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Stories in Light: The Three Apsidal Chapels

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame contains one of the largest collections of late nineteenth-century French stained glass outside of France. Stories in Light by Cecilia Davis Cunningham and Nancy Cavadini describes the windows according to their location in the building, from the narthex at the entrance to the Lady Chapel behind the altar. More than 100,000 visitors tour the basilica each year to admire its architecture. Today, the Notre Dame Press brings the Basilica to you.

In celebration of the Advent season, the Press brings you a seven-part series to tell the unique story of the stained-glass windows – the improbable creation of a glassworks by cloistered Carmelite nuns in LeMans, France.


The apsidal chapels are radiating chapels located in the apse of the church, the semicircular end of a church located behind the altar. There are three apsidal chapels in Sacred Heart Basilica.


The Relic chapel focuses on the discovery of famous relics and on the solemn translation of relics to locations suitable for veneration. “The relics of the saints,” Fr. Sorin said, “are more precious than silver and gold.” The veneration of relics is an ancient Catholic practice. In the year 156, the Christians of Smyrna, in Turkey, claimed that the bones of their martyred bishop Polycarp were “more precious than the most exquisite jewels and more purified than gold.” Relics are deemed precious because they witness to Christ’s saving and healing presence. When early Christians found that wonders occurred in the presence of the relics of saints, they did not attribute the healings to the saint, but to Christ. Veneration and honor (dulia) are proper to relics, Catholics believe, and distinct from the worship and adoration (latria) appropriate only to God. As Saint Jerome explained, “we honor the relics of the martyrs, that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are.” (Chapter 7)


The Lady Chapel is an architectural term for a chapel located behind the altar. It is usually the largest chapel and is typically dedicated to the Virgin Mary. And while Notre Dame’s Lady Chapel holds a large statue of the Virgin Mary, its windows are dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which was, Fr. Sorin said, “the spirituality of the day.” The iconography of Sacred Heart devotion places outside Jesus’s body and at the location of his human heart a visual symbol of divine love—Jesus’s heart in flames encircled by the crown of thorns and surmounted by the cross, indicating Christ’s love for humanity made evident in his death on the cross. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is centered on the Eucharist, the sacrament of love, in the form of frequent The Apsidal Chapels 185 Communion, Communion on the first Friday of each month, and the observance of a holy hour in prayer before the Eucharist. This eucharistic focus is found in the windows of this chapel. Fr. Sorin envisioned this chapel as the heart of the university, a place for perpetual devotion to the blessed sacrament, where there would always be prayer. He described the Lady Chapel as “the center of all campus devotions and the source of all blessings” at Notre Dame. (Chapter 7)

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