(Published in the Montreal Gazette on December 28, 2012)
“This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.” We are all undoubtedly very familiar with that famous Mark Twain comment from his 1881 visit to Montreal. Twain would be surprised to see that there are still today many places of worship in the city.
In fact, within the radius of one kilometre, there are at least nine heritage churches to be found in the city centre of Montreal, six of which were standing at the time of Twain’s visit. Most are considered National Historic Sites.
All nine offer a rich selection of Christmas liturgy and music. Check their individual websites for details.
The oldest of the nine is St. Patrick’s Basilica. Seating 1700 faithful, St. Patrick’s is the mother church to Montreal’s English-speaking Roman Catholics. Opened in 1847, the extraordinary edifice is considered to be one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture anywhere in the country. A must see.
The second oldest city centre minster is Christ Church Cathedral. This Neo-Gothic house of worship is also the seat of the Anglican Diocese of Montreal. The attractive sanctuary was inaugurated in 1859 after a fire destroyed the previous structure on St. James Street. The Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) called in on the new Christ Church in 1860 and bestowed a beautiful Bible with the royal Coat of Arms in memory of his visit. Many Montrealers will recall when, in 1987, the church stood on stilts while Promenades de la Cathédrale was constructed beneath it.
St. James the Apostle held its first service in 1864. The stain glass window overlooking Bishop Street was for the longest time protected by a grill due to the proximity of two sports fields, earning it the nickname St. Cricket of the Fields. Also in the Victorian Gothic style, this Anglican congregation was founded by Reverend Jacob Ellegood who was the church’s rector until his death in 1911.
It has been said that the Eglise du Gesù on Bleury Street is the only totally Baroque–style church in Montreal. Constructed in 1864-65, the building was meant to imitate as much as possible the Gesù Church in Rome, a goal it fell well short of nonetheless. Designed by the Irish – American architect, Patrick C. Keely, this immense Roman Catholic edifice has no less than five naves and stands almost 23 metres high.
Yet another Gothic Revival Anglican structure is found opposite Windsor Station. St. George’s Church, “small and delicate”, was constructed in 1870 over the remains of Montreal’s first Jewish Cemetery. The church boasts, in span, the second largest double-beam hammer roof in the world, surpassed only by Westminster Abbey in London. St. George’s has some stunning stain glass windows as well.
The Church of St. John the Evangelist, Montreal’s principal Anglo-Catholic place of worship, is located right behind Place des Arts. Also Neo-Gothic in style, St. John’s is a free – seat parish where churchgoers sit in chairs instead of pews. Constructed in 1878, this High Anglican Church follows the Tractarian, or Oxford Movement, in which the service draws heavily on a traditional Catholic rite. Easily identifiable by its red roof, the building is also home to St. Michael’s Mission, a soup kitchen for the penniless.
When St. James Methodist Church opened in the late 1880’s, it was considered to be the largest Methodist house of worship anywhere in the world. Today a United Church, St. James (also neo-Gothic) has undergone extensive renovations, including the removal in 2005 of a number of St. Catherine Street stores hiding the edifice from view. The African American educator, Booker T. Washington, spoke in the church in 1906.
When in 1857, Monsignor Ignace Bourget planted a cross at what was then called ‘Mount St. Joseph’, the long saga of the construction of this city’s Mary Queen of the World Basilica began. More or less a scaled-down version of St. Peter’s in Rome, the Baroque Roman Catholic cathedral was only officially opened in 1894, and even then was still unfinished. The basilica, known as St. James until 1955, is situated opposite Place du Canada.
Finally, St. Andrew’s and St. Paul’s, the flagship of the Presbyterian Church in Montreal, was constructed in 1934 near the Museum of Fine Arts. Also in the Gothic Revival style, this magnificent edifice is home each year to the CBC Christmas sing – in.
(below, Advent Carols 2012 at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, Montreal)
Photo by Janet Best