Two years ago, I visited the Basilica of St. Lawrence for the first time as a tourist in the city of Asheville. In an ironic twist, this is currently where you can find me each Sunday worshiping. It is amazing, surreal and certainly a unique opportunity since there are only 83 basilicas in the United States, not all of which are parishes.
The story of this Catholic Church is a true testimony to using your talents to contribute to your church. A Spanish architect, Rafael Guastavino, came to the US in 1881 bringing with him the revival of the ancient art of the tile and mortar building system. His work can be found in over a 1000 buildings including Grand Central Station, Carnegie Hall and Ellis Island. He was hired to work on the Biltmore House in Asheville and quickly fell in love with the area and settled here. But each Sunday morning he could not find a seat in the very small Catholic Chapel downtown, so he build what is now one of his masterpieces, The Basilica of St. Lawrence.
This is a beautiful church inside and out. The exterior is Spanish Renaissance inspired, easily recognized by its two twin bell towers and huge copper dome. All of the Basilica’s walls, floors, ceilings, pillars and even stairs are constructed of tile and masonry materials in what is known as “cohesive construction”, which means that there are no beams of wood or steel in the entire building. The signature center dome that draws people from around the world, spans a distance of 58 by 82 feet and is stated to be the largest freestanding elliptical dome in North America. The exterior of the dome has a copper covering to help withstand the harsh mountain climate extremes .
Since Guastavino meant this to be a spectacular place to worship, he either acquired or commissioned many of the beautiful art that adorns the basilica. The stained glass windows throughout are exquisite and elaborate in their depiction of biblical stories. Some of them were salvaged from the original church, such as the Nativity and St. Joseph in the Adoration Chapel, while others are original designs created in Munich, Germany such as the two largest windows representing the Transfiguration and Christ healing the sick.
Behind the altar stands a 17th century, hand-carved walnut tableau depicting the crucifixion with the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John at the feet of Jesus. This Spanish masterpiece is surrounded by the Polychrome terra cotta, which can be found throughout the Basilica, life-size reliefs of the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) along with the Archangels Michael and Raphael. There are an abundance of Italian-made statues of the saints including St. Lawrence, St. Cecilia, St. Rose of Lima, St. Patrick, St. Peter the Apostle and many more.
It’s a little strange having my parish serve as a major tourist attraction. The pamphlet rack contains not only information on joining the church, but also a self-guided tour brochure. After each mass, a docent, usually that day’s lector, provides a guided tour for curious visitors. Aside from the picture taking and the occasional tourist that misses the significance of the exposition of the Eucharist, it is at its core, a welcoming and holy place of worship. I feel blessed to be a part of this parish community in the heart of the city of Asheville.