphere, at a price that won’t break your wallet. https://southside815.com/ 

Surf and turf options available at the Fish Market Restaurant – also known for their crab cakes!  https://www.fishmarketva.com/  

Joe Theismann’s Restaurant https://www.theismanns.com/ - steaks, burgers and other various entrées.

Murphy’s Grand Irish Pub https://murphyspub.com/ - Irish and American menu.

For unique ambiance, checkout the historic Gadsby’s Tavernhttps://gadsbystavernrestaurant.com/

Enjoy Tex-Mex and Salvadorean cuisine at Los Tios Grill - https://www.lostiosgrill.com/ 

Enjoy Greek cuisine at Taverna Cretekou - https://tavernacretekou.com/   

Sushi lover? Check out Hinata Sushi Bar and Grill https://tinyurl.com/eaxxbbk3  

For dessert – or just anytime! Ben & Jerry’shttps://www.benjerry.com/alexandria

Tying It All Together…

There is a lot to take in as we experience this historic and vibrant Basilica. The significant history of the space can inspire us and urge us forward in our own journey of faith. The beauty of the art and imagery can draw us to prayer. Above all, allow Jesus and his Blessed Mother to strengthen you in faith, build you up in charity and encourage you with hope. Perhaps reflect on these questions as you conclude this Encounter: 

  • Does anything particularly inspire you about the history of the Basilica?
  • How does the commitment of the 18th century Catholics in Northern Virginia affect you?
  • Has your devotion to Mary grown in any way as a result of this Basilica visit?
  • Did any of the art or imagery in the Basilica particularly inspire you?
  • How might you grow in your relationship with Jesus as a result of today’s visit? 

What’s Next?

Does your or your family’s prayer life need a boost? Consider ways you can grow in your prayer life. In honor of Mary, patroness of the Basilica, perhaps try the Rosary – or at least a decade at a time – if you have not already done so. The daily Rosary provides a great source of grace and consolation for many.  

If the Basilica is not your home parish, get to know your own parish church a bit more! What’s the history of it? Did the founders have to go through any challenges to see its fruition? What is the art and imagery like in your church?

If you have not already done so, check out your Diocesan Cathedral of St. Thomas More. The Office of Youth, Campus, and Young Adult Ministries offers an Encounter St. Thomas More Cathedral  

Explore the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. Check out their website for more info: https://www.nationalshrine.org/

Works Cited

Basilica of St. Mary website: https://stmaryoldtown.org/ December – February, 2021.

Catholic Answers: https://www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/basilica December – January, 2021.

Catholic Encyclopedia – New Advent: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02325a.htm, December – January, 2021.

Catholic Encyclopedia - New Advent: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09014b.htm   January, 2021.

Catholic News Agency: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/detroit-parish-designated-michigans-third-minor-basilica-97525 January, 2021.

Consultation with the Basilica of St. Mary staff – December, 2020.

Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Saint-Peters-Basilica February, 2021.

EWTN Catholic Library: https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/inaugurating-a-new-basilica-11145  January, 2021.

GCatholic.org (List of Basilicas): http://www.gcatholic.org/churches/data/basUS.htm February, 2021.

Gietmann, G. “Basilica”. The Catholic Encyclopedia: Volume II edited by Charles Herbermann, Edward Pace, Condé Pallen, Thomas Shahan, John Wynne, S.J., published by The Encyclopedia Press, New York: 1913. 

Mount Vernon resources: https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/john-fitzgerald/#:~:text=Born%20in%20Ireland%20and%20described,the%20friendship%20of%20George%20Washington. January, 2021.

Rome.net: https://www.rome.net/basilica-st-john-lateran#:~:text=John%20the%20Baptist%20and%20John,of%20the%20Roman%20Catholic%20faithful. January, 2021.

Rome.net: https://www.rome.net/basilica-st-paul-outside-walls#:~:text=Erected%20during%20the%20fourth%20century,Peter's%20Basilica January, 2021.

Simply Catholic: https://www.simplycatholic.com/st-mary-major-basilica/ January, 2021.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church by Marty La Vor

Walks of Italy: https://www.walksofitaly.com/blog/art-culture/st-peters-basilica-facts January, 2021.