From the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the U.S. border up to Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean, nearly 30,000 religious buildings are spread out over the vast regions of Canada. They range from the world’s smallest chapel (13’ x 6’, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario) to enormous cathedrals and basilicas. More often than not, impressive churches are among the most beautiful buildings in their respective cities. These are my favorites.
#1 Basilica of Our Lady of Montreal (Montreal, Québec)
The powerful effects of merely stepping inside the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal can be traced back to 1830. Construction had ended the year before, and the architect, James O’Donnell, was so transformed by his experience in building the basilica that he converted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism upon his deathbed. He remains the only person buried in the crypt. Canada’s first Gothic Revival church, with two almost oversized bell towers named Perseverance (which houses a 12-ton bell, one of the largest in North America) and Temperance that were added in the 1840s, remained the largest cathedral in North America for 50 years. Three statues in niches above the arched entrance—the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, and St. Joseph—represent Montreal, Québec, and Canada, respectively. The tremendous interior, which can seat 4,000 worshippers, is awash in painstaking details. Although somewhat dark inside, the azure, gold, red, purple, and silver colors soon start to pop, especially the vaults’ exquisite blue ceilings decorated with golden stars. A double-level gallery runs along the sides of the church, joining in the rear at the fantastic organ from 1891. Intricate wooden carvings range from the pine statues in the choir to the decorative motifs in black walnut to the linden wood ceiling in a chapel, not to mention the beautiful pews and the gorgeous pulpit, adorned with religious figures and symbols. The stained-glass windows in the sanctuary depict scenes from the religious history of Montreal rather than the Bible. The floor slopes down to the stunning main altar, which was hand-carved from a linden tree. As I made my way behind the altar to the more intimate and brighter Chapel of the Sacred Heart, I overheard a tour guide, a chap named Lucien who spoke exactly like Celine Dion (who was married here in 1994), relaying to his group how the chapel was restored and modernized in 1982 with a massive bronze altarpiece after a baleful miscreant with a can of gasoline and a match had his way.
#2 Basilica of St. Anne of Beuapré (Beaupré, Québec)
Every year, more than 500,000 people come to the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré with a mission: to beseech St. Anne (that’s Mary’s mother, and Jesus’ grandmother) to help them or a loved one. Located in the town of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, about 20 miles east of Québec City, the basilica stands in a tranquil spot on the St. Lawrence River. Completed in 1946 after a fire destroyed the original basilica in 1922, this second version was built in the Romanesque Revival style in the shape of a cross. The two bell towers top out at 328’ each, and the light-gray stone and blue-green roof convey a sense of calm. Passing under the rose window, the sculpted 12 apostles, and the elaborate bas-relief frieze of St. Anne in all her glory, and through the handmade copper doors depicting the life of Jesus, I entered the basilica and was immediately greeted by two pillars strapped with rows of crutches, leg braces, walking sticks, and canes, many accompanied by photos of and handwritten notes from people who had come here to ask St. Anne for relief from a wide variety of afflictions, illnesses, and diseases. Apparently, the healing started right from the beginning, when one the basilica’s builders ditched his crutches upon completing his work on the church and walked without assistance for the first time in years. Seventy-five years later, judging by the number of notes and discarded mobility aids here, St. Anne seems to continue to be very generous.
Throughout the basilica, 240 superb stained-glass windows let in a constant flow of light, warming up golden mosaics and illuminating the vaulted ceiling, covered in mosaics portraying the life of St. Anne. Above the altar, also in mosaic, St. Anne presents a fruit to the Baby Jesus as she sits beside Mary. Wrapped around and behind the altar, 10 chapels radiate off the semicircular ambulatory. Each one, with marble and glittering mosaics, is dedicated to a different saint who made a significant contribution to the Church, including Anne’s husband, Joachim; her son-in-law and Jesus’ stepdad, Joseph; and the patron of French Canadians, St. John the Baptist. Above the chapels, a continuous mosaic illustrates the history of the Eucharist, including the somewhat graphic “Le Martyre de Saint Tharcisius”: The third-century Roman youth is being stoned and beaten to death by an angry mob intent on robbing him of his delivery of the Eucharist to imprisoned Christians.
On my way to the lower level, I paused at a statue of St. Anne, where a pile of notes was mounting—prayers and requests from countless pilgrims asking for salvation from whatever ailed them. And if the statue wasn’t enough to get them close to the venerated saint, the basilica houses four of Anne’s relics, including a finger bone and a wrist bone. Downstairs, past the striking replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà, I entered the Immaculate Conception Chapel, large enough to be a church in its own right, which offers visitors a quieter place of reflection than upstairs. Of course, not everything here is so serious. As I sat in one of the pews, I spied some of the 176 small, simple, and colorful mosaic column capitals of butterflies, flowers, and birds. Back upstairs, I strolled down the central aisle, ticking off each of the seven deadly sins represented almost playfully in mosaic on the floor. I found the basilica’s most whimsical feature carved into the end of each pew—a total of 260 different animals and plants, and not just biblical ones. Other than perhaps a Noah’s ark reference, it was the first time I ever saw a giraffe or a penguin in a church.
#3 Our Lady Cathedral Basilica (Ottawa, Ontario)
Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica was completed in 1846, years before Ottawa became Ottawa (in 1855, when “Bytown” became the new city of Ottawa). Over the course of a few decades, the design of the city’s oldest and largest church shifted; the result is a combination of neo-Classical features on the lower levels and neo-Gothic above. The basilica attracted my attention with its soaring tin steeples, from 1858, that constitute part of the defining elements of the Ottawa skyline. A 10’-tall wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, covered with gold leaf, stands between them. Inside, two rows of bundled columns divide the nave from the side aisles, supporting Gothic arches and terraced galleries, and lead up to a deep-blue star-studded vaulted ceiling with ribs and sculpted bosses. Two levels of brilliant stained-glass windows brighten the interior: Most of the earliest windows, installed in 1879, were replaced in 1956, swapping geometrical motifs for illustrations of the lives of Jesus and Mary. Particularly striking is the large window just above the main entrance, in the outstanding organ loft, with the Virgin Mary in the company of saints John the Baptist, Joseph, Patrick, Paul, and Peter. I made my way past the side altars to the main altar to admire the spectacular 52’ reredos, fine choir stalls, and 80 exceptional statues of apostles, saints, prophets, angels, and patriarchs, including, unusually, Adam without Eve. Fanciful wood carvings delighted me: a squirrel with acorns, a dog licking its paw, a beaver, a peacock. The mosaic on the floor of the baptistery features four fish in a blue pool. It’s quite easy to understand why this church was designated a National Historic Site in 1990.
#4 St. Joseph Oratory (Montreal, Québec)
A short ride on the Metro from downtown Montreal brought me to the Oratoire St-Joseph, an absolutely enormous basilica with a giant copper dome turned verdigris green—the third highest in the world. It sits atop a hill that I climbed via one of three staircases, the third for pilgrims who choose to ascend 283 concrete steps on their knees. The largest shrine in the world dedicated to St. Joseph was completed in 1967 after decades of construction. Like the Basilica of St. Anne of Beuapré, there is a display of thousands of crutches left by those who had come to the basilica and were healed through the miraculous intervention of Brother André Bessette, who was canonized in 2010. His heart remains in a reliquary in the church museum. An informative self-guided tour led me throughout the building, with its pronounced verticality and modernist arches, and outside to the peaceful Way of the Cross and the simple chapel that Brother André built originally before starting on the basilica, which can now hold up to 10,000 people.
#5 Mary Queen of the World Cathedral (Montreal, Québec)
The splendid Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde brings more than a little bit of the Vatican City to Montreal—it is, in fact, a replica of St. Peter’s Basilica, at one-quarter the size. Mostly completed by 1894, this minor basilica cost more than $1 million to erect, the first building in Montreal to reach that price tag. The façade certainly does evoke St. Peter’s, with its columns and pediment, and the dome rising behind it, but it’s missing the two clocks. Like the Vatican, statues stand at the roofline, but, unlike their originals, these are not the Apostles; rather, they represent the patron saints of 13 Montreal parishes that donated them, all sculpted by the same artist. Inside, plenty of similarities abound, although on a less grand but nevertheless impressive scale: the coffered barrel-vaulted ceiling above the nave, Corinthian columns, and the twisted columns of the baldachin on the altar among them. This cathedral has pews, however, allowing visitors like me to sit and take it all in: the paintings depicting historical events in Montreal, the great organ, and Biblical texts written in gold letters. One of the more curious details is the crucifix above the marble baptismal font: Sculpted in stucco, this material gives the impression that Christ’s flesh is decaying, and the sign above Him identifying Him as the Nazarean is written backwards.
- Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary (Vancouver, British Columbia; 1900)
- Cathedral Church of St. James (Toronto, Ontario; 1870s)
- Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (Québec City, Québec; 1910)
- Basilica-Cathedral of Our Lady of Quebec (Québec City, Québec; 1843)
- St. Peter’s Church (Cheticamp, Nova Scotia; 1893)
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