CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Cardinal Wuerl sprinkles holy water at the work site of the Trinity Dome at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during a ceremony on Oct. 28.
CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Cardinal Wuerl sprinkles holy water at the work site of the Trinity Dome at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during a ceremony on Oct. 28.

A simple blessing helped inaugurate the final work on what will literally become the jewel in the crown of the largest Catholic church in North America.

On Oct. 28, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington stood on a platform 16 stories above the main floor of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and sprinkled holy water at the work site of the Trinity Dome, where over the next year workers will install a mosaic with more than 14 million pieces of colorful Venetian glass.

The cardinal said that the mosaic, which craftsmen are expected to begin installing in January and complete by Christmas 2017, will “be a wonder to behold and a gift, not only to our Church, but to our entire country.”

The mosaic in the basilica’s great dome will depict the Holy Trinity – God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and Mary as the Immaculate Conception and patroness of the United States, joined by a procession of saints from the Americas or that have a special connection to the basilica.

Cardinal Wuerl, joined by Msgr. Walter Rossi, the basilica’s rector, presided at a ceremony where he blessed the Trinity Dome site and the workers who helped build the scaffolding in preparation for the installation of the mosaic. Other guests included some of the shrine’s staff, architects, planners and donors for the project, and members of the media.

The participants wore hard hats and ascended to the site by riding up two elevated platforms and by climbing several flights of metal stairs.

“For many of you, this is probably the first time you’ve been in the ceiling of the National Shrine,” Msgr. Rossi said in welcoming people to the prayer service held more than 150 feet above the basilica’s nave.

Before the ceremony, Cardinal Wuerl, noting the site’s seeming proximity to heaven, jokingly said that a fitting hymn for the occasion might be, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

The singing at the prayer service was led by nine members of the basilica’s choir, wearing blue robes. Before the Gospel reading, a cantor sang, “Lord, give success to the work of our hands.”

In his homily, Cardinal Wuerl said the variety of colored tiles and the diversity of the saints represented in the mosaic will reflect the congregation that he sees from the altar each time he celebrates Mass at the basilica, the “face of America, (with) so many rich traditions and backgrounds that are part of our nation and our Church.”

Each year, the basilica draws more than one million pilgrims from across the country and around the world, and the cardinal said those who visit the shrine and who will view the completed mosaic in the Trinity Dome will be reminded that they are called by Christ to make the world a better place by being “living images of God’s love.”

The mosaic’s procession of saints and angels will include St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Calcutta, who visited the basilica, and saints from the United States including St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized, and St. Junípero Serra, the Spanish Franciscan missionary of California who was the first saint canonized in the United States, during a 2015 Mass celebrated outside the basilica by Pope Francis.

During his visit to the National Shrine, Pope Francis blessed a section of the Trinity Dome mosaic depicting the words “I believe in one God” and “Amen,” the first and last words of the Nicene Creed recited by Catholics at Mass. The words of the creed will encircle the base of the dome, with pendentives at each corner depicting the four evangelists, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Like many of the world’s great churches, the completion of the Basilica of the National Shrine has taken a century. Its foundation stone was laid in 1920, and after progress on completing the shrine was delayed by the Great Depression and World War II, a major drive that included a national collection in 1953 made it possible for the superstructure of its Great Upper Church to be completed and dedicated six years later.

Over the years, Catholics representing many different ethnic and cultural groups from across the United States have raised funds to erect more than 80 chapels and oratories honoring Mary throughout the basilica.

Msgr. Rossi noted that a fundraising campaign has been launched to support the mosaic ornamentation of the Trinity Dome, which will complete the National Shrine according to its original architectural plans and iconographic design. The U.S. bishops have approved a special one-time second collection to be taken up in Catholic churches across the country on Mother’s Day 2017 to support the effort.

“This National Shrine, a century in the making, exists because of the generosity of American Catholics” and their prayers, the basilica’s rector said.

After the ceremony, the priest said it was “amazing” to see the scaffolding being constructed, especially the “180 ton steel floor of the base of the scaffolding, to see that rising up… It was truly a work of art, like the mosaics will be.”

He said careful planning and the workers’ skill ensured that the basilica’s Masses have continued uninterrupted in the upper church, expect for one Sunday in the summer. Now the scaffolding rises above the basilica’s nave, and the front pews have been put back into place.

Roger Jetton, the president of Scaffolding Solutions, said in an interview that the scaffolding took about five weeks to erect, with 30 workers building it at its peak. The scaffolding includes about 20,000 pieces and weighs approximately 300,000 pounds, he said.

“This is a very highly engineered, complex structure. It deals with compound radiuses, a circle and a dome… To make that work is an engineering marvel,” he said noting the scaffolding is normally designed to operate linearly, in rectangular or square patterns.

Brett Rugo, the president and owner of Rugo Stone, whose company has overall responsibility for the construction of the whole Trinity Dome project, said, “This is the height of my career.”

His firm also oversaw the installation of the mosaics for the basilica’s Redemption Dome, dedicated in 2006, and the Knights of Columbus Incarnation Dome, dedicated the following year.

Rugo, who is a member of St. James Parish in Falls Church, Virginia, praised the dedication and skill of the workers who have contributed to the project, saying they “have put their hearts and souls into this… It’s not just a job.”

One of the workers attending the blessing ceremony was Jeff Pizzuli, a 61-year-old stone mason and member of Bricklayers Local 5 in Cleveland who came out of retirement to help work on the project.

Pizzuli, who is Catholic, wore a brown hard hat covered with stickers representing some of his jobs over his 40-year career, and he had a small chain around his neck with a cross. The union tradesman said he had been to many cathedrals across the country, but the basilica is “the most amazing I’ve seen,” and he is honored to work on it. “Erecting the scaffolding is just a warm-up to what’s going to happen,” he said.

Cardinal Wuerl encouraged the guests on the platform to touch the bare walls of the dome, which in coming months will be covered with intricate mosaics that are now being fabricated by artisans in Italy.

“You were here at a moment of history… Remind yourself this is the completion of a 100-year project, that says God is with us, and God loves us,” the cardinal said. “…What a great day! What a great work!”

(For information on the Trinity Dome and how to contribute to the effort, go to www.trinitydome.org.