Big enough to hold 4,000 worshipers and breathtaking in the richness of its interior furnishings, the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal is a magnificent Neo-Gothic church.
Designed in 1824 by James O'Donnell, an Irish-American Protestant architect from New York, the architect was so moved by the experience that he converted to Catholicism. Visitors to the basilica today can understand the impact.
History of Notre-Dame Basilica
In 1657, the Roman Catholic Sulpician Order arrived in Ville-Marie, now known as Montreal; six years later the seigneury (a semi-feudal lordship over lands claimed by the king of France) of the island was vested in them. They ruled until 1840. The parish they founded was dedicated to the Holy Name of Mary, and the parish church of Notre-Dame was built on the site in 1672.
By 1824 the congregation had completely outgrown the church, and James O'Donnell, an Irish-American Protestant from New York, was commissioned to design the new building. O'Donnell was a proponent of the Gothic Revival architectural movement, and designed the church as such. It is said that the experience of designing Notre-Dame affected O'Donnell so profoundly that he converted to Catholicism just prior to his 1930 death. He is the only person to be buried in the church's crypt.
When the structure was finished it was the largest church in North America. The interior took much longer, and Victor Bourgeau, who also worked on Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral in Montreal, worked on it from 1872 to 1879. Stonemason John Redpath was a major participant in the construction of the Basilica.
Because of the splendor and scale of the church, a more intimate chapel (Chapelle du Sacré-Coeur) was built behind it along with some offices and a sacristy. It was completed in 1888. A major arson fire destroyed the Sacré-Coeur Chapel on December 7, 1978. It was rebuilt with the first two levels being reproduced from old drawings and photographs, with modern vaulting and reredos and an immense bronze altarpiece by Quebec sculptor Charles Daudelin.
Notre-Dame was raised to the status of a minor basilica by Pope John Paul II during a visit to the city on April 21, 1982. It was the site of the state funeral of Pierre Trudeau, Canada's 15th prime minister, in 2000 and the setting for Celine Dion's 1994 wedding to René Angélil.
What to See at Notre-Dame Basilica
Of the hundreds of churches on the island of Montréal, Notre-Dame's interior is the most stunning, with a wealth of exquisite detail, most of it carved from rare woods that have been delicately gilded and painted. O'Donnell, one of the proponents of the Gothic Revival style in the early decades of the 19th century, is the only person honored by burial in the crypt.
The main altar was carved from linden wood, the work of Victor Bourgeau. Behind it is the Chapelle Sacré-Coeur (Sacred Heart Chapel), much of it destroyed by a deranged arsonist in 1978 but rebuilt and rededicated in 1982. The altar, with 32 panels representing birth, life, and death, was cast in bronze by Charles Daudelin of Montréal.
A 10-bell carillon resides in the east tower, while the west tower contains a single massive bell. Nicknamed "Le Gros Bourdon," it weighs more than 12 tons and has a low, resonant rumble that vibrates right up through your feet. It is tolled only on special occasions.
The church is among the most dramatic in the world; its interior is grand and colorful, its ceiling is colored deep blue and decorated with golden stars, and the rest of the sanctuary is a polychrome of blues, azures, reds, purples, silver, and gold. It is filled with hundreds of intricate wooden carvings and several religious statues. Unusual for a church, the stained-glass windows along the walls of the sanctuary are not biblical, but depict scenes from the religious history of Montreal. It also has a Canadian-built Casavant Frères pipe organ.
The basilica offers musical programming of choral and organ performances. It is a tradition among many Montréalers to attend the annual performance of Handel's Messiah every December at Christmas.
Quick Facts on Notre-Dame Basilica
|Names:||La Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal · Notre-Dame Basilica|
|Styles:||Gothic Revival style|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||45.504476° N, 73.555897° W|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Notre-Dame Basilica|
- Herbert Bailey Livesey, Frommer's Montreal and Quebec City 2006
Map of Notre-Dame Basilica, Montreal
Below is a location map and aerial view of Notre-Dame Basilica. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.