At the eastern end of Canada, the port city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, is located on one of the world’s largest natural harbors; it is considered a gateway to the Atlantic. And just a quick walk from the harbor, one can find the “Gate of Heaven” at St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica.
In 1984, John Paul II visited this stately English-French Gothic cathedral, the site of Halifax’s first Catholic church. Already, its granite exterior, quarried by special permission from the Queen’s Quarry, was 110 years old.
The cathedral’s fancy Gothic spires topped with crosses are decorative, but the main soaring center spire reaches 189 feet into the sky and is considered to be the tallest free-standing granite spire in North America.
The cathedral basilica had started out much simpler than this 1874 edifice, my wife, Mary, and I learned on our recent visit. Originally, Halifax’s British settlers prohibited Catholic worship. Once penal laws were repealed in 1784, Irish immigrants built the tiny St. Peter’s Church, and then replaced it with a larger church, which, in 1833, they renamed St. Mary’s. It became the second cathedral in Canada.
Not long after, in the 1860s, the archbishop hired the premiere church architect of the time, Patrick Charles Keely, an Irish immigrant based in New York, to do major renovations that nearly doubled the size of the cathedral and added the granite and the spire.
From his start in Brooklyn, Keely became unequalled among church architects. St. Mary’s is one of the exceptional 26 cathedrals and nearly 700 churches he designed from Nova Scotia to New Orleans over 50 years.
St. Mary’s is lined with some of the finest examples of Franz Mayer of Munich-made windows we’ve seen anywhere. On either side of the nave and high in the apse, they draw us into prayer, meditation on Scripture passages, and traditions in our faith.
As we walked into the cathedral, the Gothic arches telescoped our attention to the sanctuary, and, in the apse, there’s the magnificent stained-glass depiction of the Coronation of Mary by the Holy Trinity. It’s very reminiscent of the Coronation by Velazquez, but not at all a copy.
All the windows have a Renaissance/Old Masters’ quality of brilliant color, superb detail, bountiful ornamentation and symbolism.
Of the 21 large windows, 18 lining the nave show us New and Old Testament parables and passages; a large New Testament scene with its appropriate Gospel reference appears above a smaller scene from the Old Testament related to it.
These stained-glass windows invite us to meditate for hours on these highlights of the Bible.
For example, there is Mary and Joseph finding Jesus in the Temple, while, below, patriarch Joseph is reunited with his father Jacob. Then Mary is visiting Elizabeth above the scene of Judith being honored. The Nativity, the birth of the New Adam, shines glorious above the scene of God creating Adam. Jesus rising from the tomb surmounts Jonah emerging from the whale. Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus above Elisha raising the son of the Sunammite.
Even larger windows at the sides of the sanctuary show the death of St. Joseph and the Assumption of the Blessed Mother.
Pius XII granted the church the title of “basilica” in 1950, the year he announced the dogma of the Assumption, fitting, given the official title of this church is St. Mary’s of the Assumption Cathedral Basilica.
There’s another connection to Rome in the Stations of the Cross. They are replicas of those in the Lateran Palace and were given as a gift in the mid-19th century. They have to be restored; they were darkened by smoke from a fire in the 1980s.
The sanctuary was renovated after Vatican II. What remains from the original reredos are the four pillars that now support the present altar and the very elaborately carved spire that acts as a miniature Gothic cathedral housing the tabernacle.
We were happy to learn that plans are in the works to renovate and restore the cathedral in the near future. Of course, the 1960 Casavant Frères organ will remain. Organists from all over come to play this magnificent instrument.
Plans include renovating the small Mary Chapel, which has a St. Therese stained-glass window, which was installed after the Little Flower’s relics visited this cathedral; the small museum off the sacristy will also be moved to a more accessible location. Highlights of the museum: the chalice of the first bishop of this diocese and the relics of many saints.
A separate display holds the vestments and zucchetto Blessed John Paul II wore during his visit in 1984; he came to celebrate the bicentennial of the founding of the Catholic Church in Halifax.
We thought it surely fitting that this Marian Pope got to celebrate Mass in a cathedral basilica dedicated to his — and our — beloved Mary, the Gate of Heaven.
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica
1531 Grafton St.
(Main entrance is around the corner on Spring Garden Road.)
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada