ORLANDO — Even though Mary Jo Smith and her husband had just arrived in Orlando to start their vacation the night before, they still showed up for noon Mass at the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe before hitting the theme parks with their five children.
"You've got to start the day with God," said Smith, 43, of Manassas, Va.
The Smiths are ideal visitors for the 2,000-seat shrine, home of a ministry that began in the trunk of a car in the 1970s and is aimed at the millions of tourists who visit Central Florida every year for such attractions as Walt Disney World, SeaWorld and Universal Studios.
Pope Benedict XVI recently designated the church a minor basilica, one of 63 in the United States, and the church planned a celebration Saturday to commemorate the honor.
Becoming a minor basilica is "kind of like a stamp of approval" for the church, said the Rev. Ed McCarthy, the basilica's rector. "This is an affirmation by the church that ministry to people who are traveling, tourists, is an important thing."
A major basilica is a term assigned to only the most important churches in Catholicism, currently eight, mostly in Rome. Minor basilicas are more geographically diverse. They're given the distinction for their historic significance, architectural beauty or ministerial uniqueness.
In their respective cities, they sit atop the pecking order of churches, and are given certain ritualistic privileges.
Located next to a high-end outlet mall about 11/2 miles from the entrance to Walt Disney World, the red-tiled, triangular, stucco edifice built 16 years ago rises over Interstate 4, framed on each side by one-story buildings, a separate bell tower and a tranquil garden.
"If the pope ever comes to Central Florida, he would feel at home in this particular church," Bishop Thomas Wenski said.
It's a different pace from a typical parish church for the three priests who serve the shrine. There are no baptisms, weddings or funerals to perform. Familiar faces at the Mass are rare because 95 percent of attendees are tourists. Relationships built up from years of regular contact with families in the parish don't exist. The shrine relies on tourists for donations to support its $1.5 million operating budget.
The ministry for tourists started in 1975, just four years after Disney World opened, when several Masses a day were organized for visitors at nearby hotels. The driving force was Monsignor Joseph Harte, who led the ministry from the trunk of his car, carrying vestments from hotel to hotel.
Harte, who became director of the Orlando diocese's tourism ministry, realized that makeshift hotel Masses wouldn't be able to accommodate the growing number of tourists coming to the area.
The diocese eventually purchased 17 acres off I-4, where high-rise hotels and restaurants catering to tourists eventually would sprout up like kudzu. Ground was broken in 1984. The main church wasn't built until 1993.
An accidental wrong turn into the shrine's parking lot lands drivers in the parking lot of a Nike outlet store, and vice versa.