“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts.”
“Mary was the first and the greatest of believers.”
Bishop Thomas J. Grady
The roots for the founding of what was to become the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe go back to the very history of the settlement of central Florida.
Adventurous pioneers began homesteading the pine scrub and lake-studded wilderness of central Florida in the 1830’s and 40’s looking for land and a new life. Cattle and cotton became king. General farming was also practiced but a new era began in the 1870’s with the planting of orange groves. The coming of the railroads opened up the area to more and more settlers and visitors. As early as the turn of the century, the area was becoming a tourism destination with people arriving from all over the country and world. Growth continued with the opening of more and more businesses and industries until that pivotal year of 1966 when a California businessman named Walt Disney bought land to open what was called Walt Disney World. Tourism was now becoming king.
Thousands upon thousands of Catholics arrived in the area to visit all the new attractions that were opening. The question and concern quickly became: how does the Church minister to all these visitors?
In 1974 just before his departure to become Archbishop of Baltimore, Bishop William D. Borders appointed Father William Corry to open a mission in the Bay Hill area and to be responsible for Masses for tourists in Lake Buena Vista and the Disney community. Before this got off the ground Father Corry was reassigned in 1975, and under the direction of Bishop Thomas J. Grady Father, now Monsignor, Joseph Harte took on the service of growing a tourism/hotel ministry. The planned Bay Hill mission became instead Holy Family parish and Monsignor Harte became its first pastor. His new parish became the center for the ministry. Under his committed and inspired leadership, the dedicated people of his parish tried to help visitors get to Mass on Sundays and they established a ministry in four hotels.
Bishop Grady came to the conclusion that the ministry could be more effective if there was a church conveniently located to Disney World and the theme park area. Because the diocese is consecrated to Mary the Mother of God, it was decided to name the proposed diocesan shrine church Mary, Queen of the Universe. The intention was also to honor Christ the King, to proclaim to the millions passing on I-4 that the kingdom of Christ is present in Central Florida. Monsignor Harte spearheaded the project, committing his considerable vision and energy to its management.
Such a huge undertaking required the purchase of land and funds with which to build a church, and so it began. By 1979, a 17-acre tract was purchased near I-4.
On December 8, 1984, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, enough funds had been raised to break ground for the first phase of construction. Within two years, the initial facility was completed and on November 23, 1986, the Feast of Christ the King, the first phase was blessed by Archbishop Pio Laghi, Papal Nuncio to the United States. Phase one included landscaping, a building to use as a church and offices, and a bell tower.
On August 22, 1990, the Feast of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, ground was broken for a main church that would seat as many as 2,000 people. “We want the shrine to be a temple, a sacred place to give glory to God and honor our mother, said Bishop Norbert Dorsey. “Above all we want it to be a spiritual home, a real hearth.”
At long last, on January 31, 1993, the first Mass was celebrated in the new church. And on August 22, 1993, the church was dedicated. Archbishop Pio Laghi was once again present. Bishop Dorsey proclaimed “a day of great rejoicing” and asked God’s grace upon all who would be drawn to the Shrine.
“This house brings to light the mystery of the Church,
Which Christ made holy by the shedding of his blood,
So that he might present her to himself as a glorious Bride,
A Virgin resplendent with the integrity of faith,
A Mother made fruitful by the power of the Spirit.”
(From The Order of the Dedication of a Church and Altar)
During the planning and building of the Shrine, a number of craftspeople and artists were engaged in creating furnishings and sacred art. Art and artists have always had an integral role in assisting the Church at prayer. Sacred art should beautifully serve the dignity of worship and be expressive of the church’s faith in the mystery of God, and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Areas within and without the Shrine are graced with the work of artists Jill Burkee and Giancarlo Biagi; Jerzy Kenar; Bruno Lucchesi; Loura Parks Dobbs, the Judson Studios, Domus Dei Studios, Kenneth VonRoenn, Laura M. Llerena, and others.
“Since the church is primarily the gathering place for God’s people to celebrate the Eucharist, the sanctuary appointments must be seen as the central pieces of sacred art which boldly express the beauty of Christian fellowship and celebration of the salvific event.”
(Building for being: worship spaces for the Church.)
The grounds of the Shrine include a Rosary Garden, an outdoor chapel, and bell tower. A pond spanned by a bridge is home to turtles, fish, birds, and is surrounded by willows and other greenery.
“Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.”
(St. Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Sun)
In 2004, Archbishop Thomas Wenski petitioned the USCCB to ask for the Shrine to be elevated from a diocesan to a National Shrine. The petition was granted and “National” was added to the name.
In 2007, Archbishop Wenski once again petitioned to Rome request the honor of designating the Shrine as a Minor Basilica, and in 2009 this was granted by Pope Benedict XVI. On August 22, 2009, the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe was dedicated.
Today this house of prayer continues to inspire those who come to worship, pray, and engage in quiet contemplation. Through the celebration of liturgy, prayer, the viewing of sacred art, the receiving of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, faithful from all over the world- pilgrims on a journey- including those living here in Central Florida find comfort, calm and spiritual renewal amidst the hectic pace of the outside world.
The following priests have served as rectors of the Basilica: