History
A History of the Basilica

Within the roots of every site made holy by God's love for the world there is a story... a first vision; a call; times of courage and times of doubt; and a time, at last, when the labors of many would bear fruit – lighting a path for the faithful. And so it was for the 17-acre tract of Central Florida woodland that has become today's Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe.

1979-1989: A Dream Unfolding

Here is a story that began with a solitary priest, kneeling prayerfully in the Grotto of Our Lady at Lourdes. The year was 1979. He had come from Orlando, a fast-emerging Florida crossroads that was home to the popular, new Disney World. Together with other Central Florida attractions, this vast Disney complex was already drawing visitors by the millions each year. Among their number were many Catholics – men, women and children. They had come to be entertained; yet each Sunday turned their thoughts, and their hearts toward God.

To provide for their spiritual needs, the Diocese of Orlando arranged for masses to be celebrated at area hotels. As the demand grew, additional masses were scheduled and additional hotels enlisted. The outreach was itself becoming an apostolate. And to direct this unique "tourist ministry" the Diocese named Father F. Joseph Harte, pastor of Orlando's Holy Family Parish. The year was 1975.

The new apostolate was soon thriving. Yet looking at projections that forecast as many as 30 million annual visitors to the Orlando area, Fr. Harte realized his makeshift hotel facilities would no longer be sufficient. Necessity demanded a permanent facility, but Fr. Harte envisioned something more. The newly-elected Pope John Paul II had issued a call to "open wide the doors to Christ," and Fr. Harte saw the opportunity to reach countless thousands of Catholics each year, providing for them a spiritual oasis where the faithful could share in the Holy Mass, spend time before the Blessed Sacrament and meditate amidst the prayerful serenity of God's preserve.

His was a grand and exciting vision. Yet such a huge undertaking demanded the purchase of land and funds with which to build and equip so large a church project. But there was no treasury for Fr. Harte to draw upon, only the possibility of a diocesan loan.

Here is a story that began with a solitary priest, kneeling prayerfully in the Grotto of Our Lady at Lourdes. The year was 1979. He had come from Orlando, a fast-emerging Florida crossroads that was home to the popular, new Disney World. Together with other Central Florida attractions, this vast Disney complex was already drawing visitors by the millions each year. Among their number were many Catholics – men, women and children. They had come to be entertained; yet each Sunday turned their thoughts, and their hearts toward God.

Fundraising began. Land was purchased, a 17-acre tract long left uncultivated and largely overgrow with wild vegetation, but hopes were high. It was, after all, 1979, silver anniversary of the Papal encyclical establishing the Coronation of Mary as a memorial feast of the Church. And so, this holy ground, which was to become the last great shrine of the Second Millennium, would be named under the patronage of Mary, Queen of the Universe.

"Nothing happens," wrote the American poet, Carl Sandburg, "unless first a dream." For Mary's Shrine, it was a vision embraced by all who saw the great promise of Orlando as a new center for evangelization. They offered their prayers. They sacrificed, volunteering their time and service, and gave generously, year-after-year. They had answered the call and the dream they shared was becoming a reality!

On December 8, 1984, feast of the Immaculate Conception, enough money had been raised to break ground for the first phase of construction. Within two years, the initial facility was completed. Across the courtyard, an outdoor chapel was being constructed and anchored by an 80-foot bell tower. Inside the chapel walls was installed an inspiring 12-foot bronze work, entitled "Mother & Child." It was the first of several important pieces commissioned from noted sculptor, Jerzy Kenar.

Completion of the Shrine's first phase in 1986 brought a visit from Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Pio Laghi, who offered the Holy Father's personal blessing on the new ministry and told an audience of some 700 clergy, volunteers and friends, "Mary has to be immensely pleased with what you have done... She will see that each and every one of you will be blessed abundantly for your devotion, your faith and your gracious generosity."

1990-1999: Opening New Doors to Christ

As the last decade of the 20th century began for Orlando's emerging shrine, one of the Southeast's most prominent architectural firms accepted the challenge to create a worship space that would celebrate the great traditions of basilica design while incorporating modern advances in audio technology and illumination. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of this new church would be "natural lighting" from stained glass windows that were to extend the entire length of the nave. Looking down from the upper reaches of the Shrine Church would be a series of 16 clerestory windows - "The Rosary Windows" - to bath the area below with a soft translucence and help focus worshippers on the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary. Even more striking would be a series of 14 Magnificat Windows that would unfold the Gospels and celebrate the Christian message.

On August 22, 1990, the feast of Mary's Queenship, ground was broken for a main church that would seat as many as 2,000 people, with standing room for many more. "We want this Shrine to be a temple," offered the new Bishop of Orlando, Most Reverend Norbert Dorsey, "a sacred place to give glory to God and honor to our mother."

By early 1992, construction teams were assembling the scaffold and setting in place upwards of 68,000 individual roof tiles. While below, craftsmen and other artisans worked to complete the church's 56,000 square-foot interior.

In Chicago, Jerzy Kenar was preparing his strikingly original design for the Holy Water Font -- a marble base, ringed in brass and accented by two ascending arches, providing a symbolic "gateway" that would usher the faithful through the doors beyond and to the Eucharistic presence of Christ. Even more striking was his design for a 650-lb. sculpture of the Crucified Christ which, against an architectural glass backdrop symbolizing the shadow of the Cross, was to hang suspended above the Main Altar. Depicted with arms outstretched but with a spirit of repose, this dominant image leads the faithful to dwell upon the suffering and sacrifice that was Our Lord's gift to humankind. Balancing this artistic imagery is a figure of the Rising Christ, suspended at the rear of the nave. Here is reflected the joyful promise of the Resurrection -- one that can only gladden the hearts of the faithful.

With the installation of these works and completion of the church interior, Mary, Queen of the Universe Shrine Church was at last ready to open its doors to the world.

And, on January 31, 1993, before an overflow assembly of some 3,000 guests and members of the Shrine family joined for an historic, yet unofficial first mass. Said Fr. Harte: "This is what we have all dreamt about for so many years."

Seven months later, on August 22, 1993, more than 2,500 Cardinals, bishops, priests and delegations representing the worldwide People of God joined to consecrate the new church. Bishop Dorsey proclaimed "a day of great rejoicing" and asked God's grace upon all who would be drawn to the Shrine. And Pio Cardinal Laghi returned with a message from Pope John Paul II, a blessing on what the Holy Father called "this house of pilgrimage." And in 1995, the new Shrine Church was honored with a regional builder's National Award of Merit for "Excellence in Construction."

Through the 1990's work continued across the Shrine complex. The temporary church of years past was transformed into an Evangelization Center with a Museum of Religious Art, Interactive Pilgrimage Center and greatly enlarged gift shop. The Shrine has also became home for a new chapel honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In the grounds beyond, visitors find a beautiful Rosary Garden, embedded with flowers, small ponds and rich Florida landscaping that surround a path of stones laid out in the shape of a rosary. Dedicated to the Shrine's patron, Pope John Paul II after his death and welcoming all with a large bronze of the late Pontiff at the entrance, the Garden adds a serene and prayerful atmosphere for the faithful of all nations.

2000 and Beyond: This Place of Pilgrimage

As the 21st century dawned, visitors first looked upon the Shrine's signature sculpture of "Mary, Queen of the Universe." Given the commission to create a defining work that would represent Mary, as Queen, acclaimed sculptor Jill Burkee saw as her task: "to breathe life into the rich white marble, evoking a new image of the world's great love, the model of humility, the simple girl of Nazareth." The result was a celebration as moving spiritually as it was artistic.

The success of Burkee's Queenship statue encouraged new works: a delightfully unique image of Joseph with young Jesus in the workshop, was sculpted by world-renown artist, Bruno Lucchesi. A far larger and more ambitious project, the creation of three bronze portals that would welcome generations to come with sculpted images from the Old and New Testament was underwritten by hundreds of Shrine family members and completed in 2002 by artists Jill Burkee and Giancarlo Biagi.

Following the retirement of now Monsignor F. Joseph Harte in 2007, Father Edward J. McCarthy was appointed as the second Rector of Mary's Shrine. During his brief tenure, on June 3, 2009, the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments forwarded the Decree granting the title of Minor Basilica to The National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe and brought new Papal recognition for the Shrine's outstanding ministry and worship environment.

In March 2011, the new Basilica welcomed its third rector, Very Reverend Paul J. Henry, who is today helping to extend the ministry's outreach and guide Mary's Shrine at the threshold of a Third Millennium in Christ.