The actual basilica is the fifth church to have been erected in this place. The first one was built by St Willibrord, after he had received donations by Abbess Irmina of Oeren (near Trier) and Pippin II in the years 698 and 706 (Merovingian church). Soon after his death on 7th November 739 this church was too small, as pilgrims came to his grave in great numbers to worship him as a saint.
About the year 800, therefore, a second, larger church was constructed (Carolingian church). This one was destroyed by fire in 1016. In 1031 a new church in the romanesque style could be consecrated; it was about the size of the actual basilica. In the middle of the 13th century this church was vaulted, with gothic intersection ribs. In the 17th century various chapels were added, like, for example, St Sebastian’s chapel to the right of the choir. In 1794 the church was desecrated and plundered by French Revolutionary troops, and in 1797 it was sold by auction as national property. Thus, in the first half of the 19th century, the church was to serve as pottery works and military drill yard. When in the middle of the 19th century part of the choir had collapsed, and the remaining parts of the church were threatened by ruin, the burghers of Echternach founded the “Willibrordus-Bauverein” in 1862, which collected money to make reconstruction of the church possible. In 1868 the restored church could be consecrated.
In 1906 the remains of St Willibrord, which had been kept in the parish church of St Peter and Paul after the French Revolution, where solemnly transferred back to the former abbey church.
In 1939 this church was granted the rank op Papal Basilica, which is visible in the insignia (small bell and umbrella) in the choir, to the right and left of the high altar. On 26th December 1944 the church was blown up by German troops on their retreat, and especially the western part suffered serious damage. The subsequent reconstruction tried to work out against the romanesque origins of the church, among other details by a flat wooden ceiling. The pilgrim church of Paray-le-Monial served as a model for the design of the façade and the western towers. The reconstructed church was consecrated in 1953.
The aisles remained gothic, and are adorned with remarkable windows, which, in chronological order (starting near the entrance in the right-hand aisle), tell the life of St Willibrord. In the uncompleted transepts the windows represent the seven pains (left) und the seven joys (right) of the Virgin Mary. In the choir windows we see St Willibrord, flanked by the apostles Peter and Paul, below an image of the Holy Trinity, surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists. The upper double windows add saints and other personalities who played a part in Willibrord’s life. The rose window above the Klais-organ shows the signs of the zodiac.
The two-level choir includes two altars: the lower one, the so-called “confessio” altar, is linked with St Willibrord’s grave in the crypt by a light shaft. Two wooden statues from about 1700 represent St Willibrord (right) and St Benedict (left). The high altar consists of a single travertin block with the symbols of the evangelists.
There is further information about the Basilica, the parish church St Peter and Paul, as well as the Holy Cross Chapel and St Mary’s Chapel in the guide to the Basilica, which is available in german, Dutch and French at various shops, the tourist office and in the Abbey Museum.