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J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

Guelph basilica a Canadian architectural achievement

Voices July 6, 2018

Basilica of Our Lady in Guelph, Ont., the city’s most recognizable landmark.  It’s been said the church would be famous if it was in Europe, writes J.P. Sonnen.      (John Vetterli, Wikimedia)

One of the most immensely beautiful churches in English Canada is the Basilica of Our Lady in Guelph, in the Diocese of Hamilton, Ont. Built in 13th-century French Gothic style, it recently underwent a long-awaited $12-million restoration. Pope Francis raised it to the status of basilica in 2014, a rare honour in Catholic North America.

This splendid church is a place of marvel for young and old, prince and pauper alike, a must-see for those who may find themselves in or near Toronto.    

The church structure is a national historic site, the most visited tourist stop in Guelph and the city’s most recognizable landmark. 

Hailed as a Canadian architectural masterpiece, it is the brainchild of renowned Irish-Canadian architect Joseph Connolly. Created in Gothic Revival style, it is one of his earliest known structures and considered by many his magnum opus

Connolly was trained by one of the finest Catholic architects in 19th-century Ireland, James Joseph McCarthy. Both were followers of Augustus Pugin, the famous English architect, a convert to Catholicism who helped pioneer the revolutionary paradigm of the neo-Gothic revival of the 1800s.    

Pugin’s famous notion that “Gothic was Christian and Christian was Gothic” helped inspire the Catholic imagination, heavily influencing how Catholics planned and built churches. Even today, his influence is felt in common perception of what a church ought to resemble. 

The basilica was built between 1875 and 1883 to serve the Catholic settlers of the local area. It took 50 years to build and is the central architectural creation of the city, a source of pride for the citizens of Guelph. 

In 1877 the cornerstone was laid by the Apostolic Delegate for Canada. Construction was slow due to the ambitious plan, accumulated debt, and lack of funds. 

The proud immigrant parishioners – the majority German farmers - cherished the grand churches of past memory in the lands of their youth, left behind when they came to the New World.    

The Catholic bishop of nearby Kingston, Bishop Alexander Macdonell, was an early influence in Guelph. At that time, he was responsible for the Catholics of Ontario.

The bishop was also good friends with John Galt, the founder of the city of Guelph. The bishop had been an early supporter of Galt in relation to his work with the Canada Company (Galt was the first superintendent, charged with the development of land in southern Ontario).

On April 23, 1827, Galt established the new settlement of Guelph. Bishop Macdonell was one of the first visitors. 

In gratitude to the bishop for his support, Galt gave the Catholic Church the most prominent hill in town. The basilica now stands there. Legend has it Galt famously wrote in the deed transferring the land that one day on the hill a church would rise that would “rival St. Peter’s in Rome.”

Galt remarked in his memoirs, “A beautiful central hill was reserved for the Catholics, in compliment to my friend, Bishop Macdonell, for his advice in the formation of the Company.” 

A road was cleared as the main street leading up to the hill and named Macdonell Street, after the bishop.

Dramatic in its position, the church was built high above the streetscape, constructed of local limestone.

Visitors remark on how the interior splendour of ornament and harmony matches the exterior, an effusion of the divine, expressing the realization of the inner life, making intelligible what is otherwise ineffable. The representational arts such as sculpture are inside and out, masterworks of French Gothic.   

A well-known local artisan, Matthew Bell, was responsible for some of the exterior stone carvings as well as interior pillars. He died in 1883, the unfortunate result of injuries sustained in a fall while working on the building.

That same year, 12 years after construction commenced, the church was finally dedicated to Our Lady Immaculate. The imposing twin towers were not completed until 1926; they rise to a height of over 200 feet, completing the building. 

The organ, an immense treasure installed in 1919, is from Casavant Frères of Quebec, the most prominent organ building company in Canada. 

When the church was dedicated, Bishop Walsh of London, Ont., preached the sermon, pointing out that although there were many magnificent old cathedrals constructed by kings and men of wealth, the church of Our Lady was built by the generosity, sacrifice, and labour of the poor immigrant settlers of Guelph, “by money raised from the workingmen.”

To this day the City of Guelph’s zoning by-laws prohibit new construction that may alter the skyline or inhibit the unobstructed view of the church. Protected view areas have been designated to ensure for the long-term clear views of the church from various vantage points. No new construction is permitted to be higher in elevation.    

It has been said that if Guelph was a city in Europe, its towering cathedral would be famous for its contribution to the city skyline, bringing to mind the words of St. Peter: “Be you also as living stones built up, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God” (1 Pet 2:5).

J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.