The sight I was most excited to visit in Montreal was Notre-Dame Basilica. I had seen numerous pictures of it and its interior looked spectacular. Seeing it in person did not disappoint.
The basilica faces the Place d’Armes, which seemed a popular hang out place for both tourists and locals. While there is an admission fee ($5 Canadian) I didn’t mind it as it goes towards the upkeep of the basilica. When you think $5 to visit such a spectacular venue versus $10 to visit a mediocre attraction (i.e. the Chateau Ramezay-a post on this will be coming soon), I’m more than happy to pay such an amount.
Although a church has operated on the site of the basilica since the late 17th century, the present day basilica was not finished until 1888. It was designed by an Irish-American Protestant from New York, James O’Donnell, who had been commissioned to design it after the congregation of Notre-Dame had outgrown its former space. He was a proponent of the Gothic Revival movement and designed the church as such. O’Donnell converted to Catholicism on his deathbed and remains to this day the only person buried in the church’s crypt.
While the outside of the basilica is somewhat understated when compared with its Parisian name equivalent, its interior will literally shock you with its grandness. But back to the outside-the basilica features a Gothic Revival design and is considered to be one of the most dramatic in the world. Three statues adorn the facade of the church: the Virgin Mary represents the city of Montreal, the statue of John the Baptist represents the province of Quebec, and the statue of St. Joseph represents the nation of Canada.
I have visited numerous “cathedral/basilica greats” during my travels but no interior has ever impressed me as much as the one in Montreal. Its ceiling is a deep blue and embellished with gold stars. The rest of the sanctuary features a multicolored array of blues, azures, reds, purples, silver, and gold. It’s also adorned with hundreds of intricate wooden carvings which greatly reminded me of the Moorish influences I’ve seen in the Iberian Peninsula. I learned from the information brochure that its stained glass windows do not depict biblical scenes, as is often the case, but rather scenes from the religious history of Montreal. These I found particularly interesting since it was like nothing I had ever seen before.
Although with the unique interior, from a visual stance, one can’t possibly ignore the grandiose “elephant” int the room, the 32-foot pipe organ which was completed in 1891. It was also the first organ with adjustable combination pedals to be operated by electricity. Sadly there was no organ music during my visit but I can only imagine how marvelous it must be to hear it in such an expansive space.
When we were there we actually saw a cascade of limousines parked on the side street adjacent to the church. It was only when we got to the front on Rue Notre Dame that we saw a Rolls Royce parked and a bride to be sitting in the car. As we were touring the church she and her father walked to an area in the back and she looked gorgeous. While it was a sweltering day and obviously no air-conditioning inside the church, I didn’t envy her that but her ceremony venue I sure did.
My favorite part of the church were the bells. High above the statues that I mentioned are two towers. The western tower, nicknamed “Perseverance,” contains one of the largest church bells in North America. The “Jean Baptiste” (John the Baptist) bell weighs in at 11 tons and is only rung on special occasions. The eastern tower, called “Temperance,” houses a carillon of 10 bells which are loud enough to be heard throughout the Old Town. On two instances we heard the bells beautifully playing and honestly, it was one of my favorite travel moments in a long time. Even though I was in a modern city, it sounded straight out of a European village.
Some may make the claim that after a while, a church is just a church. But truly, the interior at Notre-Dame Basilica is one of the most interesting and stunning spaces I have ever seen.
More in this series!
Montreal, Canada-a sneak peek
Montreal’s Atwater Market
Vieux Montreal-a photoessay
Montreal’s Mount Royal Park
Hotel Review-Hotel Nelligan
Osteria Venti-restaurant review
Quebec-not your typical Canadian experience
Montreal trip tips