Montreal’s Masterpiece for Mary: Cathedral-Basilica Tribute to the Queen of the World

The Blessed Mother is honored in a gold-detailed church that is modeled on St. Peter’s in Rome.

The Cathedral-Basilica of Mary, Queen of the World is a scaled-down version of St. Peter’s in Rome.
The Cathedral-Basilica of Mary, Queen of the World is a scaled-down version of St. Peter’s in Rome. (photo: Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Montreal and Shutterstock)

A visitor in the heart of downtown Montreal might get a feeling of déjà vu upon seeing  the Cathedral-Basilica of Mary, Queen of the World (Cathedrale Basilique Marie-Reine-du-Monde). This reaction is typical for those familiar with Vatican City: The Montreal cathedral, consecrated in 1894, is a replica of St. Peter’s Basilica. A brochure compares the sizes: St. Peter’s is 700 feet long; Mary’s cathedral-basilica stretches 333 feet. St. Peter’s cupola has a 130-foot diameter; this cathedral’s is 75 feet.

Towering over Montreal, the high Italian Renaissance façade with its gigantic Corinthian columns, the statues lining the front roofline, and the towering dome would make Michelangelo, the designer of the nearly twice-sized dome of St. Peter’s, do a double take, if he were to visit here. Pope St. Paul VI visited as Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, and Pope St. John Paul II came to this church in 1969 as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla and again after his election during his papal visit in 1984. Pope Benedict XVI never visited, but another Benedict — Benedict XV — named it a minor basilica in 1919.


One of a Kind

The 13 statues that line the façade’s roofline represent the patron saints of parishes who were benefactors for Mary, Queen of the World. Each statue, carved of wood and clad with copper, is 9 feet tall and the work of Joseph Olindo-Gratton, a native of the Quebec province.

Primarily a religious sculptor, he completed these statues between October 1892 and October 1900. His work graces other churches, including a statue of St. Joseph at the Oratory of St. Joseph and a work at the Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupré Shrine in Quebec.

The Cathedral-Basilica of Mary, Queen of the World is the third-largest church in Quebec, after St. Joseph’s Oratory and St. Anne de Beaupré. Even from street level the saints lining this cathedral-basilica’s façade are recognizable, beginning near the middle of the line, with a depiction of St. Joseph holding the Child Jesus. To the right and left of him are the likes of Sts. Paul, John the Baptist, Patrick, Francis of Assisi and Anthony. St. James is in the center, because, as Montreal’s cathedral, the parish was originally named St. James the Greater (Saint-Jacques Cathedral), after James the Apostle. (The city’s original cathedral burned to the ground during the Great Fire of Montreal in 1852.)

On Jan. 1, 1955, this cathedral was rededicated as Mary, Queen of the World by Pope Pius XII, as requested by Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger. In his 1954 encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam (Proclaiming the Queenship of Mary), Pius XII gave Mary this title and reminded the faithful, “All, according to their state, should strive to bring alive the wondrous virtues of our heavenly Queen and most loving Mother through constant effort of mind and manner.” He established the “liturgical feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen” to be celebrated on May 31. “Thus,” he wrote, “will it come about that all Christians, in honoring and imitating their sublime Queen and Mother, will realize they are truly brothers, and with all envy and avarice thrust aside, will promote love among classes, respect the rights of the weak, cherish peace.” Today we celebrate “The Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary” on Aug. 22. In 1969, Paul VI moved the memorial to this new date, in the octave of the Solemnity of the Assumption, tying those Marian feasts together.

The cathedral opened on another great feast — Easter, March 25, 1894. But it wouldn’t have if it was up to architect Victor Bourgeau, who tried to dissuade Bishop Ignace le Bourget from building a scaled-down version of St. Peter’s; Bourgeau said a re-creation of the iconic Vatican basilica could not be done on a smaller scale. But the bishop was determined to see his vision through as a symbol of the Church’s attachment to Rome and its necessary devotion to the Holy Father. He sent self-taught architect Father Joseph Michaud to Rome to study St. Peter’s and come back with a model. Eventually, Father Michaud and Bourgeau worked together on the construction. The bishop’s vision paid off for the glory of God and the honor of our Queen.


Gold Interior

The interior offers dignified details like Roman arches and coffered ceilings highlighted with gold. The soft colors bring a peace and warmth to the vast space and give this immense cathedral the character and the proper atmosphere of a place for quiet prayer.

And, inside, there are nods to the Vatican basilica it’s modeled after, including a scaled-down replica of Bernini’s Baldacchino. This baldacchino’s same unmistakable intricately spiraling columns were hand-fashioned of red copper in the Eternal City and then highlighted with gold. The tabernacle has its own altar of repose, beckoning visitors to kneel by the full marble Communion rail for prayer comfortably near Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Despite the enormous size of the cathedral, even here there is a feeling of intimacy with Our Lord. Across from the sanctuary, visitors may stop for prayer by the statue of St. Peter, a smaller replica of the one in St. Peter’s in Rome. Then across the nave is found a shrine for prayer before a beautiful marble statue of Mary, depicted as seated with the Child Jesus standing on her lap, all before a sky-sea mosaic background. The interior of the dome that rises high about the intersection of the main aisle and transepts is awe-inspiring, from the intricate design to the colorful murals of the Evangelists and angels to the gold, coffered barrel-vaulted ceilings.


Catholic History

The cathedral-basilica also displays several large paintings that honor Montreal’s spiritual legacy. One presents the first Mass in Montreal in 1642 at the moment of consecration, as both French and Native people kneel in adoration. Two artworks portray Montreal saints — Margaret d’Youville and Marguerite Bourgeoys. In the 1700s, St. Margaret d’Youville founded the Sisters of Charity, known as the Gray Nuns, and St. Marguerite Bourgeoys opened the first school in Montreal and founded the Congregation of Notre Dame in 1671, Montreal’s oldest religious community. In addition, life-sized statues in different shrines attest to people’s prayerful devotions.

Mary, of course, is honored as Queen with a statue in the apse chapel in her namesake cathedral.

The Queen Mother receives even more tribute in the Chapel of the Assumption halfway along the nave. Once many marriages were celebrated in this chapel; some years ago, it became the daily Eucharistic adoration chapel.

The chapel’s celestial, carved-wood, baroque altarpiece includes intricate filigrees and ornamentation, two angels and a cross, all of shimmering gold leaf; it rises high over the golden tabernacle and, like an exquisite frame, surrounds a painting of Mary’s glorious assumption. This chapel is indeed a tres beau, very beautiful, throne room to honor the Queen of the World, who reigns with the Eucharistic Lord.

Joseph Pronechen is a

Register staff writer.