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Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist - City of St. John's Heritage Site

Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
Cityscape, St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador
Historic image, Basilica

Statement of Significance

Formal Recognition Type

City of St. John's Heritage Building, Structure, Land or Area

Description of Historic Place

The Basilica of St. John the Baptist is a massive, stone cathedral built in the mid 19th century in the Lombard Romanesque Revival style. It forms the core of a complex of religious buildings comprised of the Bishop's Palace, Bishop's Library, a school (Mullock Hall, St. Bonaventure’s College), two monasteries, and two convents. The Basilica is prominently located on an elevated site, overlooking the city of St. John’s, Newfoundland and its harbour. The formal recognition consists of the Basilica on its footprint.

Heritage Value

The Basilica of St. John the Baptist was designated a Municipal Heritage Building because of its important role in the religious, political and social history of its region, and its Lombard Romanesque architectural style.

The Roman Catholic Church has played a very important role in the religious, political and social history of Newfoundland. The Pope officially recognized Newfoundland as a separate ecclesiastical territory in 1784. However, despite the significant numbers of Roman Catholics who immigrated to Newfoundland from Ireland during the 18th and early 19th centuries, their rights with respect to worship, education, property and political participation were severely restricted until 1832, when representative government was granted to Newfoundland and restrictions on Catholics were lifted. Catholic bishops began to play an increasingly important role in Newfoundland’s social relations and its educational system. They also maintained strong links with civil authorities during various disputes that threatened to divide Newfoundlanders on religious lines.

The Basilica of St. John the Baptist symbolizes the status of the Roman Catholic Church in Newfoundland. Built between 1839 and 1850, and consecrated as the cathedral for Newfoundland in 1855, it was elevated to the status of a basilica a century later to reflect its historic and religious significance. It is part of a complex of Church buildings, constructed with the financial support of Catholics across the island, that includes a school and three convents.

The Basilica was built under the direction of Bishop Michael Fleming, who served as bishop from 1830 to 1850. Fleming transformed the face of Roman Catholicism in Newfoundland while maintaining strong ties with his European colleagues. He created many new parishes, installed permanent resident priests and brought in two religious teaching orders of sisters. His greatest preoccupation and most enduring achievement was the construction of the massive cathedral on the height of land overlooking St. John's harbour. Through his personal efforts, land, materials and funding were secured for the building which, when built, was North America's largest church.

The Basilica is a very early North American example of the Lombard Romanesque Revival style. Inspired by 12th-century Italian architecture, the style became popular in the mid-19th century for Roman Catholic churches, especially in North America, due to its association with Rome. The original designs called for the building to be faced with local stone, but the builders used less expensive Irish stone instead. The Irish stone failed under Newfoundland environmental conditions and was gradually replaced with local stone, thereby reflecting original design intentions, but not original materials.

The physical dominance and visibility of the Basilica reinforces the enormous significance of the Catholic church both to St. John’s and to the province of Newfoundland.

Source: City of St. John's, Meeting held 2005/02/14

Character Defining Elements

Key elements which relate to the heritage value of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist include:

-features which define the building as a cathedral, including its massive scale, and cruciform plan;
-its Lombard Romanesque Revival style, evident on the exterior in the triple entry, round arched door and window openings, the use of roundels and arcading as decorative motifs, masonry facing material, and twin bell towers with pyramidal roofs;
-the high quality of craftsmanship;
-its facing with local limestone and granite trim;
-its nine bells, including the St. John Bell in the east tower, cast in Ireland by James Murphy (c 1855); the three large bells of the west tower, cast in Dublin (c1855); and the five smaller bells of the west tower (c1906);
-interior features associated with the Lombard Romanesque Revival style, including the classically styled High Altar, the repetition of the round arch in the nave and side aisles, pilasters topped with Corinthian capitals, and classically inspired features and detailing;
-the classically styled High Altar with its form, based on a tripartite triumphal arch, with the canopy supported on eight polished granite Corinthian columns, and its use of Caen stone faced with white marble;
-interior features associated with the religious, political and social history of Newfoundland, including a 1905 stained glass window commemorating appointment of the first archbishop of Newfoundland in 1904, a 1955 shrine commemorating the historical ties between Newfoundland and Portugal, and a Casavant organ installed in 1955 to commemorate parishioners who died in World Wars I and II;
-seven stained glass windows by William Warrington;
-marble statuary and carvings by well-known, mid-19th century, Irish, Neo-classical sculptors, including exterior and interior statuary by John Edward Carew (1785-1868), and interior statuary and bas-relief by John Hogan (1800-1858);
-the ornate plaster ceiling designed and crafted in 1903 by Newfoundland artist Dan Carroll and the Conway family of plasterers, and polychromed in 1955 by the Rambusch Decorating Company of New York;
-its functional and spatial relationship to other buildings in the complex, including the convents of the Presentation Sisters and the Sisters of Mercy, Mt. St. Francis Monastery, the bishop’s residence and library, and St. Bonaventure School;
-its prominent, elevated siting on one of the highest pieces of ground in the city, overlooking the city and harbour;
-its orientation towards the harbour; and,
-viewscapes to and from the Basilica and the harbour.

Notes of Interest

The year 2005 marked the 150th anniversary of the dedication of the Basilica Church.

Builder Michael McGrath was from Waterford and he supervised construction circa 1838-1841, after which James Purcell of Cork took over and brought it to completion (unconfirmed).

John Hogan and John Edward Carew produced sculptures, Conway Family did the plasterwork, Dan Carroll and Rambusch Decorating Company (New York) did the decorative work.

One carpenter was John O'Connor (1792-1859) who came from Dublin in 1840, married in Newfoundland for the second time and may have been the principal joiner for the Cathedral works. He left for Rochester in 1859 with his son William, who also worked on the structure.

The Basilica, as it is known locally, is a National Historic Site, and a key element within the St. John's Ecclesiastical District National Historic Site.

Location and History

Community St. John's
Municipality City of St. John's
Civic Address 200 Military Road
Construction 1839 - 1850
C. Schmidt
James Murphy
Michael McGrath
James Purcell
Style Romanesque
Building Plan Cruciform with Apse
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