Québec City’s Saint Zéphirin of Stadacona

The church of Saint-Zéphirin-de-Stradacona in Québec City is one of the most interesting traditional Catholic communities in North America. For the past several years it has been under the care of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. The relatively simple red brick exterior reveals a beautiful interior that showcases a uniquely designed liturgical space – a beautifully designed sanctuary complete with an upper gallery.   


The church is named after Pope St. Zéphirin, in English known as St. Zephyrius, pope and martyr. St. Zephyrius reigned on the chair of Peter from 199-217. He is best remembered for combating heresies and defending the divinity of Christ. Those were tough times. To quote Alban Butler, the chronicler of the Lives of the Saints, “This holy pastor was the support and comfort of the distressed flock.” 


Born in Rome, the reign of Zephyrius was troubled by several heretical groups and the severe persecution of the Church under the Emperor Septimus Servus. He also had to contend with the antipope Hippolytus and the Monarchian heretics. His feast day is celebrated at the parish on August 26. His martyrdom is commemorated in the Roman Martyrology, recorded as December 20th. Although not a well-known saint in North America, the Maronites in Lebanon also have devotion to him and he is recalled in their liturgical calendar.    


The present church of St. Zéphirin was built in 1890. It was later enlarged and considerably transformed in 1917-1918. The new design made for an elevated sanctuary that is several steps higher from the ground level, a unique feature. There is also has an upper gallery with pews for a choir or for the faithful to gather with an elevated view of the liturgical rites.

The church is so eye-catching that in the early 1950s it was chosen by Alfred Hitchcock to be in a noir film he directed entitled “I Confess.” Mr. Hitchcock, an English filmmaker, is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in cinematic history. Known as a suave “master of suspense,” he was also a Catholic. The movie starred American actor Montgomery Clift as a priest, Fr. Logan. Filming took place largely on location in Québec City and in Hollywood.

Hitchcock received permission to film in the church at no cost, with the blessing of the local diocese, which first had to approve the script. Filming took place from August – October 1952. In the film Hitchcock made a cameo appearance, as was his custom, during the second minute, after the opening credits.  

The famous director did manage to inject little glints of Catholic imagery throughout, introducing many viewers to the glitter of Catholic liturgy and art. The shots on location in the church are in black and white with shadows that lend a certain atmospheric flavor to the film. 

The movie plot used a confessional box in framing a murder case, while being respectful of church matters. The plot showed how Catholic clergy would go to jail rather than break the seal of Confession. 
As a mystery drama, the film amounts to an exposition of the difficulties a priest can find himself in, keeping the secrets of the confessional inviolate.  

This theme is particularly relevant again today as two state legislatures (in Washington and Vermont) debate bills that would attempt to force priests to break the secrecy of the confessional for certain cases. Priests would rather suffer imprisonment than comply with such a law.

This brings to mind the heroic martyrdom of several saints who refused to reveal what they heard in Confession. For example, St. John Nepomucene, a late-14th-century Czech priest and confessor to Queen Johanna of Bohemia chose death over breaking the seal. Enemies of the Church threw him off a bridge in Prague for honoring the sacrament
. Similarly, St. Mateo Correa Magallanes, a priest in Mexico during the Cristeros War and priests during the Spanish Civil War, such as Blessed Felipe Ciscar Puig and Fernando Olmedo Reguera, were killed because they refused to break the seal. 

Critics gave mixed reviews to the film. The suspense was said to be faulted because everyone knew the hero priest would be delivered from his dilemma by some saving grace. 

The lead character, Fr. Logan, was depicted as a moody and bemused protagonist who was devoted to his dignity and duties as a priest. For Catholics, the film is an absorbing screen drama, where Hitchcock gave a unique view of the relationship of a priest, with an interplay of sacred liturgy and Catholic visuals, as well as questions of faith and doubt. 

St. Zéphirin’s is located in the Stadacona District of Québec City. This area was annexed to the city in 1910. “Stadacona” is the North American Indian name for Québec City. The land had originally been owned by the Jesuits before it was subdivided. In 1870 a temporary chapel was opened in a woodworking shop. In 1888 a first chapel was built and dedicated to St. Zéphirin.


In 1890 the present church was built by the architect Joseph-Ferdinand Peachy (1830-1903). It was designed as a brick covered wooden structure with a roof covered in sheet metal. The arched windows are taken from European neo-Renaissance architecture. The design reveals the influence of the American architect Samuel Sloan (1815-1884).


The present church has been enlarged and beautified over the years. In 1903 a larger sacristy was added. In 1917-1918 there was a major addition and interior beautification. The interior structural look of the chapel today came from that period with its additions. At that time the church was enlarged and lengthened and a raised chancel was added with a semicircular apse. 


The chapel has a Latin cross form. Its salient chancel stands out with several steps leading to its high-raised floor. In 1921 the current high altar was installed and the Canadian painter Antonio Masselotte (1891-1983) painted the four images in the transept that portray the origins of the Faith in Canada.  

In 1922 an ambulatory was also put in, following the inner curve of the sanctuary. The lower part of this leads to the new sacristy behind the apse. The organ also dates from this period. The upper floor forms a gallery surrounding the chancel. The present steeple was built in 1914 and was rebuilt in 1958.


On the eve of filming “I Confess,” the interior had more work done. This included wooden panels that were painted and nineteen new additional paintings by the same artist, Antonio Massellotte, who contributed paintings thirty years before. These paintings were installed in the exquisite ceiling vault that is a true work of art.  


In 2009 the church was sold to the FSSP for $1. This put the property under the care of the FSSP, making it autonomous, similar to a parish, but not established as a parish in the strict sense. The church is therefore under the authority of the rector of the community who has almost the same powers as a parish pastor, but without the title. This is due to Quebec’s loi sur des fabriques; provincial laws that regulate church properties. The first Mass was celebrated in the church on January 1, 2010. 


The mission of the FSSP is to sanctify souls through the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and other Sacraments in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. For those who wish to donate to this community to help support the urgent work of maintaining the flame of faith in Quebec, please donate here.    



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