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J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

Holy Rosary Cathedral: an architectural and spiritual gem

Voices Sept. 10, 2018

Holy Rosary Cathedral seen from Cathedral Square in downtown Vancouver.   (JPSonnen / OC-Travel)

In contrast to the monolithic simplicity of downtown skyscrapers, Holy Rosary Cathedral rises as an ever-aspiring upward movement, a sign of transcendence in an urban world. 

From the geometrical perfection of its Gothic rose window to its two towers of uneven height - which bring to mind the towers of a city gate – the cathedral is a colourful composition that makes it a unique treasure.   

Many do not know that Holy Rosary Cathedral is modelled loosely after the world-famous Chartres Cathedral in France, a 13th-century cathedral defined as the “high point” of French Gothic style.

Architects of Gothic churches have from the start been motivated by a perceived relationship between the finished church and the heavenly city, ever stirred by the prospect of bringing heaven down to earth

The finished product derives a pleasure akin to religious experience. The visitor is moved by a sense of there being some other dimension of living – call it God or eternity.

When souls are given the understanding of faith, God speaks to them through all creation, and the universe becomes for them a living testimony which the finger of God continually traces before their eyes. This includes church architecture. Cathedrals convey many important messages. 

Art historians appreciate the harmony and similarities between French Gothic and Canadian Gothic Revival churches, drawing parallels between both compositions, the original and the more modern reproduction. 

The story of Holy Rosary began in 1885 when the Apostolic Vicar of British Columbia, Bishop Louis d’Herbomez, OMI, appointed Father Patrick Fay to care for local Catholics. 

The priest had been chaplain to the Canadian Pacific Railway and was to minister to the two downtown settlements of Granville: Gastown and Hastings.    

The first Mass was celebrated by Father Fay that same year on Oct. 7, the feast of the Most Holy Rosary.  The first liturgies were held in rented halls.

The following year there were about 70 registered families in the growing community of the downtown core. From the very beginning the need was recognized to construct a permanent church worthy of the name.

In choosing the best site for the new construction, the story has been passed down that Father Fay looked south from the Coal Harbour waterfront, up the slopes of the uncut trees of downtown Vancouver, and pointed to the tallest tree. There land was acquired and the first church was constructed in 1889.

The same wooden church, built on the site of the present day rectory, was later enlarged and a bell tower was built. However, the community was growing. In 1898, ambitious plans were unveiled for the present church.

Pastor Father J.M. McGuckin, OMI, dreamed of a large, stone, Gothic church in the heart of the city. Originally the church was intended to be a parish church, not yet a cathedral.

On July 16, 1899, the cornerstone of the present church was laid amid a festive liturgical celebration, drawing the attention of downtown inhabitants and countless faithful. 

In less than two years, the new church was completed, a proud accomplishment for the infant city of Vancouver.  It took just 491 days. 

It was opened to the public on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, 1900 – during the Holy Year declared by Pope Leo XIII.    

The new downtown structure was a great compliment to the drama of Canadian church architecture. It was hailed by locals as the “finest piece of architecture” west of Toronto and north of San Francisco. 

In 1916 the parish was raised to the status of cathedral after the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Vancouver was elevated in 1908 from the former Diocese of New Westminster. In 1953 it was consecrated after the debt was paid in full.   

Holy Rosary Cathedral is full of symbolism. It was made of local sandstone from Gabriola Island and built atop foundations of local granite, making it a veritable visible incarnation of the Province of B.C.    

Architects Julian & Williams designed the classic Gothic structure with the familiar cruciform footprint, narthex, nave, transepts and apsidal chancel. 

The dimensions are 161 feet long, 104 feet across at the transept, 62 feet across the nave, 62 feet from floor to ceiling, and 217 feet high to the top of the larger steeple. It includes 21 significant windows with pictorial displays.    

The interior boasts sturdy Norman columns finished with polished red scagliola technique that support a magnificent Gothic tunnel vault. Non-structural decorative ribs decorate the vault with simple molding accenting the intermediate ribs.

Music is provided by two organs. The one in the choir loft boasts 2,899 pipes and is the oldest “romantic style” organ in the province, dating from the year 1900.  There is also a chancel organ near the main altar, strategically positioned to accompany a schola

The cathedral is famous for its bells that are hand-rung in the ringing chamber of the northeast tower every Sunday morning from 10:30 ‑11:00 a.m. (after the 9:30 a.m. Mass and before the 11:00 a.m. High Mass). 

Holy Rosary Cathedral has the only set of ringable bells for change ringing in Vancouver.  They are rung by a devoted team of bell ringers, the Vancouver Society of Change Ringers. This style is known as “English change ringing,” the art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a controlled manner to produce charming sequences of joyous peals. 

Bells 1 to 5 were cast in 1906 in Bristol, England, while bells 6 to 8 were cast in 1900 in Annecy le Vieux, Savoy, France. Eight bells were made in order to complete a full octave when rung, a rare example of change ringing bells hung in the English style in North America.

As with the west towers of Chartres Cathedral, the towers of Holy Rosary are of unequal height, intended to bring to mind the two natures of Christ - the taller tower signifying the divine nature of Christ and the shorter signifying the human nature of Christ, while both are united in the one person of Christ.

The current sanctuary arrangement showcases three lovely oak altar pieces with carved reredos decorated with richly detailed gold foliage, installed during a 1980s renovation before the September 1984 pastoral visit of Pope St. John Paul II. 

This includes a wooden cathedra (episcopal throne) made by a local Czech artisan in his studio in Mission and donated by members of the Order of Malta.  Pope St. John Paul was the first to utilize the chair during his official visit.   

That was the first time a Roman Pontiff set foot in the city of Vancouver.  The Pope spent the night in the cathedral rectory, on the second floor, in a room specially divided into two rooms to include a private chapel.   

As with most heritage buildings, maintenance and restoration work of the cathedral is an ongoing concern and depends in large part on the stewardship and generous support of parishioners and friends. 

Major structural work has never been done on the edifice.  The projected seismic upgrades alone will come at an enormous financial cost.  Work must be done to ensure this inestimable treasure will be around for generations to come. 

Donations to preserve, protect and restore historic Holy Rosary Cathedral may be made through the donate button on the cathedral website: (http://www.holyrosarycathedral.org/cathedral-renovation/).

Future plans will also include interior decoration, perhaps even colourful azure toned neo-Gothic stencil work on interior walls, continuing the pattern of vertical quatrefoil flower stencilling bands already seen in the present chancel, near the altar.

In the stress of downtown life, in the chaos of daily living and work, amid the clamorous demands of the ego and the flesh, Holy Rosary Cathedral extends an invitation for all to wait on God. 

The cathedral is a permanent stone structure that belongs to always rather than now.  It is for sojourners in time, where eternity is true habitat.  It points to the heavens, sending an important message: it is in vain that people seek within themselves the cure to all their miseries.   

To look for God, Pascal writes, is to find him. He is sure to come.  His presence falls like a comforting shadow, and then we are at peace.  This shadow is the downtown cathedral. 

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