The last time I can remember misbehaving in a church was the first time I laid eyes on the inside of The National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg. The soaring basilica dome overwhelmed my 8-year-old senses, so I let out an embarrassingly loud and reverberating “wow!” as pilgrims to the saint’s final resting place were trying to pray.
That memory of spontaneous amazement will probably last the rest of my life, but sadly, what I don’t remember well from that day is the visitor center. I’ve been to the shrine several times since, but I can’t even remember if I’d seen the old visitor center more than once. There just wasn’t anything memorable about the place that was supposed to educate visitors on the life of the founding mother of American Catholic education and the first citizen born in the U.S. to be canonized as a saint.
I had to ask Tony DiIulio, the director of programs for the Shrine, to remind me what that old center was like before last month’s grand opening of a new, $4 million visitor center and museum. Built in the ’80s, the former visitor center was in an area beneath the basilica that caused “visitor confusion,” he told me. A small labyrinth stood between visitors and the elevator that went up to the actual shrine. By contrast, the new center has a grand main entrance into a large hallway-shaped museum that leads right to the basilica.