The Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is a massive, stone building built in the mid 19th century in the Lombard Romanesque Revival style. It is part of a complex of religious buildings prominently located on an elevated site, overlooking the city of St. John’s, NL and is a key element within the St. John’s Ecclesiastical District National Historic Site. The formal recognition consists of the Basilica on its footprint.
Statement of Significance
Formal Recognition Type
Registered Heritage Structure
The Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was designated a Registered Heritage Structure by the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1988 due to its religious, historical and aesthetic value.
Newfoundland became its own ecclesiastical territory in 1784 with the appointment of Father James Louis O’Donel as Prefect Apostolic by Pope Pius VI. Catholics in Newfoundland had previously been under Quebec jurisdiction. Despite making up about half of the island’s population, Catholics were held quite low on the social and political ladder due to British Protestant rule. Catholic Emancipation came to Great Britain and Ireland in 1829, but the new rights granted did not apply to British colonies. This changed in 1832 when full civil and political rights were granted to Catholics of the island colony that allowed them to be part of the new elected assembly and to freely engage in different religious activities. Prior to the ending of the penal laws, Catholics were made to pay special taxes on births, marriages, and burials, and were barred from entering politics. One figure who had been staunchly opposed to these laws was Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming, who would go on to construct the Basilica.
The ending of the penal laws saw an expansion of Catholic institutions, including convents. The Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary were both introduced by Bishop Fleming. The convents made education available to thousands of Catholic children who had previously been given inadequate schooling, if any. With the success of the convents and the new freedoms given to Catholics, the building of a new church was a natural next step, and one that Bishop Fleming was determined to complete.
Fleming described the already existing Catholic chapel as “the meanest house… a rude, ill-shaped wooden building, falling to ruin.” On top of that it was far too small for the Catholic population of St. John’s, with people often kneeling in snow outside the chapel during mass. Fleming determined that it was his duty to commission and construct a grand cathedral befitting the size of the congregation. Discrimination against Catholics was still strong, however, and the Bishop would find much opposition in completing his goal.
Bishop Fleming chose a large plot of land near Fort Townshend. At that time St. John’s was a fraction of the size it is today, and the land chosen was considered by some to be too far away, referred to as “the barrens” by locals. This was used by Fleming’s opponents in government to prevent him from claiming the land, forcing the Bishop to fight for six years and to travel to and from Europe five times to officially secure the land. In April of 1838, Queen Victoria, granted some nine acres of land for the purpose of erecting the new cathedral. Upon returning to St. John’s with confirmation, residents of the town came together and, according to Fleming, within 10 minutes had fenced off the entire perimeter of the property. Soon after, the ground was excavated by thousands of locals and made ready for construction. Not until 1841 was enough stone cut and transported, from Signal Hill in St. John’s and Kelly’s Island in Conception Bay, to lay the cornerstone and officially begin construction. The fencing, excavation, and cutting and transporting of stone was all carried out by committed residents of the town, men and women of any age and children as well, in association with the few professionals in St. John’s at that time. This was a massive effort exhibited by the Catholic community.
Bishop Fleming commissioned a design from the architect of the Danish Government, Ole Jørgen Schmidt, and final versions of that design were completed by Irish architects John Philpott Jones and James Murphy. Stone was also transported from Ireland, but it was soon determined that it would deteriorate in the Newfoundland climate, and much was replaced by local stone. Construction was paused several times because of a lack of materials and the time required to cut and transport additional stone. Construction was further delayed by the fire of 1846, one of many fires that would afflict St. John’s in the 19th century. Funds and materials had to be directed at reconstructing the Presentation Convent, and further loans for the Cathedral became difficult to receive. Eventually the project was restarted, and after the completion of the slate roof, an ailing Bishop Fleming performed the first mass in 1850, passing away that same year. He was succeeded by Bishop John Thomas Mullock, who would be responsible for the construction of numerous other buildings in the vicinity of the church including St. Bonaventure’s College, the Bishop’s Palace, the new Presentation Convent, and the Bishop’s Library.
The slate roof was quite heavy, with some claiming to have seen it sagging, and so it was replaced by a copper roof in 1853. The Cathedral was completed in 1855 and consecrated that year, being elevated to the status of Minor Basilica a century later. At the time of completion it was one of the largest churches in North America. It is an early example of the Lombard Romanesque Revival style, inspired by 12th-century Italian architecture. This became a popular design for Catholic churches in the Americas during the mid 19th century and early 20th century due to its connection to Rome.
Source: Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador property file “St. John’s – Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist – FPT 1464”
Character Defining Elements
Key elements which relate to the heritage value of the Basilica Cathedral 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;
-the crypt beneath the High Altar, in which Bishops Scallan, Fleming, Mullock, Power, and Archbishop Roche are interred;
-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.
According to an account recorded by Bishop Power, who succeeded Bishop Mullock, after the fence was constructed outlining the land that would be used for the Cathedral in 1838, the locals were concerned that more needed to be done to solidify their ownership of the property. There was still tension between Catholics and the local government, so some feared that the property might be taken from them. It was suggested that a burial or funeral should take place in order to connect the land to the Catholic Church. This meant that a body was needed, but, of course, it could not be asked of someone to volunteer. Conveniently, a man by the name of Mullins was deemed to have passed away that day, and a funeral was held for him. The following day, however, Mullins was seen alive and well walking through St. John’s. Apparently Mullins was a notorious local who frequently drank, and on the day of the burial he had simply drunk himself into such a deep sleep that he was thought to be dead. To keep up appearances, those aware of Mullins’ apparent well-being filled a coffin with stones and buried that instead.
Builder Michael McGrath was from Waterford and he supervised construction circa 1838-1841, after which is is thought that James Purcell of Cork took over and brought it to completion. John Hogan and John Edward Carew produced sculptures, the 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 Portuguese have a strong connection to Newfoundland, having fished off of its shores for centuries in ships that became known as the “White Fleet.” Seeing as Portugal has a strong Catholic population, sailors and fishermen would often visit the Cathedral when anchored in St. John’s. When the church was consecrated as a Basilica in 1955, over 4,000 Portuguese fishermen walked through the streets of St. John’s, singing and carrying their gift to the new Basilica: a statue of Our Lady of Fatima and several small figurines. It is kept to the left of the High Altar in the sanctuary. Portuguese sailors still visit the Basilica when military and other vessels are anchored in St. John’s Harbour.
Location and History
City of St. John's
200 Military Road
1841 - 1855
Ole Jørgen Schmidt, John Philpott Jones, James Murphy
Cruciform with Apse