History America's First Basilica

More than a church for more than a century

This historic site, the first Basilica in the United States, has been a cornerstone of the Catholic faith in Minneapolis since 1914.

It is more than a local parish. More than an impressive building downtown. It is a gathering place for people of all faiths and races, a center for the arts, and a refuge for the poor.

Recognized as one of the finest examples of Beaux Arts architecture in the country, the Basilica of Saint Mary was constructed between 1907 and 1915. It was raised to the rank of minor basilica by Pope Pius XI in 1926 and was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

The Beginnings

1868 The first Catholic church in Minneapolis west of the Mississippi River was built at Third Street and Third Avenue North. Called the "Shed Church" because of its simple design, it was an extension built behind the school for Catholic children living on the river's west bank. The new parish was named Immaculate Conception. Rev. James McGolrick (Rector 1868-1889) soon founded a St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Rosary Society, and became a leader in the Total Abstinence temperance movement in Minneapolis.

1873 On New Year's Day, the second Church of the Immaculate Conception was dedicated. Built of limestone in the Gothic Revival style on the same lot, it was much more substantial than the Shed Church it replaced.

1892 As the original parish site was encroached upon by manufacturing and industrial development, Rector Rev. James J. Keane (1892-1902) advocated for a third, larger church to be built on a new location.

1902 The youthful Rev. Thomas Cullen (1902-1921) is named rector, only a year after his ordination.

1900s— The vision and plan are carried forth.

By the turn of the century the Immaculate Conception parish was outgrowing its second church building. Archbishop Ireland's vision included two new monuments to the vitality of the Catholic communities in both cities: a new Cathedral in St. Paul and a Pro-Cathedral in Minneapolis.

On Christmas Day 1903, Archbishop Ireland proposed plans for a Pro-Cathedral to members of the Immaculate Conception parish. He received the parishioners' support and fund raising began for a new building under the leadership of Rev. Thomas E. Cullen (Rector 1902–1921). Parishes from all over the city and beyond its western borders held bazaars and fairs to raise money for the effort.

In 1905, Immaculate Conception parishioner Lawrence S. Donaldson, scion of the Donaldson's department stores, donated land worth more than $40,000 for the new Pro-Cathedral. Overlooking Loring Park, it was strategically located on the main city thoroughfare, Hennepin Avenue.

June 2, 1907 The cornerstone was laid for the Cathedral of St. Paul at Selby and Dayton Avenues.

August 7, 1907 Archbishop Ireland attended a ground-breaking ceremony for the new building along with the building committee and invited guests.

May 31, 1908 The cornerstone was laid for the Pro-Cathedral at Sixteenth Street and Hennepin Avenue. 20,000 citizens, including 500 students from the College of St. Thomas and more than 300 priests and seminarians, took part in the procession.

The decision makers:

  • John Ireland (the third Bishop and the first Archbishop of St. Paul) was born in Ireland and came to the United States when he was eleven years old. He attended the Cathedral School in St. Paul where he attracted the attention of Bishop John Cretin, who sent Ireland and his brother to France for seminary training; they became the first Minnesota seminarians. Upon returning to Minnesota, he founded St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary. He served as a chaplain in the American Civil War. Ireland was a prominent national figure, an ardent advocate for the temperance movement, and a strong proponent of Americanism.
  • Emmanuel Masqueray, our architect, was born in France in 1861 and attended the "Ecole des Beaux Arts" of Paris. He was the chief architect and designer of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Archbishop Ireland met Masqueray at the Fair and was impressed with his work.

Archbishop Ireland invited Masqueray to Minnesota to collaborate on his grand plan to simultaneously build both the grand new cathedral in St. Paul and the Pro-Cathedral in Minneapolis. 

The building's exterior is completed.

In September, 1913 the new Pro-Cathedral School opened for students. The new parochial school was located at the rear of the Pro-Cathedral campus on Laurel Avenue and Sixteenth Street. 

November 1913, the church building opened to the public for a month-long Civic Dedication series that included concerts and nationally renowned speakers. In addition to giving non-Catholics a look inside the majestic building before it was consecrated, the series tickets provided an oppportunity for all citizens of Minneapolis to help fund the construction.

May 31, 1914, the first Mass was celebrated in the new Pro-Cathedral. The new church was still quite bare inside, with plain glass windows, concrete walls, and a temporary wooden altar.

August 15, 1915, the Pro-Cathedral was dedicated at the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

April 1917 The United States declared war on Germany. Further work on the Pro-Cathedral came to a halt as parishioners turned their energies toward the war effort, including a Red Cross center in the Pro-Cathedral School. 494 parishioners — men and women — served in the armed forces during WWI.

May 26, 1917, Architect Emmanuel Masqueray died. Subsequent work completing the Pro-Cathedral interior was done by his former assistants, Frederick Slifer & Frank Abrahamson of St. Paul.

In 1918 Archbishop John Ireland died and was succeeded by Archbishop Austin Dowling.

America's first basilica

August, 1921 Rev. Thomas Cullen is named President of the College of St. Thomas, and Rev. James M. Reardon (1921-1963) is appointed pastor. 

Reardon’s tenure lasted for more than forty years. A writer and historian, he closely oversaw the design and details for the Pro-Cathedral's unfinished interior.  Just after his appointment as pastor, Monsignor Reardon wrote: "The stately grandeur of its imposing exterior postulates an interior loveliness unsurpassed by anything in the land."

During the first decade of his pastorate, the interior was completed using the finest materials and workmanship available. This included the marble altar and baldachin, the elaborate wrought iron grille surrounding the sanctuary, the sculptures of the Twelve Apostles, a new pulpit, stained glass windows, an organ, and ceiling decoration.

1926 The Pro-Cathedral was raised to the rank of a minor basilica by Pope Pius XI. It was the first basilica to be designated in the nation and its name became the Basilica of Saint Mary of Minneapolis.

April 1928 A new residence for the clergy and the sacristy were constructed and blessed.

March 26, 1929 The only requiem Mass in the United States for Marshal Foch, Generalissimo of the Allied forces in World War I, was held at the Basilica. More than four thousand persons attended. 

Father Hennepin is honored

1930 marked the 250th anniversary of Father Hennepin's discovery of the Falls of Saint Anthony. To commemorate the event, the Knights of Columbus dedicated a copper statue of Father Hennepin. Father Reardon presided over the ground-breaking ceremonies.

That summer, Father Reardon and a group of about forty Minnesotans went on a pilgrimage to parts of Europe and Africa. Their visit to Rome included an audience with the Pope.

May 28, 1933 The twenty-fifth anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the Pro-Cathedral was celebrated with a pontifical Mass.

September 11, 1938, the anniversary of the birth of Archbishop John Ireland was celebrated with a bronze memorial tablet dedicated and blessed by Archbishop Murray.

War Work and the Eucharistic Congress.

June 14, 1940 to October, 1946, the women of the Basilica parish knitted and sewed garments, made surgical dressings, helped with hospital work, and served as staff assistants. The Red Cross honored many for their excellent work and attendance. 653 men and women of the parish served with the armed forces. Three of the assistant priests were called up to chaplain duties.

After the war, two ciboria covers were made of white silk from a parachute that fell in Belgium. They were embroidered by Sisters of the Visitation Convent in St. Paul and given to Monsignor Reardon on February 27, 1947.

May 1, 1940 The daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament was inaugurated at the Basilica, the first parish in the diocese to be given that permission.

 June 1941 the Ninth National Eucharistic Congress was held in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Thousands of people came from all over the country to attend this important event in the history of the Basilica. The number of priests needing to say daily Mass was so great that many temporary chapels were set up in the undercroft and two new side altars were dedicated in the nave. During the Eucharistic Congress, Father Reardon was raised to the rank of Monsignor. 

 June 27, 1941 Solemn Consecration of the Basilica. The Souvenir of Consecration booklet includes an unattributed quote that describes the Basilica as "a marble poem; an aesthetic dream of sculptured beauty fit to be the theme of Angel fancies; a Madonna prayer uttered in stone."

Bronze doors and a new organ.

October 15, 1950 A new Wicks organ was installed and dedicated with a sacred concert by Mario Salvador, organist of the St. Louis Cathedral.

November 1954 The final structural units to the Basilica were completed and installed: eight double bronze doors cast by the Flour City Ornamental Iron Company of Minneapolis. They bear symbols of either the apostles and evangelists or the coat-of-arms of the archbishops and popes who were key to the Basilica’s development.

The Basilica is designated a co-cathedral.

1963 Monsignor James Reardon died at the age of ninety-one saying his rosary in a church pew. He was succeeded as Rector by Bishop Leonard Cowley (1963-1973), who initiated construction of a convent for the teaching sisters and as well as other campus improvements.      

1966 The Basilica was dedicated as the Co-Cathedral of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, officially completing the vision of Archbishop Ireland.

The 1960s also saw construction of the freeways immediately beside the church. While the new highways improved access to the Basilica, they fractured the Basilica neighborhood and parish; the loss of family housing and noise, vibration, and pollution from traffic all took a heavy toll on the Basilica's community and building.

The Basilica gets National Register designation.

April 1973 Bishop Cowley resigned his position due to illness. Monsignor Terrance Berntson followed him as rector (1973-1978).

1974 Monsignor Berntson founded the Care Guild. It developed a variety of programs that were all indispensable to the growth and well-being of the Basilica parish: scripture study; food shelf; nursery service; assistance to the home-bound. Many of these vital programs continue on today within the St. Vincent de Paul ministries.

1975 The Basilica was named to the National Register of Historic Places. The register nomination form summarizes the significance of the Basilica:

"Firstly, it exemplifies great design in architecture and engineering. Designed by Masqueray, it ranks with the Cathedral of Saint Paul as an expression of Baroque influence in church architecture of the early twentieth century.

“Secondly, the Basilica is a testimonial to the religious movements and their roles in the development of Minnesota's heritage.

“And, thirdly, the building was the first such church to be proclaimed a basilica in the United States."

1975 With enrollment falling due to neighborhood disruptions, and the withdrawal of the teaching CSJ sisters, the Basilica school closed.

1978 Rev. Alfred Wagner (1978-1985)succeeded Monsignor Terrance Berntson.

Restoration begins.

At the Basilica, the late 1980s began a time of growth and renewed interest in church activities.

1985 Father Dennis Dease succeeded Father Wagner as rector (1985-1991).   He wrote that the Basilica's "absolutely grand old architecture made it a landmark in not only downtown Minneapolis, but throughout the region."

But while numbers grew and programs revitalized, water continued to leak through the dome and into the ceiling after each snow or rainfall. By the mid-1980s it was evident that repairs were desperately needed. Copper from the dome blew off during a storm and plaster chunks fell into the sanctuary.

According to architectural historian Carol Frenning,  "Wall and wooden support beams were soggy and rotten with water damage. Only four of over one hundred supports that connected the Basilica's three cement floors were intact.

“While the restoration work was being done, construction workers discovered that the rose windows were actually holding the supporting walls, not the other way around."

Damage was assessed, fund raising started, and restoration on the building began.

A new dome rises.

1991 Father Dease was named president of the University of St. Thomas and Father Michael O'Connell (1991-2008) succeeded him as rector of the Basilica.

1991 The Friends of the Basilica were organized to raise funds for capital projects.

1991-1992 The copper dome and roof were replaced, with restoration as well of the paintings and plasterwork in the dome interior.

July, 1994 The first Basilica Block Party was held to raise funds for restoration and outreach ministries, as well as to increase the visibility of the Basilica’s place within the city community. The idea of holding a rock concert at a cathedral was difficult for some, but the Block Party has proven to be a widely successful and anticipated summer event. 

1997 Dedication of the Mary Garden, a contemplative haven nestled against the south Sacristy wall, under the direction of the Friends of the Basilica.

Christmas Eve, 1998 New bells, forged at the Royal Eijsbouts Foundry in The Netherlands and named for saints of the Americas, ring out over the city for the first time.

Growth and Restoration

2000 The John XXIII Gallery art gallery was established at The Basilica under the patronage of Blessed Pope John XXIII, part of an extensive renovation of the church undercroft which also added a beautiful meeting space (The Teresa of Calcutta Hall) and, for the first time in it's history, bathrooms within the church building. 

As parish membership continued to grow, the Basilica expanded its outreach to the community and its liturgical offerings. Annual events such as the November Icon Festival, the Blessing of the Bikes and the ever-popular Blessing of the Animals (St. Francis Festival) continue to draw visitors from the wider community. The Cathedral Choir was joined by two children’s choirs, a teen choir (Juventus) and a world music choir (Mundus).

2008 Rev. John Bauer succeeds Rev. O'Connell as pastor.

October 2010: One of twenty-five historic sites vying for a Partners in Preservation grant, the Basilica won the popular vote via Facebook and was able to restore the narthex (entry) of the church and our sacristy to their full glory. 

2014 The Rectory, once a residence for priests and now primarily offices, gains a new elevator, improving access for staff, volunteers and visitors.

2015 The unfinished 4th floor Rectory attic is redeveloped as Art and Archives storage, a substantial work room, and staff offices.

Looking ahead into the future, the Basilica will continue to expand its role in the community, provide exemplary liturgical and artistic offerings, and steward her resources to maintain this beautiful church.