St. Peter’s Is Alive and Well in Montreal

If you’ve ever been to Vatican City, you might get a feeling of déjà vu as you walk toward the Cathedral-Basilica of Mary Queen of the World in Montreal, Quebec. It’s an instantly recognizable replica of St. Peter’s.

Of course, it’s vastly scaled down. Where St. Peter’s is 700 feet long, this structure stretches just — make that “just” — 333 feet. Where St. Peter’s cupola is 130 feet in diameter, this cathedral’s is 75 feet. And yet, even with Boulevard René-Lévesque running in front of the cathedral instead of a broad piazza and Bernini colonnades, it’s a dead ringer for its obvious inspiration.

The sight was enough for my wife and I to pause across the street and drink in that same grand high Italian Renaissance façade with its gigantic Corinthian columns. We noted the statues across the front roofline and the towering dome that, we decided, would make Michelangelo do a double take.

We wondered what Pope Paul VI thought of Montreal’s cathedral when he visited while still Cardinal Montini — and what Pope John Paul II thought when he came here in 1969 as Cardinal Wojtyla and again in 1984 on a papal visit. (Incidentally, it was Pope Benedict XV who named it a minor basilica in 1919.)

Of course, the cathedral-basilica has many of its own one-of-a-kind features. The 13 statues that line the façade’s roofline aren’t of Christ and the Apostles, as St. Peter’s has it, but rather the patron saints of parishes that contributed to the building of Mary Queen of the World.

Since each copper-clad statue is 9 feet tall, the saints are pretty much recognizable from street level. Next to the center we spotted St. Joseph holding the Child Jesus. Around him are Sts. Paul, John the Baptist, Patrick, Francis of Assisi and Anthony. St. James is right in the center.

He’s there because Montreal’s cathedral was originally named St. James the Greater (Jacques-Major). In fact, that’s still the name as a parish, which it remains, but as a basilica-cathedral, it’s Mary Queen of the World. (Or, as it’s also named in this bilingual city, the Cathedrale Basilique Marie-Reine-du-Monde.)

Here’s where another pope comes into the picture. On Jan. 1, 1955, the cathedral was rededicated as Mary Queen of the World by Pope Pius XII. In his 1954 encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam (On Proclaiming the Queenship of Mary), he gave Mary this title and established the feast of the Queenship of Mary. The Church celebrates the feast on Aug. 22.

St. Peter’s in Miniature

The cathedral opened on Easter Sunday, 1894. But it wouldn’t have if it was up to architect Victor Bourgeau. He first tried to dissuade Bishop Ignace le Bourget from building a scaled-down version of St. Peter’s. But because 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.

Long story short: Father Michaud and Bourgeau overcame the obstacles to construction.

The bishop’s vision paid off for the glory of God and the honor of Mary, our Queen. Today we see an enhanced vision with transformations, restoration and redecoration after the mid-20th century.

The interior has a humble beauty with a balance of dignified details like Roman arches and a coffered, gold-highlighted ceiling. The soft colors, especially very light greens, bring peace and warmth to the vast space and give this sprawling cathedral the character of a place for quiet prayer.

But even though there’s practically no comparison with the immense interior grandeur of St. Peter’s, hints of the Vatican basilica do abound.

Up ahead in the sanctuary, we recognized Bernini’s baldacchino in miniature. This baldacchino’s intricately spiraling columns were hand-fashioned of red copper in the Eternal City, then highlighted with gold. The statue of St. Peter likewise copies the more-famous one in St. Peter’s.


Queen’s Room

Slightly to the side in the sanctuary we could easily see the tabernacle on its own altar of repose and were able to kneel for prayer comfortably near our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament by the marble Communion rail.

Despite the imposing size of the cathedral — it may be smaller than St. Peter’s but that doesn’t mean it’s not super-sized in its own right — even here there was a feeling of intimacy with Our Lord.

Because of time limitations, we didn’t linger long by the large paintings of Montreal’s spiritual legacy that appear instead of stained-glass windows. Two include dramatic events with Montreal saints — St. Margaret d’Youville, who founded the Sisters of Charity (known as the Gray Nuns in the 1700s) and St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, who opened the first school in Montreal and founded the Congregation of Notre Dame in 1671, Montreal’s oldest religious community.

But life-sized statues in different shrine areas tell of the people’s devotion. Prominently, there’s the Sacred Heart at one side altar.

On the opposite side of the cathedral we found one of our particular favorite intercessors at a large shrine: St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower.

Mary, of course, is Queen here, from the wood-carved statue of her in the airy apse chapel done by a Canadian artist during the renovations, to the marble Mary seated as Queen with the Child Jesus standing on her lap and before a sky-sea mosaic background.

Our Queen Mother receives even more tribute with the spiritual beauty of the Chapel of the Assumption halfway up the nave. It’s popularly called the Marriage Chapel, as many weddings and anniversaries are celebrated here.

The chapel’s celestial, carved wood, baroque altarpiece is worthy of the Vatican. The intricate filigrees and ornamentation, two angels, a cross — all of shimmering gold leaf — rise high over the golden tabernacle and surround a painting of Mary’s glorious assumption like a frame.

A Spanish monk carved it for a Swiss Benedictine abbey around 1635, where it remained until the early 19th century, when the abbey was forced to sell it. An Austrian architect who discovered it in France donated it in 1994 to this archdiocese, which restored it for this chapel.

Here, any thought of a comparison to the Vatican basilica melts away in the chapel’s warm, spiritual glow.

Although Mary appears here at her Assumption, this cathedral’s chapel is indeed a tres belle, very beautiful, throne room for the Queen of the World.

Joseph Pronechen writes from

Trumbull, Connecticut.

Planning Your Visit

There are four Masses Monday to Friday: 7:30 and 8 a.m., 12:10 and 5 p.m. Saturday Mass is at 8 a.m., 12:10 and 5 p.m. (vigil). Sunday Mass is at 9:30 and 11 a.m., and 12:15 and 5 p.m. Confession before all Masses. A tour guide is available weekdays. For more information, visit (in French) or call (514) 866-1661.

Getting There

The Basilica Cathedral is in the heart of downtown at the corner of rue de la Cathedrale and Boulevard René-Lévesque. It’s a short walk, taxi, or bus ride from central locations.