Slowly but steadily, the weathered Gothic cathedral on the corner of Richards and Dunsmuir Streets began to fill.
People — mainly tourists — initially stopped in for a quick prayer or to take photos. Vancouver is a large cruise ship port, with nearly 1 million passengers sailing from its docks annually. As the afternoon drew to a close, more folks were going to confession, then gathering to say the Rosary before Saturday’s 5:10 p.m. Mass. When Mass began, the cathedral was fairly full. Not bad for an inner-city church.
Started in 1885 with less than 100 families, the parish’s first Mass was said on the feast of the Holy Rosary, Oct. 7. The current church was constructed in 1900, and it was declared a cathedral in 1916.
As cathedrals go, it’s fairly sedate. In fact, it’s somewhat drab inside, with plain-colored walls and a pale blue ceiling accented with dark blues and golds. The altar and reredos are similarly unremarkable, although the church’s stained-glass windows provide an impressive, rather surprising pop of color. The windows, which date from 1896 to 1954, were crafted in Paris, Toronto and Montreal. In 1997, the “Madonna and the Child” portion of the Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Window, found on the north side of the west transept, was chosen by Canada Post to be the nation’s Christmas stamp and the business’ Christmas card image.
Usher George Lovette said locals call the parish a “floater church” because of its transient attendees. “We get a lot of Americans coming to Mass here because of the cruise ships,” he said, “and a lot of locals like coming to confession here rather than going at their home parish.”
Yet despite this influx of outsiders — or perhaps because of it — the parish still works hard to pay its bills. “If it weren’t for Vancouver’s Filipino and Chinese communities, which fill the pews, the cathedral’s doors probably wouldn’t be open,” says Lovette.
The Bells of Holy Rosary
One of the cathedral’s claims to fame is that Pope John Paul II slept in the rectory on Sept. 13, 1984, during his visit to Vancouver. A special Mass was offered Sept. 13 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of that visit to Vancouver.
Indeed, a small statue of the Holy Father can be found to the left of the altar near a statue of Our Lady, which John Paul blessed in 1984. Mary is the cathedral’s and archdiocese’s patroness under her title Queen of the Most Holy Rosary. In 1987, Archbishop James Carney declared Holy Rosary a place of pilgrimage for the archdiocese at the beginning of the Marian Year.
The cathedral is also known for its music. For starters, Holy Rosary’s organ, built in 1900 and restored in 2000, is considered one of the most beautiful organs on the West Coast. The Cathedral Choir, which includes the talented Holy Rosary Vocal Quartet, provides music for Sunday’s 11 a.m. solemn High Mass, plus all major feast days. The choir sings a wide range of music, from a cappella motets in both English and Latin to classical songs to pieces composed by the cathedral’s music director, Denis Bédard, a critically-acclaimed organist and composer.
And then there are the change bells. There are only 50 or so towers outside of England where bells are hung in the English way for change ringing. Three are in British Columbia: in Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral, Westminster Abbey in Mission and Holy Rosary Cathedral.
Unlike more typical forms of bell ringing, where the bells hang with their mouths down and are swung gently, change bells are connected to a wheel and rope and are swung around in a full circle each time they ring, producing a fuller note. Change bells vary in number from four to 12; Holy Rosary has a “ring” of eight bells. The change bells are rung before the 11 a.m. Mass on Sundays, at weddings (if requested) and for special occasions.
Although the cathedral has a special devotion to Mary, the Archdiocese of Vancouver recommends visitors also stop at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, a shrine in Mission, about 55 miles east of the city of Vancouver. Part of St. Joseph Parish, the shrine is the oldest Marian shrine in British Columbia and is one of only a handful of Catholic shrines in Western Canada. Although the original shrine was demolished in 1965, it was rebuilt by the Knights of Columbus and reopened in 1997.
Melanie Radzicki McManus writes
from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
Holy Rosary Cathedral
Richards and Dunsmuir Streets
Vancouver, B.C. V6B 3A3
Planning Your Visit
The cathedral is in downtown Vancouver about 30 minutes from the airport. Masses are held Saturdays at 5:10 p.m. and Sundays at 8, 9:30 and 11 a.m. and 12:30, 5 and 8 p.m., with a 6:30 p.m. Spanish Mass. The Rosary is prayed Monday through Saturday at 11:40 a.m. before the 12:10 p.m. Mass and on Saturday at 4:40 p.m. before the 5:10 p.m. Mass.
For information on the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, call (604) 826-2452 or see StJosephofMission.com