Following the first part: The founding of Montreal

In 1672, the location of a stone church within the axis of Notre-Dame Street was determined. The construction work cost a fortune, and finally after ten years, the church of Notre-Dame was open, which had no bell tower or facade due to lack of means.

Despite the extensions, the church became too small. It was also after the construction of a rival Catholic church, the St-Jacques Cathedral (burnt down in 1852), that the parish priest and the churchwardens of Notre-Dame decided to rebuild their church. The old church of Notre-Dame was demolished in 1830 and its tower, in 1843. Once completed the two towers of the new church would be on opposite sides. The traces of the old church are visible on the ground at the current Place d'Armes and on the square.

La Place d'Armes, Montréal, Qc 1828. An water-colors of Robert Auchmuty Sproule. McCord museum. A view of the ancient Notre-Dame church.

The choice of an architect

The Fabrique Notre-Dame therefore formed a fifteen-member construction committee whose mandate was to organize fundraisers and to select an architect of a church that could accommodate 8,000 faithful and be the most beautiful of its kind in North America. To do this, they choose a New York protestant architect, James O'Donnell.

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 Saint-Sulpice. It became the first church of the Gothic Revival style in Canada.

Despite the meteorological conditions which prevented the workers from working during the winter, construction would only take 35 months, from 1824 to 1829, between April and October, but it took more than ten years for the installation of the steeples. O'Donnell died in 1830 after converting to Catholicism. His crypt is under the Basilica. Visitors who participate in the the Grand Tour can see it.

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 (bell tower) of ten bells from the same English manufacturer.

In 1865, the facade of the church was completed with the installation of three large statues of Saint-Joseph (Canada), the Virgin Mary (Montreal) and Saint Jean-Baptiste (Quebec). The interior decor could not be completed during O'Donnell's lifetime. This attracted much criticism at the time, especially due to the lighting. Indeed, a canopy in place of the present sanctuary blinded the congregation during the masses from a backlit light. As early as 1856, la Fabrique Notre-Dame asked for a review of the plans. Under the direction of the Montreal architect, Victor Bourgeau, the interior decorations was completed in 1880.

The Basilica sanctuary in 1860, before its reconstruction. Archive from McCord museum.

Becoming of a Basilica

Notre-Dame is rooted in what we now call Old Montréal. This was one of the great events of the 19th and 20th centuries. It was Pope John Paul II who, on April 21, 1982, raised Notre-Dame Church to the rank of a Minor Basilica. This was an  opportunity to recognize the religious, historical and artistic significance of the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, one of the jewels of Québec's heritage.

The Basilica around 1895

Read the third part: A very active place

Before the important construction to build the downtown of Montreal we know today, Notre-Dame bells were heard everywhere in Montréal.