During his Christmas Day sermon in 1903, Archbishop John Ireland announced that Minneapolis was to become home to a large and impressive new Catholic church that would share the seat of the archdiocese with the Cathedral of St. Paul. The church, named the Church of the Immaculate Conception, was popularly known as the Pro-Cathedral of Minneapolis. It cost one million dollars to build and held its first Mass in 1914. In 1926, the Catholic Church designated the pro-cathedral the Basilica of Saint Mary, making it the first basilica in the United States.
Centuries earlier, in 1680, Father Louis Hennepin had started Catholic settlement near the upper falls of the Mississippi River. Hennepin was one of the first Europeans to see the falls, which had held significance for Dakota and Ojibwe people for many years. Hennepin gave the falls their English name, St. Anthony Falls, and European Catholics soon began to settle nearby.
Catholic immigration to the region increased in the 1800s. The first Catholic church in the area was built in 1851 in the town of St. Anthony, which later became the city of Minneapolis. The parish of the Immaculate Conception, which the Basilica serves today, was established in 1868 and was housed in several small churches in its early years.
In 1903, Archbishop John Ireland announced that the parish of the Immaculate Conception would become home to a commanding new church—the Pro-Cathedral of Minneapolis. Ireland chose a striking location for the pro-cathedral, on high ground that was near the heart of the city.
In 1904, Ireland chose architect Emmanuel Louis Masqueray to design both the Pro-Cathedral of Minneapolis and the Cathedral of St. Paul. Masqueray had designed the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, where Ireland met him. Born in France in 1861, Masqueray moved to New York in 1887. He worked for several important architects before opening his own firm in 1901, and he moved to Minneapolis permanently after designing Archbishop Ireland's cathedrals.
The pro-cathedral's architecture reflected Masqueray's training at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. The pro-cathedral was designed in the style of late Renaissance and Baroque churches in France and Italy. Masqueray wanted the pro-cathedral to create a serene impression through perfect proportions, good lighting, and sincere composition. The focus of his design was the wide nave, or main worship space. At the time, it was said to be the widest nave in the world.
Fundraising to build the pro-cathedral was difficult. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Catholic community in Minneapolis and St. Paul was large but not wealthy. So Archbishop Ireland traveled around the state, asking the entire archdiocese to donate in support of the new cathedrals. Several wealthy donors, both Catholic and non-Catholic, also gave money to the cause. The land for the pro-cathedral was donated in 1905 by Immaculate Conception parish member Lawrence S. Donaldson.
On May 31, 1908, the cornerstone for the pro-cathedral was laid. Tens of thousands of people attended the parade and ceremony. Many prominent men gave addresses, including James J. Hill and Governor John A. Johnson. President Theodore Roosevelt and Pope Pius X sent written remarks to be read before the crowd.
The exterior of the pro-cathedral was finished in 1914. On May 31, the pro-cathedral celebrated its first Mass. The interior remained incomplete until the 1920s, however. This was for several reasons: World War I took the parish's resources away from the pro-cathedral, and Masqueray died from complications of a stroke in 1917. Father James Reardon oversaw the completion of the interior.
In 1926, the pro-cathedral became the Basilica of Saint Mary. "Basilica" is an honorific title bestowed by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has four major basilicas in Rome and hundreds of minor basilicas throughout the world. The Basilica of Saint Mary was the first basilica in the United States.
A statue of Father Hennepin facing St. Anthony Falls was added in front of the Basilica in 1930. In 1941, the Basilica was consecrated, on the last day of the Ninth National Eucharistic Congress.
The Basilica was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. After suffering moisture damage, it underwent major restoration in the 1990s. In 2011, the Basilica received grants for moisture testing and further restoration.
Basilica of St. Mary, National Register of Historic Places Nomination File, State Historic Preservation Office, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
"The Basilica of Saint Mary Reigns in Partners in Preservation Twin Cities Grant Competition," The National Trust for Historic Preservation website, October 14, 2011.
Chiat, Marilyn, and Carol Frenning. Sunday Afternoon on the Avenue: A Tour of 5 Historic Places of Worship on Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Minneapolis, MN: s.n., 2000.
"Dedication of Procathedral." The Princeton Union, November 6, 1913.
Johnston, Patricia Condon. "Portrayals of Hennepin: 'Discoverer' of the Falls of St. Anthony." Minnesota History 47, no. 2 (Summer 1980): 57–62.
Lathrop, Alan K. "A French Architect in Minnesota: Emmanuel L. Masqueray 1861–1917." Minnesota History 47, no. 2 (Summer 1980): 42–56.
Masqueray, E.L. "Religious Architecture and the Cathedral of Saint Paul and Pro-Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception." Western Architect 12, no. 4 (October 1908): 43–44.
"Masqueray, Architect of the Procathedral Here, Dies; Stricken on Streetcar." Minneapolis Journal, May 26, 1917.
The Minnesota History Legacy Amendment website. Basilica Interior Moisture Testing.
"The Minneapolis Pro-Cathedral: Laying of The Corner Stone." Acta et Dicta 1, no. 2 (July 1908): 236–269. Editor's Note: Published all of the speeches and remarks given at the laying of the corner stone, in both Latin (where appropriate) and English.
O'Connell, Marvin Richard. John Ireland and the American Catholic Church. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988.
Reardon, James Michael. The Basilica of St. Mary of Minneapolis: Historical and Descriptive Sketch. St. Paul: James M. Reardon, 1932.
On May 31, 1914, the Pro-Cathedral of Minneapolis—later renamed the Basilica of St. Mary—celebrates its first Mass.