BALTIMORE – Though it’s a relatively unknown cathedral, the Basilica of the Assumption in downtown Baltimore is one of the most important religious landmarks in the United States. Completed in 1821, the Baltimore Basilica was the first Roman Catholic cathdral in the country – and a symbol of religious freedom.
Americans are accustomed to praying in the place of their choice, anywhere that provides solace, community, and forgiveness. But a couple hundred years ago, it was hard to find a single synagogue, mosque or a Catholic Church in the country.
Prior to 1776, it was illegal to embrace, or practice, any religion other than Anglican Protestantism in the former English colony. And though there were roughly 30,000 Catholics in the U.S. at that time, few would admit it readily. According to Bob Reier, the operations manager at the Baltimore Basilica, there was widespread fear of anyone who was not a practicing Anglican.
“There was a lot of distrust and dislike for Catholics in this country,” said Reier. “[People thought,] ‘They are never going to be loyal to the new government.’”
The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights changed all of that. After that, religion was legally allowed to flourish in America. Leading the way was the Catholic Church, with the first cathedral in America built on a hilltop in Baltimore for all to see. With it came an open-door policy, inviting Catholics and other denominations to come inside.
“Baltimore was a major port of debarkation for immigrants coming into this country,” Reier said. “This is why some of the first churches…were ethnic churches – Lithuanian, Polish, Italian – all those churches started up based on what had happened here. This was a grand experiment.”