Time travel to medieval France in Montréal

One doesn’t exactly expect a fully-fledged religious epiphany on a standard tourist itinerary but that’s just what happened when I visited the basilica Notre-Dame de Montréal on a cold and windy morning in mid-May. As understated as the church appears on the outside as overwhelming it is when you enter. The interior is a riot of gold and blue on its vaulted ceilings, gilded altars and stained glass windows, all crafted to meticulous perfection.

Consecrated in 1829 on the site of an older church, the basilica is a monument to the soaring Gothic Revival style. At the time, that aesthetic choice raised some eyebrows because Gothic Revival designs were primarily associated with Protestant churches and also because the architect was James O’Donnell, a Protestant Irish American. Despite these initial misgivings, Gothic became the popular choice for churches in Canada of every denomination in large part because of Montréal’s basilica.

The twin tower Gothic edifice of the basilica must have been a daring and innovative edifice on a scale unequalled anywhere else in North America at the time, not least because of the church’s size: it is said to accommodate up to 10,000 worshippers. Although now dwarfed by Art-Deco and more modern high rises all around Place des Armes, which the basilica still dominates architecturally, the church’s twin towers – named Perseverance and Temperance – remain Montréal’s iconic tourist sight.

The basilica’s interior décor with its rich ornamentation which, as I myself can testify, does indeed evoke a true sense of wonder in visitors, dates back to the 1870s. The redecoration was overseen by Victor Bourgeau, a local architect, who chose colours and motifs reminiscent of Sainte-Chapelle, a royal chapel in Paris within the medieval residence of the French kings. This is why visitors feel they have time-travelled to late medieval France when they enter Notre-Dame de Montréal.

Although no longer the largest cathedral in North America since it was supplanted by St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Notre-Dame de Montréal still sports the biggest bell on the continent, the Gros Bourdon, in addition to its famous 7000-pipe Casavant organ, which I, sadly, didn’t get to hear. But more than these firsts, the basilica is memorable for its spiritual impact and as a place one would expect to stumble upon in France rather than where it really is – in the New World.