Text and photos: Javier A. Pinzón
Located in the heart of Old Montreal, this work of art was built by true artisans between 1824 and 1829, shortly before the old Notre-Dame church —considered too small for its congregation— was demolished.
James O’Donnell, the New York architect commissioned for the task, was inspired by the Gothic Revival movement and the twin towers of Notre-Dame de Paris and Saint-Sulpice. This was the first Gothic-style church in Canada.
Construction was finished in 35 months, but it would take another ten years to complete the bell tower. O’Donnell, who lies in a crypt under the Basilica, did not live to see the completion of his work; he died in 1830 after converting to Catholicism.
Completed in 1841, the first tower (west) was named Perseverance. The famous 11-ton Jean-Baptiste bell —cast in England— was hung in 1848. The second tower (east), finished in 1843, houses ten bells from the same foundry. Finished in 1865, the façade is adorned with three large statues of St. Joseph, the Virgin Mary (Montreal), and St. John the Baptist (Quebec).
You might stop and take a breath before entering, since the sight of one of the most colorful and complex interiors in the Americas will surely leave you breathless. The altar glows gold, and above you, golden stars trace a subtle path across the sublime blue background of the vast vaulted ceiling.
One of the altar pavilions had to be reworked in 1870 to keep sunlight from blinding the congregation during mass. From 1870 to 1900, architect Victor Bourgeau and parish priest Victor Rousselot were inspired by the style and symbolism of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, which explains why the colors, the columns, and the gold leaves on the cupola evoke the Paris church.
This magnificent work is finely detailed. Christ is shown dying on the cross, and the Virgin and St. John stand on either side, while Mary Magdalene kneels at the foot of the cross. Around the crucifixion, we see four scenes from the Old Testament: Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac; Melchizedek offering bread and wine; Moses giving the commandments on animal sacrifice; and Aaron the high priest sacrificing a ram according to tradition.
The central axis of the altarpiece displays Calvary, placed above the high altar. Under this altar is a representation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, carved in wood. The upper portion of the altarpiece shows the crowning of Mary. The visual composition that directs the eye toward the cupola represents the path toward heavenly bliss.
The Altar of Celebration and the Ambon
Liturgical reforms enacted by the Second Vatican Council in 1998 dictated that the priest celebrate mass facing the congregation, giving rise to the need for a new altar. The work was entrusted to sculptor and designer Denis Duguay.
It was designed by architect Victor Bourgeau as part of the renovations done during the 1870s. Sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert created the ornamentation, in which the statues of prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah are particularly outstanding. A series of small statues on the skirting of the pulpit show Christ teaching Sts. Peter and Paul.
The imposing organ, built in 1891 by the firm of Casavant Frères from Saint-Hyacinthe, was restored in honor of its centennial. It has 7,000 pipes, with the largest measuring nearly 33 feet and the smallest less than one quarter of an inch. The Great Organs Festival held between July and August is an excellent opportunity to hear the organ played.
Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament
This chapel with stained-glass windows provides a place for the faithful to worship the Blessed Sacrament preserved inside the altar tabernacle. It was dedicated to the Sulpician martyrs killed on September 2-3, 1792 during the French Revolution. Next to the tabernacle is the altar dedicated to St. Theresa of Lisieux; the statue is the work of Elzéar Soucy.
Designed by Quebec artist Jean-Baptiste Lagacé at the request of parish priest Olivier Maurault for the centennial of Notre-Dame in 1929, the windows show religious and social life in the era when the city was known as Ville-Marie and the history of the founding of Montreal.
Chapel of Notre-Dame du Sacré-Coeur
Located at the rear of the altar, it was originally built in 1889 by architects Perrault and Mesnard in the heavily-carved Gothic Revival style for small ceremonies like weddings and funerals. A disastrous fire in 1978 caused enough damage to warrant a reconstruction. Although an effort was made to use traditional methods, today’s chapel is in a more modern style, with an outstanding altarpiece by Quebec sculptor Charles Daudelin. The altarpiece of 32 bronze panels measures more than 16 feet wide and 59 feet high.