Quebec City, Canada
The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Quebec was one of the first churches in Canada and the first major church of any denomination in non-Latin North America. It is home to the oldest Christian parish in the New World outside of Latin America, and was the first cathedral in North America to be designated as a full basilica by the Roman Catholic Church. Although the Catholic Church in Canada was eventually eclipsed by the Anglican Church and other Protestant denominations in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Quebec is a religious and historic treasure to all Canadians, and is one of Canada’s most visited churches. The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Quebec is part of the Historic District of Old Quebec UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Quebec City was founded in 1608 as the first permanent European city in the New World outside of Latin America. It was the first major city in non-Spanish North America, with large, permanent masonry buildings and residences. Quebec City was home to first major Christian community of any denomination in non-Spanish North America. The city’s earliest chapel was built in 1633 and was the first important Catholic church in the New World outside of Latin America as well as the first Francophone parish outside of continental France.
In the 1640s the original chapel was expanded into a full-fledged cathedral, the first in Canada, in time to accommodate the establishment of the Archdiocese of Quebec in 1658. It remained the most important French Catholic diocese in North America throughout much of the 17th and 18th centuries. During these years, the church witnessed the bitter rivalry of the French and English as they sought to expand their empires in North America. This rivalry culminated in the French and Indian War and the English siege of Quebec, during which time Notre Dame came under fire as it sheltered the desperate residents of the city.
At the end of the war in 1763, Canada was ceded to England and became one of its most important colonies. However, the territory of Quebec was permitted to retain its French language and culture as well as its religious beliefs. Thus the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Quebec was not taken over by the Anglican Church, as many local residents undoubtedly feared would happen. It remained a Catholic Cathedral, and its Archbishop served as the defacto leader of Canada’s Catholics. This status was formalized in the 1950s when the Vatican designated the Archbishop of Quebec as the Primate of Canada.
Much of the subsequent history of Notre Dame de Quebec has been somewhat dull by comparison. The cathedral was heavily renovated in the years following the Seven Years War, and again in the 19th and 20th centuries, the last time after a fire which had severely damaged the interior. Today the cathedral is the center of Catholicism in Canada and a popular destination for French Canadian pilgrims. It is also one of the most popular tourist sites in this heavily touristed city.
From its perch inside the walls of the Old City of Quebec, the steeple and tower of Notre Dame define the city’s skyline. Virtually nothing remains of the original 17th century building, and much of what stands today dates from the 20th century reconstruction. A bit on the smallish side for a full-fledged cathedral and basilica, the exterior is somewhat plain, with whitewashed walls and minimal ornamentation. The most distinguishing external feature is the cross-capped steeple, which is the highest point in the city.
The cathedral interior is another matter altogether. It is one of the finest examples of neo-baroque architecture in Canada. It is sumptuously decorated, with a heavily gilded main altar and canopy. The stained-glass windows are some of the most magnificent in Canada. Beneath the cathedral is a crypt containing the tombs of many prominent clergyman and other leaders of Quebec, though the most famous tomb, that of the city’s first bishop, is located in its own chapel.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Quebec is located in the eastern quarter of the walled Old City of Quebec, about a hundred and fifty miles northeast of Montreal. The cathedral is open November through April from 7:30am-4:00pm; May through June and September through October from 7:30am-5:00pm; and July and August from 7:30am-6:00pm (hours on Saturday are always 7:30am-6:00pm and Sunday are always 8:30am-6:00pm). The cost of admission is CD2.00. Web: www.patrimoine-religieux.com (official website)
Among Quebec City’s other sites of Christian interest are the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the first Anglican Cathedral constructed outside of the British Isles; and the Archbishop’s Palace. The eastern provinces of Canada are home to a number of very venerable Christian sites. St. Paul’s Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia is the oldest intact Anglican church in the Americas. It is believed that the ruins of the First Church in the New World are located in Newfoundland, and may date back to the 1498 voyage of John Cabot, putting it on par with the Cathedral of Santa Maria La Menor in Santo Domingo.