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Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica
By Corey Grant
The History of the church begins in the 1600s, when a small group of Jesuit priests came and settled in the wild, frontier town of Montreal. The priests had their hands full with woolly fur traders, unruly pioneers, and constant fighting between the Native Americans and early settlers. However, they remained committed to bringing peace to the area, and built a small chapel in town to serve as a calming influence in the territory. As more settlers began to discover the beauty and potential of the country, the number of worshipers continued to increase as well. In 1657 construction began to enlarge the tiny chapel into a full–blown church. The population continued to grow, and by 1824 the Montreal congregation could no longer fit into that church anymore. This time, however, the local Catholic board wanted to design a chapel worthy of the beauty and the rising influence of Montreal. So they commissioned James O'Donnell (an Irish Protestant), to create a visual masterpiece. Putting their differences of religion aside, O'Donnell and the Catholic board worked together to build something Montreal would be proud of for generations to come. Around this time, Gothic Revival architecture was at its hey–day, and O'Donnell was a big proponent of building the new church in the style of the some of the great cathedrals in Europe. Sadly though, O'Donnell did not live to see his project to completion, dying in Montreal in 1830. But before he died, the famous architect converted to Catholicism, and is the only person to be honored by being buried underneath the church.
It took the early construction workers 35 months to complete the church, and when it was finished it was the largest and most visual dramatic house of worship in North America. Three statues adorn the facade of the Church; the Virgin Mary represents the city of Montreal, the statue of John the Baptist represents Quebec; and finally, St. Joseph represents the nation of Canada. High above the statues stand two stately towers. The western tower, nicknamed "Perseverance" contains one of the largest church bells in North America. The "Jean–Baptiste" bell weighs in at an astounding 11 tons, and is only rung on special occasions. The eastern tower, called "Temperance", houses a carillon of 10 bells, which can be heard throughout Old Town. Yet, as astounding as the outside of Notre–Dame Basilica is, the interior is even more impressive.
Famous designer Victor Bourgeau (who was also working on Montreal’s Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral) worked on the interior of the chapel from 1872 to 1879. Bourgeau transformed the humble church into a grand and colorful piece of art. Its ceiling is colored a deep blue and decorated with gold stars, with the rest of the sanctuary emblazoned with reds, dark blues, rich purples, silvers, and gold. Hand–carved columns fill the cathedral, each one wrapped with gold–gilded leaves. The main altar is hand–carved from linden, a special project of Bourgeau himself. It is cast with 32 bronze panels, each one representing birth, life and death. In addition to the altar, the church is filled with beautiful, intricately carved wooden sculptures and hundreds of religious statues. To be a proper church, there must be a pipe organ, and Notre–Dame Basilica delivers this as well. The chapel’s organ is a work of art, with four keyboards, 97 stops, and close to 7000 individual pipes. Even the stained glass in the church is unusual, in that while most cathedrals’ glass portrays biblical stories, the Notre–Dame Basilica’s tells the story of the history of Montreal.
This impressive feat of architecture stills serves as a place of worship for residents of Montreal. However, in 1889 the Catholic clergy commissioned the construction of a smaller chapel behind the church to accommodate smaller congregations and more intimate ceremonies, like marriages and baptisms. If you choose to visit this chapel as well, you will be treated to a huge collection of hand–carved columns, vibrant purple and blue tiles, and an overflow of historic sculptures and statues spanning the church’s last 400 years.
The Basilica offers not only visual treats, but also gives visitors the chance to hear remarkable choral and organ performances. If you plan your trip during the Christmas season, Notre–Dame also hosts an annual production of Handel’s Messiah, which will leave you breathless. The Church also presents an amazing light show, "And Then There Was Light", which brings to life Notre–Dame’s historical, cultural and architectural influence, in an unforgettable way. The show employs over 150 artists and technicians, and is highly acclaimed. The show runs Tuesdays–Fridays, and costs $10 a person.
This grand church is not the only attraction in this part of the country. Park your RV in one of the parking lots located near city hall, and stroll through Old Town Montreal. You can experience wonderful restaurants, quaint little shops, colorful street performers and artists, and the beautiful buildings and homes that sit quietly on almost every corner.
Old Town Montreal is the place where European architecture, Canadian hospitality, and North American beauty meet, to form one of the best destination spots for the RV traveler.
For more information:
Notre–Dame Basilica Website -
Website for Old Town Montreal -