This Week in History


"The Jewel of Montréal"

For the week of Monday June 5, 2000

On June 7, 1829, the Saint-Sulpice congregation dedicated Notre-Dame, the earliest known surviving Gothic Revival-style church in Canada.

Notre-Dame Basilica

Notre-Dame Basilica
© Parks Canada / J.P. Jérôme / 1996

Notre-Dame's origins stem from a wooden chapel built the year Ville-Marie (Montréal) was founded, 1642. Thirty years later, the Sulpician order of priests constructed a Jesuit-style church. Beautifully decorated with 1321kg of gold, by 1800, it was nonetheless too small for Montréal's booming population. People had to attend mass from the street!

Frequently, church-building has possessed a competitive nature, each congregation wanting to build the greatest monument to God, often for both spiritual and worldly reasons. Such was the case with Notre-Dame. In 1814, Montréal's Anglican Protestant community built the beautiful Christ Church on Notre-Dame Street. This evidence of growing Protestant presence prompted the Sulpicians to plan a church that would proudly express Roman Catholic vitality and be equal to, if not better than, the greatest in Europe and America!

It is ironic that after searching far and wide, the Sulpicians chose as architect James O'Donnell, an Irish Protestant from New York. They favoured O'Donnell's experience with the new Gothic Revival style, already used for Protestant churches in the U.S. Although architect Abbé Jérôme Demers objected to the design's "Protestantism," the new Notre-Dame was begun in 1823 in the Early Gothic Revival style, and initial construction was completed in 1829.

Early Gothic Revival architecture features Gothic detailing on buildings of overall classical design. While classical architecture is known for its symmetry and horizontal proportions, Gothic architecture features pointed arches, buttresses, pinnacles and rose windows. Elements from both styles combined to create Early, or Romantic, Gothic Revival.

The interior of Notre-Dame

The interior of Notre-Dame
© Parks Canada / P. St-Jaques / 1994

Architect John Ostell finished Notre-Dame's towers in 1842. Achieving "skyline superiority," Notre-Dame was, for a time, the largest church in North America! In 1872-80, renowned architect Victor Bourgeau redid the interior, adding three rose windows to the ceiling, richer furnishings and more side altars, along with a new high altar and choir.

Special features of Notre-Dame include marvellous sculptures, particularly of precious wood. The blue vaulted ceiling shines with 22-karat gold decorations. Stained-glass windows depict highlights of Montréal's history, as well as daily parish activities. Notre-Dame also contains one of the world's largest Casavant organs.

The Pope elevated Notre-Dame to the rank of minor basilica in 1982. A landmark in Quebec religious art, Notre-Dame Basilica was designated a national historic site in 1989.

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