Both the oldest and the biggest church in Ottawa, the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica is a National Historic Site and still open for services as it was over 150 years ago.
The Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica
Located at 385 Sussex Drive, Notre-Dame Cathedral stands in the heart of the city. In fact, the Cathedral has stood there since before Ottawa was Ottawa! Originally known as the cathedral of Bytown, back when that was what Ottawa was called, the main building opened in 1847. Today Notre-Dame has grown into one of the most historic sites in the city.
The Cathedral’s Design
Although stunning in appearance, Notre-Dame actually has a slight clash of styles in its design. This is because the original plans for the building were to build it in a Neo-Classical style. A couple years into construction, however, new management took over. Despite the base of the building already being done, the rest of the cathedral was re-designed with a Neo-Gothic style.
Made of stone, the exterior design of the church is not as impressive as the interior. That’s not to say the exterior isn’t impressive; it’s still a grand building with large steeples and other decor. But it’s not as showy as perhaps some other buildings of the same ilk, at least not on the outside.
The inside is a different story, as there is plenty to take in there. The interior of the church is very bright and colourful and has a large amount of artwork in different styles. There are hundreds of statues within the cathedral made by a variety of artists. As well, there are a series of stained glass windows that have been added to over time. A few of them date all the way back to the 1870s (which for Canada is old)!
Notre-Dame’s organ is appropriately intricate with 4,700 pipes. The current organ was installed in 1892, although since then it’s been totally revamped over time and is very different to what it was originally. The most recent changes to the organ came in 1999 when an additional seven stops were added while still keeping the overall pitch the same.
Visiting Notre-Dame Cathedral
The Cathedral is open to the public and continues to hold Mass regularly as it has for years and years. Hundreds of people can attend normally, although due to COVID the maximum capacity in the summer of 2021 was only around 100 to 120 attendees.
Below is the schedule for Mass at the cathedral as of the summer of 2021.
- Tuesday to Friday – 12:15 pm. The service is in English on Wednesdays and Fridays, and in French on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
- Saturday – 5:00 pm. This Mass is bilingual and is also broadcast for free on the Notre-Dame website.
- Sunday – there are three Masses on Sunday, at 10:00 am (French), 12:00 pm (English) and 5:00 pm (bilingual).
During non-pandemic times the cathedral is open to visitors outside of Mass. That is, however, not the case as of July 2021. All visits from tourists or non-worshippers in general are prohibited until COVID is more under control, and even during Mass no one is allowed to explore the rest of the building – it’s open for the service only.
When the building is properly open, Notre-Dame offers guided tours to those who request them. These tours must be booked in advance and there is a small fee. The cathedral recommends that you take these tours on weekdays, specifically at either 9:00 am from Tuesday to Friday or at 1:30 pm or 3:00 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The tours last for around 45 minutes to an hour.
History of the Cathedral
Construction began on the cathedral in 1841 as the Bytown parish wanted a structure more durable than the previous wooden church. It took five years before the building was ready to be opened, during which time there were multiple changes in who the local reverend was as well as (in 1844) a change to which missionary group actually ran the parish.
After many delays and changes of plans the church was officially declared a cathedral by Pope Pius IX in 1847. At this point the building was still not actually complete as there were no steeples and very little interior decoration. The steeples were finished around a decade later while it took until the 1870s for the interior designs, including the stained glass windows, to be fully put in place.
In 1879 Pope Leo XIII declared Notre-Dame to be a minor basilica, raising its status. The 20th century saw many renovations and additions to the church. This includes adding a carillon in the bell towers (in 1944), replacing many of the stained glass windows with new ones (in 1956) and a massive reworking for an entire year (in 1999). The cathedral was named an Ottawa heritage property in 1978 and a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990.
For more information visit the Notre-Dame Cathedral website.
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