Notre-Dame Basilica

Montreal, Canada | C.1829

Photo Credit: Wyatt Plain

Across from the Place d’Armes, next door to Saint-Sulpice Seminary, stands a masterpiece of Gothic Revival: the Basilique Notre-Dame. With over 11 million visitors a year, the basilica is one of the most visited monuments on the continent, and when construction was completed in 1829 the church was also the continent’s largest.  But can you guess which continent?

North America, of course! 

Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal doesn’t just bear resemblance to its Parisian counterpart with a foundation that is laid deep in the development of French-Canada. Notre-Dame de Montreal traces its history back to 1672, when groundbreaking commenced on the first stone church of Notre-Dame began. But, as more French expats found themselves in the New World in the 19th Century, the church could only accommodate 3,000 of its 15,000 parishioners. The rest were asked, politely of course, to, um, worship from outside – a true test of devotion come winter time. 

Enter James O’Donnell, a decidedly non-French, non-Canadian architect – in fact, the Irish-American from New York City wasn’t even Catholic, he was a Protestant. Still, he was the right man for the job, and by the time his work was finished, he had converted. And what a marvelous job he did.

Not only was Notre-Dame the largest place of worship in North America for a few years,(before New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral usurped that title, it is perhaps (still) the most impressive church on the continent. The basilica’s Gothic Revival style, most notably its tall, narrow lancet windows, is at once striking and awe-inspiring. Somewhat breaking from tradition, the stained-glass windows (which are aplenty) tell stories not from the bible, but those of the religious history of Montreal. But possibly the most breath-taking attraction? An immense pipe organ featuring four pedals, 92 stops, and … 7,000 individual pipes. Yes, a thousand. Enough sonic-bliss belts from the organ that you just might think you’ve entered the gates of heaven.

Just remember, you’re still in North America.

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