By: CJ Guadarrama
The Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is an important building not only to Georgestown and the city, but also to people from various religious backgrounds who come to visit it from all over the world. On any given day, hundreds of people can visit the Basilica by way of tourist buses and cabs that take them around town while they’re stopped here during a cruise. These visitors usually have tour guides who lead them in, have them sit down towards the front, and then discuss the history of the Basilica. For many, it is an essential part of their first introduction to the city. Sitting to the side of these groups are often other individuals who come in alone to sit quietly and sometimes to weep to themselves. As well, there are those who come by to ask for a priest to help them with a problem that they have or to confess their sins. In an interview I conducted with Jeremy Moulton, a staff member at the Basilica, he mentioned that people are often simply seeking someone who is willing to listen. They come to the Basilica afraid, or guilty, or anxious; tradition has taught them that they can always find solace in a church. They talk, cry, and then go on their way. In short, the Basilica serves many different purposes for many different people.
Particular places within the Basilica hold special informal, or vernacular, meanings. For example, to the right of the altar is a seating area. This is located in front of a statue depicting the Virgin Mary with three children kneeling in front of her, typically referred to as the Lady of Fatima. The legend is that Mary appeared to the three children and foretold stories of Great War; she asked them to pray the rosary every day so that it would help bring a peaceful end to the war. There is a notice posted with instructions to “Pray the Rosary” but people also use the space as an informal play zone for children. Often times people will hang a set of their prayer beads around the statue, sometimes in exchange for a set that was left there by someone else. There is no telling when this tradition started, but Jeremy Moulton mentioned that he sees a new rosary around the Lady of Fatima’s neck at least once or twice a week.
Another spot inside the Basilica that has taken on informal meanings is the Crucifix that hangs on the left side of the door as one enters. The symbol of the crucifix, as a reminder that Jesus Christ suffered and died for the sins of humanity, is an important one in Catholicism. It might be easy to overlook this particular crucifix but a closer look reveals that layers of the cross have been worn down by decades of people touching it in prayer or holding their babies up to it as a way to bless them. In both cases, people perform this act to evoke a spiritual experience. Like the layers of Georgestown that can only be revealed when people take the time to look closely, beneath the surface, the discoloration at the bottom of the cross showcases the vernacular function that it has served for decades.