An Emblematic Heritage Site in Montréal
Notre-Dame Basilica of Montréal is Montréal’s mother church and was the first Gothic Revival style church in Canada. Its history has been marked by the Sulpicians since its foundation and is inseparable from that of Montréal. It speaks to its Catholic roots and the eternal link between art and religion. The Basilica’s style was imitated by several parishes and marked a turning point in religious architectural tradition.
In addition to being a place for prayer and celebration of Catholic worship, Notre-Dame is also a place for important national events like state funerals.
It was raised to the rank of minor basilica by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1989. Its religious, historical and artistic importance makes it a treasure of Quebec’s heritage and one of the most visited sites in Montréal.
Montréal’s Founding and the Beginnings of the Notre-Dame Parish
The city’s founding in 1642 was closely linked to the founding of the Society of the Priests of Saint Sulpice in 1641 in Paris. During this period, which also coincides with the colonization of the Americas, Jérôme Le Royer de la Dauversière (1597-1659), founder of the Filles hospitalières de Saint-Joseph de La Flèche, and Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-1657) met in 1635 and went on to create the Seminary of St. Sulpice in 1642. This meeting led to the creation of the Société Notre-Dame de Montréal in 1641, and its acquisition of part of the Island of Montréal. The two men wanted to build a colony there and participate in the evangelization of the Indigenous people. They set out to bring several settlers over, mainly from France. On May 17, 1642, the settlers officially took possession of the Island of Montréal. Jeanne Mance (1606-1673) and Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve (1612-1676) were members of this first wave of settlers.
Chomedey de Maisonneuve has a statue in his honour at Place d'Armes, opposite the Basilica, inaugurated in 1895. Jeanne Mance was only recognized as a co-founder of Montréal in 2012, on equal standing with her male counterpart.
Some of these figures, as well as the major stages of the founding of the city, are represented in several paintings and stained glass windows at the Basilica.
Sulpicians and the Parish
Through the seminary he founded, Jean-Jacques Olier devoted himself to the spiritual education and pastoral initiation of future priests. In 1657, at the request of the Société Notre-Dame de Montréal, he sent the first four Sulpicians to Montréal. They were some of the first graduates from the seminary in Paris. They replaced the Jesuit missionaries who had previously ministered there.
In 1663, the Sulpicians got royal authorization to acquire the Island of Montréal and administered it until 1840. As Seigneurs of Montréal, they had many responsibilities but also had the privilege of collecting duties and taxes. With this income, the Sulpicians maintained their community and developed Montréal’s infrastructure.
In 1678, the canonical institution of the parish of Notre-Dame de Montréal was created. The superior of the Sulpicians was the parish priest.
First Notre-Dame Church
In 1672, the location was chosen for a stone church within the axis of Notre-Dame Street. The construction work cost a fortune, and when the Church of Notre-Dame finally opened in 1683, it had no bell tower or façade due to lack of funds.
Despite extensions, the church became too small for its growing congregation. In 1819, the church was only able to accommodate 3,000 out of its 15,000 worshippers. The rest had to attend Sunday Mass from the parvis.
Choosing an Architect and Building the New Church
In 1823, La Fabrique de la paroisse Notre-Dame formed a fifteen-member construction committee in charge of organizing fundraisers and selecting an architect to design a church that could accommodate 8,000 worshippers and be the most beautiful in North America. To do this, they chose a New York Protestant architect, James O'Donnell (1774-1830).
O'Donnell was inspired by the Gothic Revival style that was then flourishing in Europe and the United States. The architecture of the new Notre-Dame Church is inspired by the two towers of Notre-Dame de Paris and the Church of Saint-Sulpice. O’Donnell’s work became the first church in the Gothic Revival style in Canada and, until St. Patrick’s Cathedral was built in 1879 in New York, was the largest place of worship in North America of any religion.
Despite weather conditions that prevented work in winter, construction would only take 35 months, from 1824 to 1829, between April and October. However, it took more than ten years for the installation of the bell towers. O'Donnell passed away in 1830 after converting to Catholicism. His crypt is under the Basilica, where a commemorative plaque that you can still see today was placed by the churchwardens.
The West Tower was completed in 1841 and was named La Persévérance. Since 1848 it has been home to the famous bell, Jean-Baptiste, which weighs 10,900 kg and comes from England. The East Tower, named La Tempérance, was completed in 1843 and houses a carillon of ten bells from the same English manufacturer.
Nowadays, the bells ring every hour from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., adding one ring every hour. The melody you hear is the same as the Westminster carillon that Big Ben plays in London. At 6 p.m., you can hear the Angelus: three series of three rings from the biggest bell followed by a flurry from the three biggest bells. Jean-Baptiste, the bourdon bell, only rings for solemn events.
The old church of Notre-Dame was demolished in 1830 along with its tower in 1843, when construction on the two towers of the new church was completed. The new church is across from where the old one was. The traces of the old church are still visible on the ground between the parvis and Place d'Armes.
In 1865, the façade of the church was completed with the installation of three large statues of St Joseph (patron saint of Canada), the Virgin Mary (patron saint of Montréal) and St John the Baptist (patron saint of Quebec). The interior decor could not be completed during O'Donnell's lifetime. This attracted a lot of criticism at the time, especially due to the lighting; a window located where the current sanctuary is blinded the congregation during Mass by backlighting the ceremony. As early as 1856, La Fabrique Notre-Dame asked for a review of the plans. Under the direction of Montréal architect Victor Bourgeau (1809-1888) the interior decorations were done from 1872 to 1875 and from 1879 to 1880. The last work produced under Bourgeau before his death in 1888 was the Chaire de Vérité [The Pulpit of Truth],one of the most striking decorative elements in the church. Louis-Philippe Hébert (1850-1917) created the wood carvings that adorn it based on the plans of sculptor Henri Bouriché (1826-1906) that Bourgeau had adapted.
In 1889, pastor Léon-Alfred Sentenne entrusted architects Perreault and Mesnard with the construction of a chapel for ceremonies gathering a limited number of people, such as weddings and funerals. Named Notre-Dame du Sacré-Cœur and opened on December 8, 1891, it has an eclectic style full of columns, arches, friezes and sculpted motifs.
Unfortunately, a fire caused serious damage on December 7, 1978. Reconstruction was entrusted to architects Jodoin, Lamarre, Pratte and associates, who suggested reconstructing the first two levels using woodworkers, sculptors and carpenters who worked with historical methods. The vault received a modern treatment that allowed for natural light to come in, and the altarpiece was entrusted to sculptor Charles Daudelin (1920-2001), who designed an imposing 20-tonne bronze piece measuring 52 feet high and 17 feet wide (15.85 x 5.18 metres). The new chapel was inaugurated in 1982. Today, the chapel is reserved for adoration and meditation as well as weddings.
From Then to Now; from Church to Basilica
Notre-Dame took root in what we now call Old Montréal and was part of the biggest events in the 19th and 20th centuries. Pope John Paul II raised Notre-Dame Church to the rank of minor basilica on April 21, 1982. This was an opportunity to recognize the religious, historical and artistic significance of the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montréal, a treasure of Quebec's heritage.
Given its significance, Notre-Dame was designated as a national historic site by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1989.
Since its founding, the Basilica has been the site of major religious and cultural events.
Since 1918, the annual festivities to commemorate the city’s founding have been celebrated here, under the aegis of the Société historique de Montréal. On May 17, 2017, a Mass commemorating the city's 375th anniversary was held at the Basilica with many notable people in attendance, including the prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, and the premier of Quebec, Philippe Couillard.
Several significant funerals were held there, including those of Sir Georges Étienne Cartier, Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, Maurice Richard, Charles Daudelin, Bernard Landry, and 9 out of the 14 victims of the École Polytechnique femicide.
Pope John Paul II celebrated a Mass for children here on September 11, 1984.
Céline Dion and René Angélil got married here on December 17, 1994.
As a cultural site, the Basilica is often frequented by music lovers who can listen to concerts, choirs and the famous Casavant organ, thanks to its impeccable acoustics. Luciano Pavarotti performed at the Basilica in 1978 to record a Christmas concert. The Montréal Symphony Orchestra has also played here regularly.
The active and innovative team at the Basilica also started exhibitions and shows. And Then There Was Light—a sound and light show—was performed there for ten years and attracted over 300,000 visitors. Since March 2017, AURA, a Moment Factory production started by the Basilica, was presented six evenings a week and was seen by over 650,000 people from 137 countries between 2017 and 2020. This unique light experience allows spectators to rediscover the breathtaking interior and architectural wonders of the Basilica.
As a tourism hotspot, the Basilica welcomes close to a million visitors from all over the world every year, each of them enthralled by its beauty while also getting an opportunity to explore Quebec’s religious history.