The work of an unemployed young sculptor who became one of the country's finest artists marks both Montreal's Basilica of Notre-Dame and Ottawa's Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame
CANADA'S MOST renowned shrines are St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal and St. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec. With these as primary destinations, pilgrims and visitors can also add stops at other inspiring churches.
Two of these are the Basilica of Notre-Dame in Montreal and the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame in Ottawa. Their construction began less than two decades apart, and both bring neo-goth-ic architecture and art to celestial heights.
The first reaction to their majestic interiors might be a jaw-dropping but reverential “Ooh!” The sight is too grand and dazzling to absorb all at once.
Yet the churches are not just awe-inspiring because of their design and religious artistry—and they haven't begun acting like museums. Despite all the artistic grandeur, a spiritual feeling permeates them. You never lose the sense that you're in God's presence because these sights lift the heart heavenward.
Concerning more earthly details, the two churches are 125 miles apart, joined easily by the Queensway (Route 417) and main Autoroute 40. To the west is the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame, prominently situated on Sussex Drive which is called the “Mile of History” in Ottawa. Many who stroll around the government buildings and the museums beginning across the street don't know what they're missing at this oldest church in Canada's capital.
Gothic arches on either side of the nave leap down aisles to the main altar and reredos, nearly 52 feet high. The intricacy and delicacy of this carved wood masterpiece commands one's attention.
Here is Jesus at the center, crowned as king and seated in glory. On a slightly lower level, to his right is his Blessed Mother, Notre Dame, and to his left is St. Joseph, the patron of Canada. Both are represented in life-sized carvings, in seated positions—a pose rarely seen. Each member of the Holy Family is individually surrounded by elaborately decorated gothic arches.
The altar before the ornate golden bronze tabernacle has a triptych of scenes of Jesus teaching and of his resurrection in polychrome low reliefs. These reliefs and the statues above comprise part of more than 60 of Philippe Hébert's sculptures. This sculptor went on to be recognized as one of Canada's finest artists. Yet, incredibly, at the time he was asked to begin this task, he was unemployed, without prospects, and about to leave for the United States.
Some of the 30 life-sized statues he carved for this basilica are the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and evangelists lining both sides of the sanctuary. They stand tall above 52 stalls, which are carved with extraordinarily fine details by a trio of exceptionally gifted cabinetmakers. The sanctuary is filled with a heavenly court, including the nine choirs of angels.
At the left lateral altar, dedicated to the Sacred Heart, the tabernacle is joined on either side to carved reliefs of Jesus at the Passover and at the Last Supper.
Marbleized arches line the aisles and rise to terraced galleries, where pews reach back to the choir loft with its 4,000 pipes of the 19th-century Casavant organ housed within tall gothic cabinets.
The Casavant and sculptor Hébert also play roles in Montreal's Notre-Dame. Before driving there, along miles of rich farm and dairy land with their lines of silos breaking the horizon, ride along the city's postcard Rideau Canal, stroll through the By Ward Market two blocks from the church, and discover the canal locks.
Begun in 1823, the Basilica of Notre-Dame on Rue de la Notre-Dame is part of Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal). Immediately you feel the European influence in this part of the city that dates to its earliest years. The historical wealth is practically undepleted even though modern sections adjoin the area.
By 1843, Notre-Dame's twin towers were in place. The left, called the Persévérance, contains the widely-known Le Gros Bourdon. Cast in Whitechapel Bell Foundry in England, the great bell weighs some 5,000 pounds and can be heard more than 20 miles away. The right tower, the Tempérance, houses a 10-bell chime.
Absolutely breathtaking is an understated description for the painted, gilded gothic interior. All eyes immediately travel down the 3,500-seat nave, with vaulted blue ceilings speckled with gold stars above, to the main altar.
The focal point is Jesus crucified, with Mary, St. John, and Mary Magdelene close to him. Circling out from this scene are polychrome statues of Sts. Peter and Paul, and the four Evangelists.
Exquisite wood sculptures abound. On either side of the wooden tabernacle, carved angels appear to stretch into infinity. The altar itself seems supported by a highly detailed carving of the Last Supper.
Above the high altar is an intensely beautiful depiction of God crowning Mary. At this level, delicate columns, backed by a brightly lit blue firmament, circle around the sanctuary above the ornate wooden stalls.
Down both aisles, seven confessionals on each side, enclosed within replicas of embellished gothic “buildings,” underscore the sacrament's importance.
Angels carved onto the highly decorated arches watch over the worshippers filling the pews and the galleries above. Near the middle of the church, and reaching up past the gallery, stairs spiral to the lofty pulpit that is ornamented with wooden statues carved by Hébert.
Work on the massive pulpit, the high altar, and the pews was carried out in Vieux Montreal, in shops just down the street from the basilica.
The imposing 1891 Casavant organ, with some 7,000 pipes growing from less than half-an-inch to over 33 feet, sounds not only mighty but majestic. You can hear it at all five Sunday Masses.
To the rear of the sanctuary, a door leads to the Sacré-Coeur (Sacred Heart) Chapel, dazzling because it appears to be all done in tones of gold. This chapel seats 1,000 in its pews and in its loft that's reached by twin spiral staircases.
After fire destroyed the first chapel, this one was rebuilt to recall the old one. The first two levels, made of linden wood, duplicate the original. Yet there's a contemporary look and feel, starting with the sanctuary's 56-foot-high bronze sculpture that depicts humanity journeying upwards to Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father.
Surrounding this precious jewel of a basilica, bilingual Montreal (French and English) offers an array of sights and plentiful activities, beginning with Old Montreal at the church's steps. Other nearby beautiful and historic churches beckon, as do Mont-Royal Park, the Botanical Gardens, museums, and on and on.
Restaurants are plentiful. For simplifying hotel, auberge, or bed-and-break-fast arrangements, without prior reservations in or around Montreal, stop by the city's Infotouriste at Dorchester Square. There, besides maps and brochures, you'll find a pleasant, free service that searches and books rooms to your preference.
It's only blocks from the Basilica of Notre-Dame, surely one of the country's most beautiful churches.
Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Conn.