Victorian Beauty: A Visit to St. Andrew’s Cathedral

Travel feature

Above, the Crucified Christ above the new altar, while (below) the old altar highlights an elaborate Victorian Gothic style and an icon of the Holy Family and the current sanctuary draw the faithful to prayer.
Above, the Crucified Christ above the new altar, while (below) the old altar highlights an elaborate Victorian Gothic style and an icon of the Holy Family and the current sanctuary draw the faithful to prayer. (photo: Courtesy of St. Andrew’s Cathedral)

Victoria, Canada, very much like a British city, is the capital of British Colombia.

The Diocese of Victoria was founded in 1846 and, at the time, included Vancouver Island, the present-day British Colombia mainland and all of Alaska and the Yukon Territories. In fact, the original diocese was comparable in size to Western Europe.

Today, by contrast, the Diocese of Victoria includes only Vancouver Island and the nearby Gulf Islands. The first cathedral was a small chapel in the residence of the first bishop, Modeste Demers, which was built in 1853. That was followed in 1858 by a small, wooden-frame cathedral.

On Oct. 30, 1892, Bishop John Nicholas Lemmens, the fifth bishop of Victoria, dedicated the second and present St. Andrew’s Cathedral, which is based on the plans of the parish church in Longueil, Quebec. The local Church commenced its 125th anniversary commemoration with a pair of Masses celebrated for its dedication, with more events marking the occasion planned over the next year.

According to Father John Laszczyk, the present rector of the cathedral, “When Bishop Demers arrived in the diocese, he arrived at Cadboro Bay, which is located down the hill from the University of Victoria, on the feast day of St. Andrew. The first cathedral was, therefore, named in his honor, and the name was simply transferred to the new cathedral.”

In 1903, Bertrand Orth, the seventh bishop of Victoria, completed the stained-glass windows of the cathedral, installed a new organ and retired the cathedral debt. The former wooden-frame cathedral by then had become the convent chapel to St. Ann’s Academy for girls (while the current cathedral was being financed and constructed, a temporary “pro-cathedral” was used in its place for several years).

After St. Ann’s Academy closed decades later, the building and grounds were subsequently designated as a national historical site and the former cathedral was restored to serve as the central element of a museum.

In the mid-1980s, the current St. Andrew’s Cathedral also was restored, with every effort to respect the Victorian design, and it too was designated a national historic site on Feb. 23, 1990. The 72-foot center bay, with its recessed rose window, is dominated by a south main tower terminating in a 175-foot spire. This tower is balanced by a shorter tower on the north side, which was designed to hold one cathedral bell.


Christ, Mary and the Saints

The interior nave was designed and constructed so that an uninterrupted view of the altar could be seen from any part of the church. Twenty-one stained-glass windows, commemorating the lives of Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, flood the cathedral with light.

Clerestory windows, grouped in three, are decorated with traditional Christian iconography of the Mass and private devotions.

In the apse of the sanctuary, the center stained-glass window depicts St. Andrew, whose feast the Church celebrates Nov. 30. On either side of the center window are stained-glass windows of St. Charles Borromeo and St. Francis Xavier, reflecting the role of bishop and clergy in the cathedral’s missionary diocese. Another four windows are of the Nativity cycle: the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity and Presentation. The sacred ambience easily raises one’s heart and mind to prayer, particularly when meditating on the depictions of the life of Christ in the picturesque windows.


Native Creativity

The three quatrefoil windows on the east front of the cathedral as seen above the lower balcony were designed by local artist Tim Paul. These windows embody the symbols of the raven and the moon.

The original altar was an elaborate Victorian Gothic high altar placed at the far end of the apse.

The new post-Vatican II altar was carved by Charles Elliott, a distinguished artist and the first Native-American to graduate from Victoria’s St. Louis College.

The use of Christian biblical and liturgical themes on the new altar are expressed through native symbol and design and reflect the process of inculturization that has been going on since the first missionaries came to Vancouver Island.

The base of the new altar consists of two bentwood-like boxes that were the traditional means used for carrying and storing food and belongings as well as the burial boxes of the dead.

Each of these boxes is designed to rotate so that four different designs may be employed for liturgical seasons and feasts. One of the altar panels also incorporates the theme of the raven from the quatrefoil windows of the east front of the cathedral. The top of the altar is of yellow cedar and weighs about 400 pounds. Abalone shells and Indian designs adorn the frontispiece of the altar.

In Canadian west coast native mythology, the raven is both a messenger and a symbol of the Creator Spirit. The raven is a favorite of the Kwakiutl people, from which the traditional forms of these designs originated. The raven is the celebrated hero who set the sun, moon and stars in the heavens. He is one of the great transformers who brings God’s word to man.

The artist, however, relates him to Christ, who brings God’s word to humanity. The raven represents the Spirit of God, who, in the Book of Genesis, is depicted hovering over the primal waters bringing order out of chaos. 

The moon illuminates the darkness of the night, but its light is not its own. Rather, it is the reflected light of the sun, just as Christians symbolize the Church reflecting the light of Christ to the world.

The lectern in the sanctuary was carved by Roy Henry Vickers, a native artist, and has a carving of Christ on the front, symbolizing both death and resurrection. One side of the lectern shows the Crucified Christ wearing a crown of thorns. Another side shows the Risen Christ.

Surrounding the whole of the interior of the cathedral are decorative panels that can be viewed by the faithful sitting in every part of the cathedral.

These panels were designed by Nicholas Bawlf and based upon the ornamental illumination designs from the Book of Kells, an Irish manuscript also known as the Book of Columba, which features the four Gospels plus other spiritual writings.

Below floor level at the northwest corner of the cathedral is a chapel crypt that contains the remains of one of the early missionary priests, Father John Jonckau, and two of the early pioneer missionary bishops, including Bishop Demers and Archbishop Charles John Seghers. Archbishop Seghers was assassinated by a madman in Alaska and is known as the “Apostle of Alaska” because of the extensive missionary work he did there. A monument adjacent to the cathedral was erected in 1986 to commemorate this priestly trio.

The restoration and renovation of St. Andrew’s Cathedral is ongoing and seeks to remain faithful to the Victorian period in which the cathedral was built.

This parish reflects the truths of faith and the Church’s continuing missionary presence on Vancouver Island, as well as Canadian history. It is well worth a visit.

Joseph Albino writes from

Syracuse, New York.