Written by: Diana Janosik-Wronski | Photography: Cory Bruyea
Driving into Guelph along Eramosa (or Charleston) Road, the Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate stands out from literally miles away.
The basilica was sited well! John Galt gave the hill in the centre of town to his friend Bishop Alexander Macdonell, who was also the first Catholic Bishop of Upper Canada, as well as Bishop of Kingston. This was April of 1827.
By way of a history refresher, John Galt, born in 1779, was a Scottish novelist who supported himself as a “colonial promoter”. Coming to London in 1804, he was commissioned by a merchant firm to establish trade agreements. Travelling to the Mediterranean, he met the poet Byron and they travelled together to Malta and Athens. Other business saw him go to France, the Netherlands and then to Canada a number of times.
His first involvement with Canada was as an agent for claimed losses in the War of 1812. He became secretary of the board of directors of the Canada Company 1824, a large British land development company, to help colonize a big part of Upper Canada. Under Galt, the company successfully populated the area called the “Huron Tract”, termed “the most important single attempt at settlement in Canadian history”.
Between 1826 and 1829 Galt remained here as the first Canadian superintendant and in 1827 founded Guelph. Today’s city was actually named after the Guelfs (Welfs), the family name of the British royal house of Hanover. Because of continuing conflict with directors he was recalled, dying in Scotland in 1839 in ill health and poverty. Besides these legacies, Galt also opened up and was very proud of the “Huron Road”, saying in his words ”by which an overland communication was established, for the first time, between the two great lakes, Huron and Ontario”. He left a number of written works, (although little on Canada) including Life of Lord Byron, published in 1830.
The Church’s first mass was celebrated in the home of the town blacksmith, John Owen Lynch. In 1835, the wooden St. Patrick Church was built by Irish settlers. This is obvious in the street names surrounding the church, if you walk or drive around! St. Patrick was also the first painted building in the settlement. The first priest in 1837 was Father Thomas Gibney. Sadly it was destroyed by fire in 1844.
Like the Phoenix rising from the flames, Father Gibney dedicated a new stone church in honour of St. Bartholomew in 1846. Father John Holzer became the first Jesuit appointed in 1852. The Loretto Sisters came at his invitation in 1857 to provide education and live in the convent at “Catholic Hill”.
Ambition did not stop there, however! By 1863 plans were underway to build a church big enough to cover the entire hill. On October 4th, the cornerstone was laid by Bishop Farrell. A huge accumulated debt of $20,000 then stalled that project until 1874 when Father P. Hamel appointed Joseph Connolly architect for a new church. Construction began in 1876 when Bishop Crinnon turned the sod, and in 1877 St. Bartholomew was demolished. In 1888, 2000 persons attended the dedication by Bishop Dowling.
Joseph Connolly, an architect born and trained in Ireland, specialized in Gothic Revival architecture. Mainly known for the churches he designed throughout Ontario largely for the Irish Roman Catholic community, this church is based on Cologne Cathedral in Germany, often considered the “benchmark” for Gothic style through the ages.
There is a persistent rumour I even remember from childhood, that Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico paid for the church, or at least that $20,000 debt. “Urban legend!” says Father Ian Duffy, the current rector there. The only link was a possible personal relationship between the Emperor and Father John Holzer.
To begin with, a “basilica” Father Duffy explained, is an honourary title given by Rome, because of historical importance and devotional life, outside any architectural definition of style. Greek for “royal house”, a basilica is a church building that has been given special privileges by the Pope. The world’s four major, or papal, basilicas are in in Rome, the rest are “minor” with over 1500 in the world, and over 325 in the Americas. Father Duffy proudly pointed to the “ombrellino” and “tintanabullum” gracing either side of the altar as symbols of the church’s status, given in 2014 by Pope Francis.
As in all great churches, finishing details continued for over the next 125 years until today, including the towers in 1926. The priceless Casavante Frères organ from Quebec arrived in 1919. Off the “main” tour is the original crypt below, revealed during renovations about five years ago. Nineteenth century cast iron pillars were found helping hold up the church, among the first to be used anywhere. The bodies of three original Jesuit priests and a Sister of St. Joseph nun still rest there, remnants of the cemetery moved when the present church was built. The main altar and the statue of Mary are Carrara marble, the altar coming from France, and the statue from Italy. In more recent renovations, part of the marble rail was artistically reused to decorate three new pieces for consistency. The chancel windows came from Germany in the early 20th century. Skillfully, when an elevator was installed in recent renovations, the new screen showing the four seasons made to disguise it, matches the original wood carving so it looks as though “it had always been there”. The numbered church pews, now out of order after the renovation, were originally “rented”. One point of interest, by the way, is that Thomas Cardinal Collins, the present spiritual leader of the archdiocese of Toronto, started as a young parishioner here!
The church leaves its doors open for all to enter and enjoy its tranquility and beauty, away from the bustle of the outside world. It is full of artistic offerings of many kinds, and emits a spiritual harmony in all aspects, of what is, after all, a magnificent cathedral.
The story of this basilica truly does have layers in time!