When the community of Ville-Marie (Montreal’s original name) was founded in 1642, a small chapel was built at la Pointe-à-Callière. The French Jesuits dedicated it to the Virgin Mary (Notre Dame, or Our Lady). In 1657, a community of Sulpician priests arrived from France and replaced the small chapel with a more impressive church. The architectural plans were drawn up by François Dollier de Casson, who designed it in the baroque style. Construction took place from 1672 to 1683.
By the 1820s, however, the population of Montreal had increased and a larger church was needed. There was also a drive to put Montreal on the architectural map and to reaffirm its Catholic identity.
Ironically, this iconic Catholic structure was designed by a Protestant Irish immigrant residing in New York City. The architect James O’Donnell had a grand vision for the future Basilica, which was complemented by architect Victor Bourgeau, who oversaw the interior decoration. Together, they designed a cathedral that was rich in colour, detail and ornamentation, intended to evoke a sense of wonder in visitors.
Construction of on the new Notre-Dame began in 1824. The exterior was completed in 1829, and it was consecrated in July of the same year. The building can accommodate 8,000 to 10,000 worshippers and remains to this day one of the largest churches in North America.
James O’Donnell decided to design the new Notre-Dame Church in the gothic revival style that was in vogue across Europe and the United States at the time. This is an ornate and intricate style that incorporates decorative patterns, soaring vaults, rich colours, statues and carvings, gilded edges, and impressive towers, columns, and stained-glass windows.
O’Donnell’s overall design influenced the history of architecture across Canada. Through the century that followed, the gothic revival style was common among the religious buildings established by many Christian denominations across the country.
Notre-Dame was elevated to the status of basilica by Pope John Paul II in 1982, and every year more than 120 baptisms and more than 120 marriages are celebrated there. Approximately 11 million people visit Notre-Dame Basilica annually — which is about 1 million fewer than Notre-Dame de Paris.
In 1989, Notre-Dame was designated a national historic site of Canada, recognised for its historical, architectural and artistic value, alongside its religious significance. It is also included as a Site patrimonial de Montréal, the provincially designated heritage site located in Old Montreal, which includes the former walled city and the Old Port. The area around and beneath the Basilica also contains archaeological remains of considerable ethnological value, represented by Pointe-à-Callière, the Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History.
An important feature of Notre-Dame is its remarkable acoustics and grand organ. The latter is a famous pipe organ made by the master organ builders known as Casavant Frères, composed of 4 keyboards, 92 electropneumatic action stops, and an astonishing 7,000 individual pipes. This enormous instrument dates back to 1891.
Numerous concerts are presented annually at the Basilica by internationally renowned ensembles, including the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Every summer since 2004, the Basilica has hosted the International Organ Festival, and since 2008, it has also hosted the Canadian International Organ Competition. It’s also a ritual among many Montrealers to attend the annual performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Basilica every December around Christmastime.
Rather than the more traditional portrayal of biblical scenes, the richly hued stained-glass windows along the walls of the sanctuary depict scenes from the religious history of Montreal. The windows are offset by the vaults, which are deep blue and decorated with golden stars, and the rest of the sanctuary is decorated in rich blue and azure, crimson, purple, silver, and gold. In turn, the space is adorned with hundreds of intricate wooden carvings and religious statues, which interweave a deep religious sense with the city’s historical identity.
Starting in 1872, the interior of the Basilica underwent a series of interior redecorations that made the space increasingly grand. Amid the installation of grand icons and sculptures, it was determined that Notre-Dame was just too grand for smaller and more intimate ceremonies. As a result, a new chapel, Notre-Dame du Sacré-Cœur, was added in 1889. Nearly a hundred years later, the chapel was damaged in a fire in 1978. It was rebuilt in 1980, using old drawings and photographs to reproduce the historical interior. It now houses a bronze altarpiece designed by Quebec artist Charles Daudelin.
In addition to traditional ritual events held at Notre-Dame, notable funeral services have included that of Sir George-Étienne Cartier, one of the so-called Fathers of Confederation, in 1873. On May 31, 2000, the funeral for former Montreal Canadiens superstar Maurice “Rocket” Richard took place at the basilica, with thousands of spectators both inside and out.
On October 3, 2000, current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave his eulogy just steps from the High Altar during the state funeral of his father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau — who was Canada’s 15th prime minister.
Notable weddings held at Notre-Dame have included Celine Dion’s wedding to René Angélil on December 17, 1994.
Although he didn’t live to see the basilica in its final stages of completion, the achievement of Notre Dame marked the peak of James O’Donnell’s career. In fact, he wanted to be buried within its walls. There was one problem, however — the fact that he was not a Catholic. On his deathbed, O’Donnell converted, and now he is the only person to reside in the grand crypt of his own design.