The Basilica of the Sacred Heart is the symbolic and literal heart of northern Indiana's University of Notre Dame campus.
The art and architecture of the Gothic Revival church reflects the university's heritage of faith, service, and education. The church is in a central location, and the cross atop its 218-foot-tall tower is the tallest point on campus at 230 feet.
The church's history dates to the 1830s when missionaries built a log cabin to house a chapel at the site. Father Edward Sorin, founder and first president of the University of Notre Dame, built a larger log structure for the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus by 1848.
By 1852, the church had double spires built by a local carpenter in exchange for his son's tuition at the school, a carillon, wall murals, and other religious art.
Father Sorin wanted a church modeled after Church of the Gesù in Rome. That church, built in 1568, had a floor plan resembling the Latin cross and housed the tomb of St. Ignatius Loyola (the founder of the Jesuits). The new edifice would echo the Roman church's floor plan and have a mural depicting the life of Loyola.
Father Sorin asked Patrick Keely, the nation's preeminent architect specializing in Catholic churches, to design the new church.
Father Sorin apparently experienced sticker shock when Keely submitted a design with an estimated completion price of $100,000 and enlisted his church's pastor and a religious brother who was an amateur architect and builder to work with Keely to develop a more modest plan.
I can only imagine the opulence of Keely's original plan when viewing the ornate church with its opulent art and architectural details today. You can easily spend a couple of hours there, and volunteer docents, like the Notre Dame alum who answered some of our questions, are often on hand to answer questions for the 50,000 visitors who tour the church each year.
Difficulty in raising money for the scaled-back version of Keely's plan caused delays, and construction stretched from 1868 through 1888.
The church is 175 feet long, 114 feet wide, and has interior ceilings soaring to 60 feet high, but the artwork and architectural detail is equally impressive to the church's size.
The original baptismal dating font from 1871 sits at the front entrance of the church where visitors can pause as they look down the long, central aisle towards the altar.
The French-built main altar made a stop at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia during 1876, winning an award for its design before its installation in Indiana.
Famed Vatican painter Luigi Gregori created 56 wall and ceiling murals and Stations of the Cross for the church over a 17-year period. Gregori's 12th and 13th Stations of the Cross made a stop at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago before their installation in Indiana.
Father Sorin commissioned Carmelite nuns at Le Mans, France, to create 42 stained glass windows. The windows, installed at the church between 1873 and 1888, contain 114 life-size scenes and 106 smaller scenes.
The altar in the Lady Chapel, constructed in 1886, celebrates the 50th anniversary of Father Sorin's 1838 ordination.
Listen for the 23-bell carillon, created in 1852 and brought over from the old Sacred Heart Church. It is reportedly the oldest carillon in North America and is in the church's tower with a seven-ton brass bell dubbed "St. Anthony".
I particularly enjoyed seeing the church's 1978-vinrage Holtkamp organ, which has 2,929 pipes! Unfortunately, we weren't able to hear it during our visit.
A one-seventh scale replica of the French shrine at Lourdes, built in 1896, sits outside of the church, and thousands of people stop at this Grotto each year to pray or light candles.
A 1968 renovation brought the church building into line with liturgical reforms, and a 1988 restoration brought some of the church's most treasured elements back to their original glory.
One of the biggest improvements during the 1980s restoration by Conrad Schmitt Studios involved the church's deteriorating stained glass windows. Visit the firm's site to watch video clips of the careful restoration of the stained glass, involving 116 windows and 1,200 individual panes of glass, and see the difference in the restored glass and its and vibrant colors.
In 1992, Pope John Paul II recognized the church's historical and spiritual significance by designating it as minor basilica.
Be sure to check out my other stories to learn more about the University of Notre Dame's history, art, and architecture.
Want to learn more about the Grotto at Notre Dame? Check out A Cave of Candles: The Story Behind Notre Dame's Grotto by Dorothy V. Corson.
© Dominique King 2010 All rights reserved