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Notre-Dame Basilica: A Big Church with a Remarkable 7000 Pipe Organ

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Montreal in Canada has a distinctive character and culture. Its unique connection with France has shaped the city to the present day. There are many great buildings and sights in the city and one of the most impressive buildings in the city is Notre-Dame Basilica in the historic area known as Old Montreal.  It is known in French, as Basilique Notre-Dame and is a must-see attraction for those visiting the city.

Notre-Dame Basilica was built in the Neo-Gothic architectural style

The large church was built on a square facing a public part, located next to the Saint-Sulpice seminary.  Notre-Dame Basilica is part of the Catholic Christian denomination and it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The church is very extensive, and it is a well-known landmark. It was built in the 19 th century in the neo-Gothic style, which sought to reproduce the architecture of medieval Europe. The basilica has many classic Neo-Gothic architectural elements such as pointed arches and elaborate carvings.  There are many ornate and intricate details in the church which are a visual feast for visitors. For example, the highly decorated and elaborate woodwork finished with gold leaf that dates from the 1870s. The stained glass, with images from the Bible and the lives of saints, is magnificent and among the finest in North America. Interestingly, some of the windows depict the religious history of Montreal. At the back of the basilica, there is a well-known chapel known as the Sacred Heart Chapel, which has a superb modern bronze artwork on its altar.

Sacred Heart Chapel, Notre-Dame Basilica (Vellut, G/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sacred Heart Chapel, Notre-Dame Basilica (Vellut, G/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Typical of basilicas at the time, the church has many vaults which are painted a deep blue and decorated with stars. There are many elaborate carvings in these vaults and each one contains one or more religious statues.

The basilica has a rich and diverse collection of religious art, including carvings, sculptures, paintings and objects that date from the seventeenth century to the modern era. These are open to the public and well worth a visit. Notre-Dame Basilica’s statue of St Joseph in a niche in the edifice of the basilica is a fine example of 19 th century sculpture.

Pipe organ of Notre-Dame Basilica (Lévesque, J / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pipe organ of Notre-Dame Basilica (Lévesque, J / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The church has a remarkable organ, one of the finest and largest in North America. The instrument is a Casavant Frères pipe organ that dates from 1891, and was imported from France. It has four keyboards and an incredible 7000 pipes and is 32 feet (10 meters) high. This can only be played by a highly trained organist and during mass and other ceremonies it fills the vast space with melodious music.

A significant role in French Canada

The Catholic Church has played a very important role in the history of Montreal and Quebec. The site of the basilica has a long association with the Church. Roman Catholic Sulpician syndicate arrived in Montreal, then known as Ville-Marie in 1657, and were given extensive lands in what is now Old Montreal, which they also administered.  They built a parish church on the site of the present basilica. At the time of their arrival, Montreal was part of the French Empire in North America and it had suffered greatly because of attacks from the indigenous Mohawk tribe. However, thanks to the fur trade, the settlement prospered and became one of the most important centers in French colonial North America. After the British annexation of Quebec, Montreal became part of the British Empire .  

Notre-Dame Basilica, Exterior view (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Notre-Dame Basilica, Exterior view (CC BY-SA 4.0 )

By 1824, the parish church could no longer cope with the growing population of Montreal. The Sulpician order decided to construct a basilica to cater for the religious needs of the Catholic community. An American architect, James O’Donnell, was commissioned to build the new church and he later converted to Catholicism so that he could be buried in the crypt of the building which he considered to be his masterpiece. The construction of the church took three years (1824-1827). The interior took much longer and work continued until the 1870s. The church was badly damaged by arson in 1978, but it was rebuilt based on the original designs of O’Donnell.

Tourists flock to Notre-Dame Basilica to see the church and hear the organ played

Pope John Paul II elevated the church to the status of a basilica. It is the largest Christian place of worship in North America and is visited by thousands of the faithful and tourists every year.

Notre-Dame Basilica is renowned for its concerts, many involving the playing of its famous pipe organ. In recent years the concerts have become spectacular multi-media events. The best accommodation near the church is at the four-star Le Saint de Suplice, but there is plenty of other accommodation in Old Montreal to suit the pocket of every visitor.

Notre-Dame Basilica’s opening hours are 8 am to 4.30 pm and the price of admission and a guided tour ranges from 15 to 30 Canadian dollars.

Top image: Notre-Dame Basilica        Source: (Gross, J / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

By Ed Whelan

References

Conrad, M. (2012). A Concise History of Canada (Cambridge Concise Histories).

Available from Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Concise-History-Canada-Cambridge-Histories/dp/0521744431.

Gowans, A. 1952. Notre-Dame de Montreal. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 11(1), pp.20-26.

Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/987674.

Toker, F. (1991).  Church of Notre Dame in Montreal: An Architectural History . McGill-Queen's Press-MQUP.

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