Many visitors have difficulty describing the emotion the chapel evokes. Some describe the peace they feel there, others the connection to history. For some, it is the most profound religious experience they can recall. Though the responses vary, each visitor seems to have one thing in common: They leave the Our Mother of Africa chapel at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Northeast Washington, deeply moved.
The experience begins before visitors even enter the chapel, at the threshold, where the marble floor is inlaid with an abstract image of the 17th century slave ship the Henrietta Marie. The inlay shows lines configured to represent enslaved Africans lying in the hold the ship.
“You don’t step over that lightly,” said Saundra Lamb, of Northwest Washington, a lawyer who also serves as a lector at the Shrine. “All of a sudden, that brings you to the reverence of the place… Immediately, for me, it just evoked a solemnity and also an appreciation for what would have been needed to overcome that part of our history. For me, they raised the bar when they put that inlay in there.”
The Our Mother of Africa chapel is located on the crypt or lower level of the Basilica. It is one of several ethnic or culturally identifiable chapels in the National Shrine. The chapel was presented to the National Shrine as a gift from the National Black Catholic Congress under the leadership of the African American Bishops of the United States, according to information from the Shrine guidebook.
The chapel was dedicated on August 30, 1997.
The chapel features artwork by Black artists, including an ebony wood figure of Christ on the cross that is visible as visitors approach. The figure of Christ was carved by Juvenal Kaliki, of Tanzania, in the 500-year-old tradition of his Entebene tribe, according to the guidebook.
One of the focal points is a 6-foot wide bronze sculpture that depicts the journey Africans took from being enslaved to today, created by African-American sculptor Ed Dwight. The sculpture includes images of an enslaver—whip in hand—menacing cowering Africans, an auction block, chains and cotton sacks, the American flag, the Civil Rights era, the “I Am A Man” sign worn during the Memphis garbage worker’s strike and the song “We Shall Overcome.” The sculpture culminates in a free and united Black family—the father, mother, son, and daughter, standing tall and looking forward. The sculpture emotionally compels visitors to touch the people—gently hold their hands, rub their feet, feel the progression of their journey. As visitors touch the images, they are visibly moved. It is not unusual to see people wipe away tears as they stand before the sculpture.
Directly across from this sculpture is another Ed Dwight bronze, entitled “Our Mother of Africa and Her Divine Son,” which depicts the Black Madonna and child.
The Madonna is gracefully elevated, holding her son, whose bare foot invites visitors to rub it. With his hand extended, the son appears to beckon people at the other sculpture to come to him. The face-to-face placement of these sculptures evokes what the Shrine’s guide book describes as the chapel’s sculpture plan to create a “sacred conversation” among the sculptures.
Gray marble images of Biblical disciples Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were installed in the chapel in 2003. With textured hair, full lips and noses, the images were added to the walls leading to “Our Mother of Africa and Her Divine Son.”
“It was a moving and powerful experience,” said Clarence Cotton, Jr., of Atlanta, who was born and raised in Washington, but was not aware of the chapel until a friend took him there last year. He looks forward to sharing the experience with his young son. He said he wishes more Blacks knew about the chapel.
Lamb, 62, said she was speechless the first time she visited, a few weeks after the chapel opened. Since then, she has taken many of her friends and loved ones to experience it.
She said visitors to the Shrine, who come from around the world, are impressed by the chapel’s imagery and meaning.
“It is absolutely powerful,” she said. “It is difficult to find words to capture it. It is evocative…You can’t go through it casually. You can be laughing and talking when you get to the threshold, then everything gets quiet. People are very respectful there. There is a kneeling place altar. There is a small prayer written, in case you want to have something to say. There are small where people just sit and take it in.”
She said each visit leaves her more connected to her heritage.
“You feel stronger. You feel renewed,” she said. “You leave there feeling that you don’t want to waste your life, that this is your journey. You leave feeling very clear.
You leave feeling, ‘This is who I am.’”