French for ‘Our Lady’, this Catholic cathedral of Montreal called Notre Dame richly deserves the same name as its more famous Parisian cousin. The church was designed in 1824 by an Irish-American Protestant, James O’Donnell.
The exterior facade is Gothic Revival and even though it was done in the early 19th century, it bears all the marks of a structure done hundreds of years earlier. With its asymmetric towers and curved arch entrance, the building invites you into its magnificent interior.
Large enough to hold 4,000, the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal was the largest religious structure in North America until surpassed by St. Patric’s Cathedral in New York decades later. Yet it took only five years to complete. Given the richly carved and decorated interior, it would be more believable to suppose it took generations, as was the case in the Middle Ages. Indeed, many of the present features did. The current design is largely the vision of architect Victor Bourgeau who led the project between 1874 and 1880.
The high vaulted ceiling is festooned with hand-painted gilded stars on a background of deep sky blue. In this cathedral, the stars shine in the daytime as the light filters in from the stained glass windows in the sanctuary to illuminate them. Alongside the windows are a series of awe-inspiring wooden columns, carved by hand and capped with gilt tops. The columns support an equally impressive pair of balconies that span the full length of the sanctuary.
Even more astounding is the massive altar, carved from linden wood and centered around a crucifix with near-life-sized sculptures of several Biblical characters. Moses, Abraham, Peter, Paul, and more are surrounded by angels. Lit from behind, the figures glow in silhouette. In addition, there are 32 panels representing birth, life, and death, cast in bronze by artist Charles Daudelin.
Moving half the distance to the narthex is a circular pulpit atop a stage. Access is by a spiral staircase that is itself a work of art. At its base, there are several carvings of prophets and other figures. From this vantage point, facing the narthex is the Basilica’s massive organ. A true organ player’s dream, the instrument was completed in 1891 and has over 7,000 pipes and 97 stops.
But that’s not the only heavenly music here. Don’t leave without seeing (and maybe hearing) the 10-bell carillon in the east tower and the massive bell in the west tower. Nicknamed Le Gros Bourdon, the latter weighs more than 12 tons. The sound produces vibrations that will rattle your feet and engulf your ears.
Worshipers may enter free. The standard donation for visitors is a few dollars, with those between 7-17 admitted for half-price. Children 6 and under enter for free.
Located in Vieux Montréal (Old Montreal), at 110 Notre Dame Street West it’s easy to reach via the Metro (Montreal’s subway). Just exit at Place d’Armes.