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The Basilica of St. Pius X, known as the Underground Basilica, is a large church in the town of Lourdesmarker, Francemarker, and is part of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. Lourdes is a major Catholic pilgrimage site and the Catholic Church endorses the belief that the Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Bernadette Soubirous there.
View along the nave towards the central sanctuary
The Basilica of St. Pius X is the largest and most controversial of the Domain's churches. It was completed in 1958 in anticipation of the enormous crowds expected in Lourdes for the centenary of the Apparitions. A modern, concrete building, it is almost entirely underground (part of the building lies beneath the Boulevard Père Rémi Sempé above).

Dimensions and capacity

The Basilica was designed by the architect Pierre Vago. The nave is oval, 191m long and 61m wide, and slopes gently upwards from the centre, where the sanctuary is situated on a raised platform. The ceiling is low, at only 10m high, and is supported by 58 pre-stressed concrete pillars which meet 29 concrete beams which cross the ceiling, giving it the impression of an upturned ship. This design creates a very large open space, of 12,000m2, for maximum visibility from any part of the nave. When full it can accommodate 25,000 worshippers.

Interior decoration

The walls are decorated with the Stations of the Cross, a depiction of the Rosary, and a depiction of the Apparitions, making a total of 52 images, all in the local Gemmail style of overlapping stained glass.

The Underground Basilica is stylistically very different from its predecessors in the Domain. There is almost no natural light inside. The concrete of its construction has been left bare throughout, making it gloomy and uninviting, and it draws comparisons with an underground carpark. Therefore, although it provided a practical solution to the problem of accommodating very large numbers, it remains unpopular with many visitors to Lourdes.

Consecration

The consecration of the basilica was on March 25th 1958 by Angelo Cardinal Roncalli, who was then the Papal Nuncio to France, and who later became Pope John XXIII. The consecration year was selected to celebrate the centenary of the 18 visions of the Virgin Mary by Saint Bernadette. This basilica is one of the largest churches inspired by Visions of Jesus and Mary.

Practical problems

A church of these dimensions poses several practical problems, some more easily dealt with than others. Firstly, it tends to be very cold and draughty, and radiant heaters have been installed to help keep worshippers warm. Secondly, although visibility is unobstructed in most of the nave, worshippers at the back see very little because they are so far away from the sanctuary. To remedy this, large screens have been installed on which are projected live camera images of the ceremony, in a similar manner to concerts and sports events. An additional benefit of this technique is the ability to provide real-time translation of different languages.

Finally, a structure with solid concrete walls and floors creates many unavoidable echoes, and the acoustics of the building are very poor. Even although many loudspeakers are installed throughout, the sound in many parts of the basilica is often fuzzy and indistinct. This can make it difficult to follow the ceremony, and to join in with singing.

References

  1. Oliver Todd, The Lourdes Pilgrim, Matthew James Publishing, 2003, p. 44-5.


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