Construction of the 1960s interstate freeway system adjacent to The Basilica mobilized parish leaders to action and they worked for recognition of The Basilica as a historic site.
Former Basilica School principal and current parishioner, Roger Sinclair, recalls this process as a very big deal. Roger shared that parish leaders worked very hard and pushed for this recognition for a very long time. Working with Monsignor Terry Berntson, Rector, they sought to add The Basilica to the National Register of Historic Spaces. First established in 1966, the National Register recognizes historic sites throughout the country.
The Basilica found an ideal partner in Charles W. Nelson. He moved into Minneapolis during a frenzy of building tear downs. During this time, Nelson joined the Minnesota Historical Society where he supervised the statewide survey for the National Register of Historic Places. The Basilica’s application was submitted by Nelson whose title was Secretary to the State Review Committee for the National Register.
The application summarizes why The Basilica of Saint Mary should be named to the Register: “ . . . The Basilica of Saint Mary derives its significance from three major areas. 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.”
Nelson became the state architectural historian in 1974 and in 1978, the first historical architect for the Minnesota Historical Society. Nelson volunteer his extensive knowledge in a publication called “Tech Talk” which addressed “the identification of problems and selection of remedial treatments.” An article by Nelson and on point for The Basilica’s current challenges, was called “Water: Masonry’s Enemy Water” and stated “moisture generally, is directly or indirectly responsible for the majority of problems in masonry, and in virtually every type of construction.”
Unfortunately, Nelson died young at age 61. In his 2007 obituary, Nelson’s colleagues and friends described him as a “tireless preservationist,” someone “who loved architecture and loved history.” They said he travelled all corners of Minnesota and knew about all the important architectural structures.
During Holy Week forty-eight years ago, The Basilica received some wonderful news. Thanks to the foresight of Monsignor Berntson, Basilica’s parish leaders together with Charles W. Nelson, the application was accepted. On March 26, 1975, The Basilica of Saint Mary, its School, and the Rectory were all named to the National Register of Historic Places.
Commending Monsignor Berntson, Nelson wrote in the announcement letter, “Your continued interest in the preservation of our State and Nation’s historic resources such as this site is sincerely encouraged. Through such efforts an invaluable part of our heritage maybe guaranteed to future generations.” Monsignor Berntson shared the announcement of this long-sought honor in a free Basilica publication aptly named the “Good News Letter” Spring edition in 1975.
Please support the ongoing restoration and preservation of The Basilica. Consider attending The Landmark Spark on Friday, May 19 at the McNamara Center on the U of MN campus.
The Basilica of Saint Mary