The Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica of St. John's (Archdiocese of St. John's in Newfoundland, Canada)

I was immensely saddened to hear of the impending closure and sale of the Cathedral-Basilica of St. John's, Newfoundland.  This mighty church with its storied past is one of the most beautiful churches in Canada.  It is a major cultural loss that everyone should be talking about.  The story of its demise can be read here.  Its fascinating history and art have been recorded in an attractive book entitled The Story of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist by Susan Chalker Browne (Flanker Press, 2015).  It is available for purchase online.  Hopefully the Archdiocese will offer the church to a viable new order such as the FSSP or the ICKSP.  Its sale would be an unthinkable loss to the local community.    

Location and History

The city of St. John's is the capital of Newfoundland, North America's easternmost city.  It is of great significance to have a beautiful cathedral here, an outpost overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, symbolic of a lighthouse welcoming all to the New World.  The area around the church is one of Canada's most historically Catholic places, settled mainly by Irish fishermen.  The name St. John's is attributed to the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. 

The story of the city of St. John's is impressive.  It is one of the oldest European settlements in North America; in addition it was England's first overseas possession, marking the beginning of the British Empire.  The site of St. John's was discovered by a Portuguese navigator in the year 1500, planting the cross of Christ on this island over 500-years ago.  

The true masterpiece of the city of St. John's is the outstanding Cathedral-Basilica named after St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the city.  The structure is of immense historical, artistic, and cultural import.  It has been called by some a provincial monument.  In actuality it is the second largest church in Canada, just after St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal.  
It is also a recognized National Historic Site, a Registered Heritage Structure, and a Provincial Historic site.  The Cathedral-Basilica is the mother church of the Archdiocese and in a broader sense is the monumental symbol of Catholicism in Newfoundland and Labrador.  

 The history of the Cathedral-Basilica began with the arrival of the first Catholic bishop on the island in 1784.  That was Bishop James Louis O'Donel who in 1797 built a small wooden chapel for local Catholics.  His successor, Bishop Michael Fleming, with almost single-handed determination and foresight made the dream of a proper cathedral a reality.  In 1834 he obtained the perfect piece of land where the current church stands overlooking the city and harbor.   

In those days of culturally accepted anti-Catholic bigotry, it was no small thing to build a Catholic church in British-controlled Canada.  Negotiations had to be made with the English government, which included travels across the ocean to England, finally receiving permission to build from the Colonial Office in London in 1838.  Construction was on an unprecedented scale and lasted from 1839-1855.  Some 400,000 bricks were used to build the edifice, imported from Hamburg, Germany.  Bishop Fleming never lived to see the church completed, although he celebrated the first Mass in the unfinished church in 1850, the same year he died.  While construction began in 1841, the completed church was finally finished and consecrated by Bishop Mullock on September 9, 1855.  

The construction of St. John's coincided with the great boom of Irish immigration, making it the largest Irish cathedral anywhere outside Ireland.  While credit for the design has been variously attributed, the final version is believed to be the product of two architects, John Jones of Ireland and Ole Joergen Schmidt of Denmark.  The church was designed and built in the form of a Latin cross, fortuitously perched on the highest ridge overlooking the city, facing toward the scenic narrows that form the entrance to the idyllic harbor.  The design was inspired by Lombard Romanesque churches of northern Italy and is one of the earliest examples of this style in North America.

Historic Size and Dimensions 

At the time of its completion, the cathedral was the largest ecclesiastical building in North America.  It was so influential in its ambitious design that it proved the eventual inspiration for the monumental size of St. Patrick's Cathedral in NYC, after Archbishop Hughes of New York came to visit Newfoundland for the dedication and consecration of the new church.  Construction on St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan began just a few years later in 1858.

The exterior dimensions of St. John's Cathedral are 260 feet long and 220 feet wide.  The two towers rise 150 feet from the street level with eight bells in the west tower and nine in the east tower (the largest is a two-ton bell from Dublin).  The church can hold 2,500 persons, with extra seating in two massive galleries on each side of the transept reached by stairs.  The exterior front is faced with cut limestone from Galway with Dublin granite for the quoins (exterior corner masonry), moldings, cornices, and window frames.  

Last but not least, those who approach the church from the front are welcomed by an interesting structure on the front lawn of the church called a lychgate or resurrection gate.  This is an outdoor arch that was added to the grounds in 1857 to welcome all who pass under its triune portal.  It is an old tradition sometimes seen in England.    

The Ceiling

One of the most impressive attributes of the interior decoration is the stunning Neoclassical ceiling with its decorations, golf-leaf highlighting, and outstanding trompe l'oeil stenciling (an art technique common in nineteenth century ceilings in Rome and the Vatican, using realistic imagery to create an optical illusion that a one dimensional object is three dimensional).  The ceiling was done in the style of Roman basilicas during the reign of Blessed Pius IX.  Over time it was gradually decorated with cornice and pendant drops.  Later in 1903 the ceiling coffers were created, with ornaments cast in plaster and twist-tied to the rafters with copper ribbons set into wet plaster.  

In 1955 in celebration of the church's centenary, Rambusch of New York was hired to enhance the ceiling with painted polychrome, installing gold-leaf highlighting throughout.  At that time each of the 12 panels of the massive great rose in the center of the ceiling transept honoring Our Lady were enhanced with decorative symbols of various titles of Mary from the Litany of Loreto.  A circular medallion was thus put in each petal of the rose to honor of the Blessed Mother with several of her titles in the Litany.  

Bishop's Throne and Altar

The interior sanctuary is extra spacious for pontifical rites, boasting oak choir stalls around the apse.  The dark oak bishop's throne dates from 1915 and was donated by the Benevolent Irish Society.  The Neoclassical reredos of the old high altar displays a slightly larger than life-sized marble statue of St. John the Baptist.  Suspended above the altar is a small baldachin canopy, in a style that originated in southern Italy and can be seen in other churches in different parts of the world such as the Oratory church in Birmingham, England.  The inside top of the canopy depicts a sunburst with the Holy Spirit descending upon the altar of sacrifice.    

The Main Altar

In 1972 the old high altar was unfortunately removed and replaced with a sedilia structure.  That being said, the original sanctuary can be easily restored.  The old high altar was simply moved forward in the sanctuary to accommodate Mass versus populum.  The main altar enshrines one of the most significant works of statuary in Canada, a statue called the "Dead Christ," a recumbent depiction of Christ just after he was taken down from the cross.  It was sculpted in Carrara marble in the year 1854 by an Irish artist by the name of John Hogan.  This legacy piece was paid for by funds left in his will by Bishop Michael Fleming.  The artist, who was a renowned Irish Neoclassical sculptor, chose a solid block of the purest Carrara marble.  He had already created various versions of the same statue for previous churches.  His Newfoundland version was his best and last, signed by him in Latin with these words carved in the stone: "JH fecit anno LIV."  This great work of art is a masterpiece for Canada that embodies the mystery of  Christian salvation: the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.   

Side Altars

Two side altars were installed in the 1860s, with facings made from Egyptian travertine stone that had been given by Pope Gregory XVI.  They were gifts to him by the leader of Egypt in 1840 for the decoration of the newly rebuilt Roman Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls.  The extra stone was gifted to Bishop Mullock by the Pope and was shipped from Italy to Canada.  The stone design is simple, brining a little piece of Rome and Egypt to Newfoundland.  The altar of repose has a hand-carved statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the creation of the Roman sculptor Cesare Aureli.  It was installed in 1903.  The other altar has a similar hand-carved statue of Our Lady under the title of the Immaculate Conception; the creation of the Italian sculptor Filippo Ghersi, installed in 1864.        

Communion Rail

By God's grace the Communion rail has survived intact.  It was a gift in 1914 of the sister of the Bishop at that time.  The steps and balusters are of polished white Carrara.  The top section is of yellow Verona marble while the bottom portion and gate supports are of black veined Portoro marble.  The bronze gates were cast in Milan.  They were removed in 1955, rediscovered in storage in 2019 and thankfully restored in 2020 by a local bronze artist.

Stained Glass Windows  

The stained glass windows, 28 in number, were created in Ireland, England, and France.  They reflect great beauty and in a meaningful way represent the immigrants who came to St. John's, highlighting the church's central role as the spiritual and cultural home of Newfoundland Catholics.  The windows continue to dazzle and inspire locals and visitors alike.  Along the walls can also be seen several funerary tablet monuments, a typical sight in Rome, with delightful epitaphs written in stone to inspire the living and commemorate the lives of former parishioners of notable renown.     

Two Organs 

The cathedral's first organist was Thomas, the brother of Bishop Mullock.  In the spirit of Salzburg Cathedral, the Cathedral has more than one organ.  It has two in number, one in the choir loft and another in the sanctuary behind the altar.  The sound conjures listeners into another world and makes this church one of the most unique worship spaces in North America.  The organs were commissioned by Archbishop Skinner in 1954, who was himself a gifted organist and musician.  They were made in Quebec by the famous Canadian organ builder known as Casavant, the best in the business in Canada since 1879.  

The gallery organ in the choir loft has four keyboards and a pedalboard, 51 stops, and 3,300 pipes.  The sanctuary organ has two keyboards, 15 stops, and 750 pipes.  Incredibly, the sanctuary organ is playable from its own console or from the gallery console in the choir loft.  When the tonal resources of both instruments are combined, the melodious effect is astounding.  In 1955 the new instrument was dedicated, still one of the largest organs in Canada.           

Notable Vocation from the Parish

One of the greatest living priests in Canada grew up at St. John's Cathedral-Basilica, Fr. William Ashley, the son of the late Dr. John Ashley, a devoted professor of classics.  Fr. Ashley was born at St. John's and grew up within walking distance of the church where he served regularly as an altar boy.  He attended grade school with the Christian Brothers and high school with the Jesuits.  He later went on to study in Rome at the Angelicum and was ordained priest in 1977 at St. Peter's Basilica.  He first felt his calling to the sacred priesthood at St. John's in the 4th grade.  In the days of his youth after Sunday Mass in the 1950s he would walk back to the Cathedral on Sunday afternoons to sing in one of two Vespers choirs.  Those years marked a golden age in the life of the parish.  Fr. Ashely is one of the most faithful and well-respected priests in Canada.  It can be said of him that he is a brilliant teacher who is very good at being a priest.  He is a also a pre-eminent liturgical scholar who gladly attributes his solid liturgical formation to his upbringing while serving at the altar of St. John's.  May this tradition continue.  

Call to Action

Let us pray this cultural landmark will be preserved and kept in Catholic hands, before it is too late.  I ask everyone to please make sacrifices for for this intention.  The word basilica denotes a "royal walkway," which this lovely church by its ambitious scale most certainly connotes.  May it always remain one of Canada's most illustrious ecclesiastical structures and may it inspire generations to come.  For an interesting virtual tour of the church, see here.    

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