Land for the shrine was purchased in 1979 and construction began in 1984. The first phase, a chapel and bell tower, was completed two years later. Work on the main church was begun in 1990 and it was consecrated in 1993. It was designated a minor basilica in 2009. It is a large church, very beautiful, containing numerous works of art. The grounds of the shrine also include a chapel, Rosary garden, museum, pilgrimage center, gift shop, and several landscaped pathways.
It is not a parish church and so all who come here are tourists. It is said to be the third most popular tourist attraction in the state of Florida, next to Disney World and Universal Orlando Studios. They sponsor a concert series featuring world class performers as well as local musicians. They have a professional choir-in-residence, and also invite visiting choirs to sing at the Sunday evening mass. There are four Sunday masses and two masses each weekday, plus the Saturday vigil. Confessions are heard daily.
Orlando, in central Florida, is one of the world's most visited tourist destinations. Originally called Fort Gatlin, it was renamed Jernigan around 1850. Numerous stories abound regarding the origin of its present name, Orlando, the most popular of which is that it was named after the protagonist in Shakespeare's As You Like It. Indeed, one of the major downtown streets is named Rosalind Avenue after the heroine of the same play. Primarily a military town for the first half of the 20th century, Orlando's fame as a tourist attraction began when Walt Disney opened the Disney World resort in 1971. Universal Orlando Studios and SeaWorld Orlando also attract hordes of tourists. The shrine sits on a much too narrow street near Interstate 4, which bisects the center of the state from Tampa in the west to Daytona Beach in the east. There are plans to widen the street; in fact, the widening was mentioned during mass as part of a sales pitch for a fundraising campaign.
The Very Revd Paul J. Henry, rector of the basilica, celebrated mass. Also present was the Revd Msgr F. Joseph Harte, the founding rector, who retired in 2007. He wore eucharistic vestments but did not concelebrate with the rector; rather, he mainly sat off to the side. There were three altar servers (two old men and a purple haired woman), two lectors, a large choir, and what may have been 15 extraordinary ministers.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Mass.
How full was the building?
The basilica can hold 2000 and was 99.9 per cent full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. A very nice older woman who was giving out the literature for the fundraising campaign greeted us and invited my five-year-old to donuts after the mass.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, for a Catholic church, meaning they were far enough apart that I didn't keep kicking down the kneeler behind me when I knelt.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and well air conditioned. I believe it was 91°F that day.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hardback hymnal from Oregon Catholic Press.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, an electronic instrument by the Allen Organ Company LLC of Macungie, Pennsylvania. A contract has been signed with Schoenstein & Co. Organ Builders of Benicia, California, for the installation of a new pipe organ.
Did anything distract you?
I feel terrible for saying it, but the purple haired young lady assisting at mass was a distraction.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Mostly standard. A said mass; no chanting. No bells or incense. I kind of felt like Father Barry liked to talk too much. After the opening prayers, he descended the altar and went around asking people where they were from. A nice touch but entirely unnecessary. The choir were quite talented. They sang the standard Dan Schutte stuff not exactly transcendent but well sung. The mass included the confirmation of an elderly gentleman named Roy, who had been married to a Catholic woman for 60 years and had attended mass at the shrine for the past 30 years. The confirmation ceremony was held after the offertory, with the rector presiding.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
25 minutes but see below.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – The rector preached a very good six minute sermon in fifteen minutes, and then went on to do another sermon that lasted ten minutes. Either would have been good; together they were a bit too much. He spoke with a slight Irish accent, which made the example he gave in his sermon all the more poignant.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Initially it was about the Good Shepherd knowing each and every one of his sheep. In the west of Ireland, flocks of sheep often commingle as they cross paths but will always follow their own shepherd. But then he began talking about how God does things in his time, which he tied in to the confirmation about to take place.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I would have to say the confirmation of Roy.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Mass concluded with a sales pitch to raise money. The mass itself had lasted a good hour and a half. While I have no problem with long liturgies, I kind of felt like this drew the time out unnecessarily. And to top it all off, the priest encouraged everyone to visit the gift shop.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Inside the church, people were snapping a few pictures. I got one of my daughter in front of the Blessed Mother statue.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We were expected for lunch elsewhere and were already running late, so we grabbed a donut or two as we left. I am sure it was nice, though.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – If I lived in the area and the shrine were within walking distance, maybe. It isn't a parish church, though, and the touristy atmosphere made me feel that there was too much "extra."
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The confirmation of Roy.