Dating to ancient Greek and Roman times a basilica originally referred to a type of public building in which official business was conducted. Beginning in the fourth century of the Christian era, basilicas began to be used as places of worship. It was during this time that the construction of the great basilicas of Rome was begun. Soon these basilica churches began to play a unique role in the life of the Popes and the universal church.
Today, the term basilica refers to a special designation given by the Holy Father to certain churches because of their antiquity, dignity, historical importance, and their significance as a center of worship and prayer.
The history of St. John's parish dates back to June 7, 1905, when fourteen lots were purchased on University Avenue between 19th Street and Harding Road (now Martin Luther King Blvd.) at a cost of $8,000, under the direction of Rev. Daniel F. Mulvihill. Two additional lots were purchased on July 20, 1905 for $1,375.00.
Being deeply interested in Catholic education, the first building on the property was the present brick school where a large chapel on the second floor was used for a temporary church. The first Mass was celebrated in the partially completed school on Christmas day, 1905. In August, 1913, the basement of our present church was built and services were held there until the upper church was started. The cornerstone for the upper part of the church was laid on September 19, 1926.
On Sunday, December 4, 1927, St. John's church was solemnly dedicated by Most Rev. Thomas W. Drumm, D.D., Bishop of Des Moines. A Solemn Pontifical High Mass was celebrated upon the newly dedicated altar. The present altar of celebration was made in Italy and was consecrated on June 5, 1983.
St. John's Catholic Church was named to the National Registry of Historical Places on September 8, 1987. On December 31, 1989, Most Rev. William H. Bullock, Bishop of Des Moines, presided at the Solemn dedication of the church as a minor basilica.
A church is a sacrament in stone. It presents a sign of God's presence in the world. As you enter the church you ascend from the normal, the everyday, and rise to encounter the living God. The very facade of this building is an invitation to come and encounter Jesus Christ. Like all church families, this one reaches out with the hands of Christ and invites you to come into the love of God, come home to the Basilica of St. John.
The church is patterned in the style of the Northern Italian, or Lombardy Romanesque, and resembles St. Paul's Basilica outside the Walls of Rome.
The architects were from McGinnis and Walsh of Boston, who also designed the National Shrine in Washington D.C. found on the campus of Catholic University. The local architect was John Normile, and the contractor was Charles W. Wietz, both of Des Moines.
The cost of the structure was $480,000.00 and could not be duplicated today for seven million dollars. It has a seating capacity of 900 with a completely equipped parish hall used for social and for educational purposes. The campanile at the northwest corner rises to a height of 115 feet. It houses a 600 pound bronze bell that is operated automatically with a hammer style percussion instrument. A special engraving with the name "St. Peter-1961" adorns the base of the bell.
The Basilica of St. John is built of Indiana Limestone. It has a tile roof and a bronze cross located on top of the bell tower. The interior is finished in plaster cast and Travertine marble, a stone used in all classical Roman structures. Looking up you will see the gold coffered ceiling. The round form of the building is carried on in the ceiling, as it is in the arches down the length of the nave.
All the gold used in the Basilica of St. John is gold leaf, not paint. Just below the ceiling are the clerestory windows. On the east clerestory windows you will find symbols highlighting the sacraments and cardinal virtues of the church. On the west clerestory windows you will find symbols highlighting the offices and teachings of humankind. Below the clerestory windows are seven quotations from Scripture which presents the founding or instituting the seven sacraments of the church. There is also one set of quotes from the Hail Mary prayer. Below the Scripture references are a series of marble disks, symbolizing the universality of the Catholic Church.
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