Spread across 17 acres of woodlands in Central Florida is the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe. This stunning house of worship has become one of the most visited Catholic sites in the United States. Here’s a brief look back at the history of this marvelous place, from conception to the first mass.
A new vision
After the opening of Walt Disney World’s® Magic Kingdom in 1971, Orlando began to see a boom in overall tourism. Visitors came from across the world to be entertained by Mickey and his friends, plus they spent their days experiencing “The City Beautiful” by engaging in local farmers’ markets, enjoying the outdoors at local parks, and more. The Diocese of Orlando noted that with the thousands of new visitors each day, there was a greater rotating Catholic population present in the area.
These temporary Orlando residents regularly turned their hearts and minds to God and needed a home to pray while they were in the city. The Diocese arranged for large masses to take place at local hotels, but attendance continued to increase. Soon, the Diocese named Father F. Joseph Harte as pastor of Orlando’s Holy Family Parish, and upon seeing the growing need for a more permanent holy experience, he began following a vision. He wanted to create a space for this “tourist ministry” to thrive – a place where practicing Catholics from all over the world could keep solace in God and share in the Holy Mass with others who shared their same blessed faith.
Fundraising for the massive project began in 1979, a year which marked the silver anniversary of the Coronation of Mary as a memorial for the Catholic Church via the Papal encyclical. Thus, the powers that be decided that this larger-than-life basilica would become a shrine to Mary, Queen of the Universe.
At last, a holy place
Finally, fundraising efforts had proved fruitful, and on December 8, 1984, the first phase of construction began. Two years later, a small portion of the basilica was completed, and construction started on an outdoor chapel and its corresponding 80-foot (24.3-meter) bell tower. In 1986, Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Pio Laghi, visited the Shrine and offered the Holy Father’s blessing for the ministry.
Construction continued, and on August 22, 1990, work on the main church, planned to hold 2,000-plus people, began. The main worship area was put together with 68,000 individual roof tiles, a 56,000-square-foot (5,202.5-square-meter) interior, and wall-length stained-glass windows illustrating Mary and her Son. A 650-pound (294.8-kilogram) sculpture of the Crucified Christ was commissioned to hang suspended above the main altar.
On January 31, 1993, after years of diligent assembly, the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe held, though unofficially, its first mass with over 3,000 guests in attendance. A few months later on August 22, 1993, over 2,500 cardinals, bishops, and priests gathered to consecrate the new church with an official mass.
Though the shrine had opened its doors to worshippers everywhere, construction continued through the 1990s and into the new millennium. Father F. Joseph Harte retired formally in 2007, though his vision for the basilica will never be forgotten as the shrine continues to be a place of love and worship to all.