Get to know 10 American minor basilicas

By Michael R. Heinlein | OSV News


Have you ever wondered just what makes a basilica a basilica? These significant churches, designated by the pope and given prominence among other churches, come with special responsibilities and certain honorifics.

Above all, like any church structure, basilicas play an important role in the sacramental life of the church. But basilicas can also serve as sites of pilgrimage, hold historical significance and house priceless sacred art. Some are notable urban centers of ecclesial life, such as diocesan cathedrals; others are shrines; others are off the beaten path. Of the approximately 1,800 minor basilicas in the world, the United States is home to 93, most recently the Basilica of St. Andrew in Roanoke, Virginia, which received its designation in September 2023.

Here is a look at 10 others and their notable history.

Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist
Savannah, Georgia
Diocese of Savannah
Designated basilica: 2020

One of the newest basilicas in the United States is the diocesan Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, Georgia. It is the 15th current diocesan cathedral to be so designated. Savannah’s earliest city prohibited Catholics from residence, fearing their allegiance to Spanish colonialists rather than the English Protestants who governed the Georgia colony. French Catholic immigrants who fled the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s established the first parish in Savannah. The current structure, finished in 1899, was the building’s second iteration, the first having been nearly consumed by fire. For the basilica’s beautiful and expansive murals, it is sometimes called the “Sistine of the South,” in reference to the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Just off the city’s Lafayette Square, Savannah’s basilica, with its whitewashed stucco exterior and double bell towers, is a fixture for locals and tourists alike. The American author Flannery O’Connor, whose fiction was accented by her Catholic faith, was baptized here in 1925.

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Carmel Mission Basilica of St. Charles Borromeo
Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Diocese of Monterey
Designated basilica: 1960

A few U.S. basilicas have close connections to the lives of saints or those on the path to canonization. The Carmel Mission Basilica of St. Charles Borromeo serves as the final resting place for the first saint canonized on American soil (2015) — St. Junipero Serra, founder of the California mission system. The Carmel mission was Serra’s favorite, given its proximity to California’s then-capital in Monterey. The current structure was built in 1797, and it was passed on by the Franciscan friars to the Diocese of Monterey in 1884. Since then, it has served as a parish church. The mission’s bell and bell tower are the only originals to remain among the extant California missions. The mission also is home to the first library in California, made up of books brought to colonial-era California by the friars.

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Basilica of Sts. Cyril and Methodius
Danville, Pennsylvania
Diocese of Harrisburg
Designated basilica: 1989

Women religious have left a major mark on ecclesial life in America, particularly in educational and health care services. The Basilica of Sts. Cyril and Methodius is the only American basilica that serves solely as the motherhouse chapel to a women’s religious congregation. Founded for service to Slovak-American communities, the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius made Danville their home a decade after their establishment in 1909. The sisters subsequently established a boarding school for girls at their motherhouse, known as Villa Sacred Heart. The future basilica was built to double as the chapel for the school and the main chapel for the religious community. Dedicated in 1939, amid the Great Depression, the church stands as a testament to the generosity of working-class Slovak immigrants.

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The exterior of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis is pictured in a file photo. (OSV News photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)

Basilica of St. Mary
Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis
Designated basilica: 1926

Built to complement the Twin Cities’ Cathedral of St. Paul, the Basilica of St. Mary stands as a grand edifice at the center of Minneapolis. Commissioned by the legendary archbishop of St. Paul, John Ireland (1838-1918), the current structure succeeded the former Immaculate Conception parish founded in 1868. Constructed between 1907 and 1915, the basilica was designed by Franco-American architect Emmanuel Masqueray, who also designed the cathedral in St. Paul, as well as cathedrals in Wichita, Kansas, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In America’s sesquicentennial year, the nation received its first basilica when St. Mary’s was designated in 1926 by Pope Pius XI. When Minneapolis became a joint see city in 1966, the basilica was designated as co-cathedral for the newly named Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. It remains an active parish today.

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Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle
San Juan, Texas
Diocese of Brownsville
Designated basilica: 1999

A variety of basilicas throughout the country double as national shrines. Perhaps most notable on such a list is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., or the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption in Baltimore, Maryland — also America’s first cathedral church. The Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle in San Juan, Texas, is dedicated to the Blessed Mother under the title “Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos.” The title refers to a miraculous statue of the Immaculate Conception popular throughout Mexico and Texas. Devotion to the statue was brought to San Juan in 1949 by priests from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and eventually, a replica statue was enshrined. In 1970, a small aircraft crashed into the shrine, resulting in its destruction (the statue and Blessed Sacrament were rescued). The current structure was dedicated a decade later and designated a minor basilica in 1999.

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Basilica of St. Francis Xavier
Vincennes, Indiana
Diocese of Evansville
Designated basilica: 1970

Founded by Jesuit missionaries in 1734, Indiana’s oldest parish calls the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier home. The current brick structure, which dates to 1826, became in 1834 the cathedral of the newly established Diocese of Vincennes (which included the state of Indiana and an eastern portion of Illinois, including Chicago). The diocesan seat was later relocated to Indianapolis. Several of the first diocesan bishops are buried in the basilica crypt, including Bishop Simon Bruté, once called “the most learned man in America” by President John Quincy Adams and for whom there has been an active canonization cause since 2005. In 1891, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore said of Bruté on a visit to Vincennes: “Worthy citizens of Vincennes, you need not go on pilgrimages to visit the tombs of saints. There is one reposing here in your midst, namely, the saintly founder of this diocese, Right Reverend Simon Bruté.” Indiana’s first cathedral was designated its first basilica in 1970 by Pope St. Paul VI.

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Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
Natchitoches, Louisiana
Diocese of Alexandria
Designated basilica: 2009

Natchitoches, Louisiana, gets its name from a Native American tribe and gives its name to the famous meat pies inspired by Spanish cuisine and one of Louisiana’s official state foods. The city was founded by French settlers, though, with the establishment of Fort St. Jean Baptiste. Founded in 1728, and still serving as an active parish in Natchitoches, the basilica’s current structure is the parish’s sixth church building. Construction commenced during the Civil War, but completion was not realized for several decades. The church served as diocesan cathedral until 1910 for the Diocese of Natchitoches, which later moved headquarters to Alexandria, Louisiana. As with many suppressed dioceses, Natchitoches now exists as a titular see. When bishops are ordained for a purpose other than serving as the diocesan bishop, they are given the title of one of such “defunct” see cities. Currently, Archbishop Joseph Marino, president of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, is ritual archbishop of Natchitoches.

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Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Victory
Lackawanna, New York
Diocese of Buffalo
Designated basilica: 1926

The Empire State is home to the most basilicas of any state — nine total. The Basilica of Our Lady of Victory in Lackawanna is the state’s first, and it’s only the second church to be designated a basilica in the United States. Like a phoenix, the massive structure rose from the fire that greatly damaged St. Patrick’s parish church. In 1921, the pastor, Father Nelson Baker, then 75, set out to build a majestic edifice to honor the Blessed Mother. He became devoted to Mary under the title Our Lady of Victory as a seminarian after visiting a shrine by the same name in Paris. The basilica was the crown jewel in Father Baker’s “city of charity” in Lackawanna, which included homes for infants, unwed mothers, nurses, a hospital and orphanage in addition to a variety of schools. Father Baker was reinterred in the basilica in 1999, and he was declared venerable in 2011.

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Basilica of St. Mary
Alexandria, Virginia
Diocese of Arlington
Designated basilica: 2017

Each basilica has its own history and reserves to itself a unique historical patrimony. The Basilica of St. Mary in Old Town Alexandria is no exception. Founded in 1795 by Jesuit Father Francis Neale, the Alexandria church remains home to an active parish, and is notable as the first parish in the commonwealth. When prominent Catholics in the modern-D.C. metro area began soliciting funds to build Virginia’s first permanent parish church, George Washington — who lived not far away at his Mount Vernon estate — even made a donation. The current structure of St. Mary mostly dates to 1826, and it was named a minor basilica in 2017. The parish cemetery, the commonwealth’s first Catholic burial ground, holds remains from veterans from the Revolutionary, Civil and other wars.

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Basilica of St. Lawrence
Asheville, North Carolina
Diocese of Charlotte
Designated basilica: 1993

The Basilica of St. Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr, in downtown Asheville stands out for its art and architecture. Completed as a parish church in 1909, the basilica was designed and constructed by famed Spanish-born architect Rafael Guastavino, whose work is found, among other places, in New York City’s Grand Central Station and Grant’s Tomb. Guastavino’s patented tile arch system is featured in the basilica’s famed domed ceiling, regarded as the largest free standing elliptical dome in North America. The building’s construction uniquely makes use of no wood or steel, only tile and other masonry. The basilica’s reredos behind the main altar features a 17th-century crucifixion tableau made of hand-carved walnut. Near the chapel dedicated to Our Lady is the entrance to the basilica’s crypt where architect Guastavino is entombed.

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Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s Simply Catholic and author of “Glorifying Christ: The Life of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I.”


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What is a basilica?

A basilica takes its name from a large municipal building found in ancient Roman architecture. In them, court was held, as well as other major official public events. True to the Roman architectural form, but constructed to a smaller scale, residential palatial basilicas also were built. After Christianity was legalized and made the official religion of the empire under Constantine, many civic basilicas were converted into churches.

In ecclesiastical terminology, the term “basilica” has become an honorific used to denote a church building of special significance. This would typically relate to the basilica’s historical importance or noteworthy artistic character. The title of “basilica” is granted by the pope and has a special spiritual bond with his office.

Major and minor basilicas both exist, and there are only four of the former, all in Rome: Basilica of St. Peter (Vatican City), Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, Basilica of St. Mary Major and Basilica of St. John Lateran (the pope’s cathedral, also styled uniquely as an archbasilica). The latter three are all in Rome but are considered extraterritorial Vatican property. Any other basilica is given the title “minor basilica.”

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How does a church become a basilica?

The process of having a church named a basilica usually begins with a lengthy, detailed application process, including a request from the church’s diocesan bishop, although he relies on officials and volunteers affiliated with the church for assistance. The request is then submitted to the Holy See for consideration, along with a letter of support from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

At the request of the Holy See, certain requirements are necessary before a church can be named a basilica. Basilicas should maintain an active sacramental life, especially regarding the Eucharist and penance. They should be staffed by a sufficient number of clergy and lay ministers, and a decent-sized sanctuary and space for worshippers should facilitate well-executed liturgies. The potential basilica should also be marked by a special renown. This means it should be a place of pilgrimage, have ties to a notable historical event or time period, or serve as home to particular relics or sacred images venerated by the faithful. The church’s historical significance and the quality of its art also are considered when deciding if a church is fit for designation as a basilica.

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What are the expectations of a basilica?

Certain duties and obligations are attached to a church when it is granted the title “basilica.” Most importantly, a basilica should be considered a center for exemplary and beautiful liturgies, enhanced by well-executed music and singing. Additionally, special attention should be given to the seasons of the church year, as well as celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours. Basilicas also are expected to promote Christian formation and study. It is recommended that groups are formed for teaching the faith and study of papal and other church documents, especially related to liturgy.

Since basilicas have a special connection to the pope, they are expected each year to celebrate with fitting solemnity three important feast days related to the pope: the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle (Feb. 22); the Solemnity of Sts.Peter and Paul, Apostles (June 29); and the anniversary of the Supreme Pontiff’s election or inauguration into the supreme ministry (for Pope Francis, March 13).


Author: Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is the editor of The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

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