J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

Victoria Cathedral Celebrates 125 Years

Voices Aug. 3, 2017

Clergy gather in front of St. Andrew's Cathedral in Victoria after Mass June 24 as part of the celebration of the Cathedral's 125th year.  (J.P. Sonnen / The B.C. Catholic)

Soaring skywards with its bold array of coloured brick, stone and slate, the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Victoria displays the confident spirituality that characterizes the best religious architecture in Canada.

The High Victorian Gothic style is an inspiration to many yesterday as today. This year the Cathedral celebrates its 125th anniversary. 

Designed in the 1880s by Perrault and Mesnard of Montreal, St. Andrew’s was inspired by the medieval cathedrals of Europe, whose emphatic verticality and picturesque asymmetry greatly appealed to late 19th century architectural and religious taste.

The physical design of the church reflects continued cultural links to Quebec and to the big sister of the Catholic Church in Canada, France, known affectionately as the “Eldest Daughter of the Church.”

On the skyline of the young city, the new cathedral was indeed an important architectural landmark. 

The exciting new St. Andrew’s Cathedral of Victoria was consecrated with great solemnity on October 30, 1892. The attending congregation was said to be 2,000 strong. On the skyline of the young city, the new cathedral was indeed an important architectural landmark, visible everywhere, even from the ships in the harbour. The price tag was an estimated $81,052.

The prestigious Montreal ecclesial architects decided to duplicate the plans of a parish church which they had already built in the Quebec town of Vaudreuil, with some changes.

The stylistic changes in church architecture which were taking place at the time of design and construction were nothing short of revolutionary. The new revival movement was inspired by avid medievalists and included countless gifted artists, many who arrived in Canada as immigrants, bringing their unique skills to the new world. These artisans included stone masons, fresco artists, and creators of exquisite stained glass.

A high point of the interior are the polychromatic windows working together with darker paint schemes, flooding the vast space with a rich variety of light. The interior had been intentionally made darker highlighting the effect of light coming through the windows illuminating the interior décor. The light, quietly changing through the hours of the day, provides a setting particularly conducive to contemplation and liturgical piety.   

By the later years of the 19th century, the revived style of “medievalism” required that windows showed more dramatic use of intense primary colours. The craftsman who made the windows were attempting to duplicate the effects of oil painted scenes and tableaux on stained glass. This was done with great effectiveness in Catholic centres such as Munich; the style was being copied in Quebec and it gradually moved west.

Twenty-one feature stained glass windows commemorate the lives of the Christ, Mary, and the saints. The clerestory windows are decorated with traditional Christian iconography such as the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, helping to call to mind the sacred.

The seventy-two foot centre bay with its recessed rose window is dominated by the main tower terminating in a 175-foot spire. This tower, constructed to accommodate a clock and chime of bells, is balanced by a shorter tower on the north side, purposely truncated to emulate the “unfinished” look of its Gothic ancestors, the great European cathedrals of the 14th and 15th centuries.   

St. Andrew’s is one of the largest churches in Western Canada. The nave, crossed by a transept and terminating at the west end in a large sanctuary provides a truly exceptional liturgical space, large enough for elaborate pontifical ceremonies. The church layout was designed so that an uninterrupted view of the altar could be had from any part of the church.

The exterior masonry bearing walls are raised on a foundation of brickwork and massive granite blocks which rest directly on clay hardpan. These walls carry the weight of a heavy timber truss work which supports the roof and shelters a complex interior balloon frame to which the builders had applied a lath-and-plaster finish. This comprises the vaulting and decorative finishes. Even the aisle pillars are constructed in this fashion, masking quite slender inside cast-iron columns.

Over the entrance, or narthex, are located two galleries which is a unique and rarely seen architectural bonus. The lower was originally intended for the teaching sisters with their school children to have a bird's eye view, while the upper, with the organ, was reserved for the parish choir.

Tragically, none of these heritage works survived renovations in the 1980s, as they were removed and disappeared.

Until the 1980s, the sanctuary included various hand-carved works, all hand-finished and detailed in fir. Tragically, none of these heritage works survived renovations in the 1980s, as they were removed and disappeared.

These original works of art included an elaborate Victorian Gothic altar with attached reredos at the far end of the apse. In addition, two side altars, matching altar rails, and a truly fitting pulpit—which had been mounted above the congregation, located against the first crossing column on the north side—were permanently removed.

Although these items can never be recovered, perhaps someday the paintings that were covered over will be restored. The ceiling had been painted dark blue with gilt stars and bordering the arches were painted epic scrolls bearing Latin titulae. Behind the side chapel altars (removed during the same renovation), on the north and south sides, were located didactic wall paintings illustrating episodes from the life of Christ and Our Lady.

The cathedral along with the classical revival bishop’s mansion located next door are designated historic buildings. Soon the interior of the mansion will be properly renovated to accommodate clergy living there once again. The stately dining room boasts a lovely stained glass window, depicting three green shamrocks.

The basement of the cathedral has recently been satisfactorily renovated with updated facilities. The crypt chapel, accessible from a sacristy staircase, contains the graves of the first three bishops of Victoria, one who was the beloved missionary Bishop Charles John Seghers, the first bishop of Vancouver Island and the founder of the Alaska mission. He was tragically murdered by an insane man in 1886 and may soon be a candidate for sainthood.

It is fitting the Cathedral of Victoria is celebrating 125 years during the 150th anniversary of Canada. It is an important landmark with unique distinction and deserves more attention. Some are asking for a petition for it to be named a National Shrine of St. Andrew the Apostle, making it a destination for pilgrims from Canada and abroad. Victoria is a major tourism destination with over 3.5 million visitors per year.

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