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J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

New York cathedral was inspired by St. John’s basilica

Voices April 15, 2019

The Metropolitan Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John’s, Nfld.  (Wikimedia)

St. John’s, the capital and largest city of Newfoundland, is North America’s easternmost city. It is also one of Canada’s most historically Catholic areas.   

The name St. John’s is attributed to the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. 

Newfoundland is one of the oldest European settlements in North America. It was also England’s first overseas possession, marking the beginning of the British Empire.      

The site of St. John’s was discovered by a Portuguese navigator when he explored the coast in 1500 and 1501. The name “St. John’s” first appears on a Portuguese map by Rienel in 1519, labeled as Rio de San Johem (St. John’s River). 

St. John’s was permanently settled as early as the beginning of the 17th century, and occupied seasonally for a century before that by fishermen.

The city has a long and rich history which makes it an important tourist destination. St. John’s played a crucial role in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812.

Further, St. John’s is perhaps best remembered as the place where Guglielmo Marconi (a prominent convert to Catholicism) received the first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901.

Despite the inhospitable climate and the seasonal work of the commercial fishery industry, St. John’s attracted settlers, many of them Irish Catholics. 

The Catholic Church was formally established in Newfoundland by Irish settlers at the end of the 18th century, which played a key role in the religious, political and social history of the province. 

The city boasts a living Catholic history with many noteworthy buildings, each with a story, including St. Patrick’s Hall, Mt. St. Francis Monastery, St. Patrick’s Church, and Presentation Convent School. 

The latter was built by the Presentation Sisters who arrived from Ireland in 1833 – the first order of English-speaking nuns to be introduced into Canada. 

St. John Paul II came to visit in 1984, an important boost for the local Church. 

Of course the true masterpiece of St. John’s is the outstanding Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica, named after the city patron, St. John the Baptist. 

The interior of the Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John’s, Nfld. (Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist)

The structure is of immense historical, artistic, and ecclesiastical import. Today it remains the second largest church in Canada after St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal.    

It is also a recognized National Historic Site, a Registered Heritage Structure, and a Provincial Historic Site. Thankfully, the interior and exterior have been faithfully preserved. 

The Cathedral-Basilica is the mother church and seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s and in a broader sense the monumental symbol of Catholicism in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

The church was raised to the rank of minor basilica on its 100th anniversary in 1955, giving it the rare distinction of being both a cathedral and a basilica. 

The word basilica means “royal walkway,” which the church most certainly connotes. Its construction was monumental for its day.   

The history of the Cathedral-Basilica begins with the first Catholic bishop on the island, Bishop James Louis O’Donel, who arrived in 1784. 

In 1797 the bishop had built a small wooden chapel on Henry Street which soon proved inadequate. The bishop could only have dreamed of the church that would be one day built to replace it.

It was his later successor, Bishop Michael Fleming, the Vicar-Apostolic and first Bishop of Newfoundland, whose single-handed determination and foresight made the dream a reality. 

In 1834, the bishop obtained 10 acres of land known as Williams Plantation in the midst of what was then a barren plot of land. 

The bishop planned to build a worthy cathedral, convent, school, and episcopal residence.

Finally, after four intense years of negotiation with the English government - which included travels across the ocean to England - the bishop obtained the parcel of land he sought from the Colonial Office in London on April 7, 1838.

Construction was on an unprecedented scale and lasted from 1839 to 1855. In fact, 400,000 bricks from Hamburg, Germany, were imported for the project. 

The church was built in the form of a Latin cross, fortuitously perched on the highest ridge overlooking the city, facing towards the scenic narrows that form the entrance to the picturesque harbour. 

The design, inspired by Romanesque churches of Italy, was one of the earliest examples of this stylistic revival in North America. To be precise, the style is defined as Lombard Romanesque, typically associated with northern Italy.    

For its day, St. John’s was the largest Irish cathedral anywhere outside Ireland. The construction was timely and coincided with the great boom of Irish immigration.   

Credit for the design of the building has been variously attributed. However, the final version is believed to be the product of two architects, John Jones, a native of Clonmel, Ireland and Danish architect Ole Joergen Schmidt. 

Bishop Fleming celebrated his first Mass in the unfinished church in 1850. He died less than a year later and is buried in the crypt beneath the high altar. 

The church was consecrated in 1855 by his successor, Bishop John Mullock. 

At the time of its completion, the cathedral was the largest ecclesiastical building in North America. So influential was it, it proved the eventual inspiration for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City after Archbishop Hughes of New York came for the consecration and left inspired to build his New York City cathedral a few years later.

The exterior dimensions are 260 feet (85 m) long and 220 feet (65 m) wide. The two towers rise 150 feet (48 m) from street level with eight bells in the west tower and nine bells in the east tower (the largest is a two-tonne bell from Dublin). The total pew capacity is 2,500.

The façade is faced with cut limestone from Galway with Dublin granite for the quoins (exterior corner masonry), mouldings, cornices, and window frames. 

The exterior stone was quarried at Signal Hill, St. John’s, and Kelly’s Island in Conception Bay and carried to St. John’s on schooners, free of charge, by both Protestants and Catholics.

The interior walls are ornamented with Corinthian plasters. The altar enshrines one of the most renowned pieces of statuary in Canada, The Dead Christ, sculpted in Carrara marble by Irish artist John Hogan in 1854. Further, two ambulatory altars are made from Egyptian stone given to Bishop Mullock by Pope Gregory XVI.

The Dead Christ, sculpted in Carrara marble by the Irish sculptor John Hogan in 1850. (Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist)

The windows alone are precious works of fine art, numbering 28 and fashioned in three countries: Ireland, England, and France.   

The stunning 66-stop organ with 4,050 pipes dates from 1955. It was a creation of the world renowned Casavant Frères of Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., and today is one of the largest organs in Canada. 

Approaching visitors first notice the unique covered arch in the front churchyard, resembling an English-style lychgate or resurrection gate that was added to the grounds in 1857. 

The church’s central role as the spiritual and cultural home of Newfoundland Catholics continues to inspire locals and visitors alike.        

One prominent priest of the Archdiocese of Vancouver is a product of St. John’s, Father William Ashley.  Father Ashley was born in St. John’s and grew up in the shadow of the Cathedral-Basilica where he served regularly at the altar. In St. John’s he attended grade school with the Christian Brothers and high school with the Jesuits. 

In 1977 he was ordained priest in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome by Édouard Cardinal Gagnon, one of the most renowned of Canadian-born prelates, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family.  

Of his youth and discernment at St. John’s, Father Ashley recalls that he felt his calling to the priesthood at a very young age. 

“For me, the fourth grade, believe it or not, is when I heard the vocational call,” he explains. 

“With the sacrament of confirmation, I became determined at that point that I was going to become a priest and that is what I was meant to be. I received excellent formation at St. John’s.”  

He concludes, “My early liturgical formation came from serving at the altar and my family attending vespers faithfully every Sunday afternoon where I sang in one of two vesper choirs. Those were great days!” 

J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator, travel writer, and history docent with Orbis Catholic Travel LLC.