Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 5, 2007
Multitude of saints adorn Irish Church
Secreted in downtown Montreal, St. Patrick's Basilica welcomed potato famine victims
St Patrick – March 17
- WCR photo by Ted Fitzgerald
A statue of St. Patrick stands above the entrance to St. Patrick's Basilica in Montreal.
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Said to be one of the best-kept secrets of downtown Montreal, the Irish church tends to be overlooked by many in deference to the better-known city houses of God.
They are missing a real treat, an opportunity to pray in a sanctuary steeped in tradition, one of the finest examples of 15th century Gothic architecture in Canada and a thriving parish community.
Almost hidden among the buildings of the city's financial district, St. Patrick's Basilica is an easy four-block walk along Blvd. Rene Levesque from the centre of Catholicism in Quebec's largest city, Mary Queen of the World Cathedral.
English-speaking Montrealers attended Mass in historic Bonsecours from 1817, later moving to the Recollet Church until it became too small for the increasing immigrant flow into the city.
The 6,500 parishioners then launched a campaign to build a larger sanctuary and six years later, on the feast day of their patron in 1847, St. Patrick's Church witnessed its first Eucharistic celebration.
This was just in time to welcome thousands of destitute Irish people fleeing the height of the potato famine in their homeland.
This disaster found even the city's mayor tending the sick at Montreal's infamous waterfront sheds.
The new arrivals included orphans, as many as 1,000 by year's end in the city alone.
Those that survived illness were quickly adopted by both Irish and Quebecois, so that with normal assimilation, some estimate that 40 per cent of today's Quebec population has Irish ancestry.
First-time visitors to the basilica are greeted by the parish patron - in effigy - wearing his traditional bishop's vestments, high above the main entrance doors.
Not the first Christian missionary to Ireland but certainly the best known, his life story is familiar - how he was kidnapped in England, sold into slavery in Ireland, escaped, and then returned to accomplish the almost miraculous conversion of much of the island.
Patrick's symbol of the Trinity - the shamrock - is used throughout the church as a decorative motif, sharing space with the fleur-de-lis in recognition of 138 years of service to the parish by Sulpician priests.
Inside the church, because of its designation in 1985 as a provincial historic monument with attendant prohibitions regarding alterations, St. Patrick's was able to resist some of the requirements for simplification of Vatican II and is still lavishly decorated and furnished with an overwhelming array of statues and artwork.
The nave has elaborate oak wainscoting which sets off one-by-two metre paintings of the Stations of the Cross. Another 150 paintings of saints alternate with stained glass windows featuring more holy people.
The elaborate original altar and reredos displays no fewer that two dozen statuettes of saints.
Of interest also is a plaque on pew 240 identifying it as the place reserved for former parishioner, the Hon. Thomas D'Arcy McGee. The Irish-born revolutionary was a gifted orator, newspaper publisher and editor, writer and poet, and statesmanlike Father of Confederation. He attended St. Patrick's following his arrival in the city in 1857 and was buried from here on his 43rd birthday after being shot and killed in Ottawa in 1868.
On March 17, 1989, St. Patrick's was raised to the status of a basilica, in 1993 underwent a $4.5-million restoration project, and in 1996, was declared a national historic site.
By the time its 150th anniversary celebrations were underway a year later, festivities were being enjoyed by a mixed ethnic congregation in keeping with St. Patrick's reputation as a welcoming sanctuary to all new Canadians.