The signs that wrap around the front pillars of the towering Basilica of Saint Mary announce: “150 Years.”
Visitors on a recent morning would find a group of faithful singing Advent prayers in the choir loft, a young man stopping by for free coffee in the lower level, the parish book club in discussion in a cozy meeting room.
In the evening, a special Advent dinner for the unemployed would be held in the social hall. And the National Lutheran Choir would begin practice for its popular Christmas concert.
It’s all in a day’s work at the basilica, a Minneapolis institution known as both an architectural gem on the Minneapolis skyline as well as a supportive community for ordinary folks on the sidewalks outside.
This year marks 150 years since the parish was founded as the first Catholic church in Minneapolis west of the Mississippi River. In the year ahead, the basilica is ramping up activities to celebrate that milestone.
“We have an enlarged perspective of what we are called to do,” said the Rev. John Bauer, the basilica’s pastor. ”We see ourselves as a strong Catholic presence. But we’re not just a church for Catholics, but for anyone in need.”
The anniversary is not about the Basilica building, but about the 1868 founding of a parish community that grew into the basilica community today. It hearkens to a time when traveling to a Catholic mass in Minneapolis was often an exercise in faith.
Back in the mid-1800s, the only Catholic church in Minneapolis was on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Catholics on the other side had to cross on a ferry or toll bridge or trek across the frozen waters in the winter.
A modest wooden shed was finally constructed on the west side of the river in 1868, housing a tiny Catholic school and a backroom altar with some benches. As Catholic immigrants streamed into Minneapolis, it was clear more space was needed — fast.
Four years later, a stone church with a bell tower was built in what is now the Warehouse District. It was called the Church of the Immaculate Conception, and it was the parish’s home until 1914. That’s when then-Archbishop John Ireland commissioned the grand building that is now the basilica, which opened its doors in 1926 and was designed by French architect Emmanuel Masqueray.
From then on, the parish had a permanent home.
Jerry Piazza comes from a long line of family members in the parish as far back as 1892. The retired cook, 86, has been a member since he was baptized in 1932. He remembers the basilica parish as a thriving place, with about six priests, Sisters of St. Joseph nuns teaching at its school, several children’s choirs and a sense of community.
“It’s always been part of my life,” said Piazza, of Greenfield. “I was an altar boy six years, went to the school, married my wife there. … Going there is like going home.”
Fast forward to today, and the church has mushroomed into a place with about 12,000 members, 48 full-time staff, more than 1,300 regular volunteers and an annual Basilica Block Party that draws 25,000 people. It also hosts about two dozen concerts a year, thanks to its majestic interior and domed ceilings that lend a bit of heaven to the song.
The basilica is home to both traditional families, such as the Piazzas, and a diverse group of faithful who come to light a candle in front of the statues of the saints, say a prayer, attend mass or lend their voices to the weekly morning prayer group.
“I love the feeling of peace that you feel when you walk in the door,” said Gladys Schmitt, leaving the morning prayer group. “And I like that they’re involved in social justice.”
As part of 150th anniversary celebration next year, there will be a reunion of all couples ever married at the basilica and of students at its former school, and a 150 Faces Project. The project will be a photo and story exhibit showcasing the lives of 150 members — because members are what this anniversary is really about, said archivist Heather Craig.
Bauer typically doesn’t have a ton of spare time to ponder about the decades of work happening under the basilica’s roof. The anniversary, the pastor said, is a pleasant reminder of that — and of the importance of continuing in the future.
Said Bauer: “It’s good to take a step back and say, ‘We do a lot of good things here!’ ”