Montreal, the vibrant metropolis nestled on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, is a city steeped in history and culture. Among its most remarkable architectural treasures are the iconic churches that dot its landscape, serving as a testament to its diverse religious heritage.
In this article, we embark on a captivating journey to uncover the rich history and timeless beauty of Montreal’s historical Catholic churches.
From the stunning Notre-Dame Basilica, an exquisite example of Gothic Revival architecture, to the charming Church of the Visitation with its traditional Quebecois style, each place of worship has a unique story to tell.
We’ll delve into the fascinating narratives of these sacred spaces, exploring their architectural nuances, the historical events they witnessed, and the art and culture they house.
In a city known for its multiculturalism, the historical Catholic churches stand as awe-inspiring landmarks, offering visitors and locals alike a glimpse into Montreal’s vibrant religious past.
So, join us as we step back in time and unravel the spiritual tapestry woven by these grand monuments of faith. And don’t miss the forthcoming article that will delve into the equally captivating history of Montreal’s historical Protestant and Orthodox churches.
Saint Joseph’s Oratory
Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal, a Roman Catholic minor basilica and national shrine in Montreal, holds a prominent position at 3800 Queen Mary Road in the Côte-des-Neiges neighborhood on Mount Royal’s Westmount Summit.
This iconic structure, designated a National Historic Site of Canada, proudly stands as the country’s largest church and boasts one of the world’s largest church domes.
Constructed in 1904 by Saint André Bessette to honor his patron saint, Saint Joseph, the Oratory is the remarkable result of a multi-decade effort involving numerous architects and thousands of workers. Its awe-inspiring scale, Renaissance Revival facade, and captivating Art Deco interior have garnered worldwide recognition, attracting over 2 million visitors and pilgrims annually.
Saint Joseph’s Oratory’s dome, a masterpiece by Dom Bellot, ranks among the world’s largest and tallest. Its double-shell design, inspired by Florence Cathedral, creates a captivating sight with eight pointed arches atop an octagonal drum, boasting an outer dome that is astonishingly thin, akin to an eggshell.
Standing more than 30 meters above Mount Royal’s summit, the Oratory is Montreal’s tallest building, defying the city’s height restrictions set by the municipal building code, which forbids structures from surpassing Mount Royal’s height.
Despite being constructed during a period when modern architectural styles were flourishing, Saint Joseph’s Oratory stands as a grand classical church, featuring a Renaissance Revival exterior paired with an Art Deco interior, making it a standout structure in Montreal.
The basilica comprises several significant components, such as the Crypt Church, located beneath the basilica, the Votive Chapel, situated between the Crypt and Mount-Royal’s rock, the Shrine, which encompasses the nave, apse, and transept, and the dome, Canada‘s largest and the world’s third-largest church dome.
Visitors flock to the Oratory during the summer solstice to witness the sun align perfectly with the main steps and altar cross, offering a truly mesmerizing experience.
The interior of the basilica, known as the Shrine, showcases remarkable religious art in the popular Art Deco style of the 1930s, while reinforced concrete multi-angle arches support the roof.
Crafted with large blocks of granite from Lac Mégantic quarries, the exterior features Corinthian columns that add to the grandeur of the front facade. The staircase leading to the basilica consists of 283 concrete steps flanked by 99 wooden steps reserved for pilgrims climbing on their knees.
This architectural marvel stands as a testament to devotion, artistry, and innovation, captivating hearts and spirits, and preserving its legacy for generations to come.
Notre-Dame Basilica, located in Old Montreal, is a Gothic Revival masterpiece with a dramatic interior decorated in deep blue vaults adorned with golden stars, blues, azures, reds, purples, silver, and gold.
The church’s stained glass windows depict scenes from Montreal’s religious history rather than biblical scenes. Its Casavant Frères pipe organ, dating back to 1891, boasts four keyboards, 92 stops, and 7000 individual pipes.
This iconic basilica attracts approximately 11 million visitors yearly, ranking it among North America’s most visited monuments. In 2023, it earned the title of the 6th most beautiful building globally by Angi, following Notre-Dame de Paris and Barcelona’s Sagrada Família.
The West Tower, “La Persévérance,” houses the bourdon bell “Jean-Baptiste,” cast in 1848, while the East Tower, “La Tempérance,” holds a ten-bell carillon dating back to May 24, 1842.
Over the years, the interior underwent significant changes, and it became renowned for its neogothic splendor. The basilica boasts intricate sculptures, paintings, and a remarkable collection of sacred art from the 17th to the 20th century.
It is a preferred venue for weddings, funerals of prominent figures, world-class organ recitals, and concerts by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, such as Handel’s “Messiah.”
The basilica also houses the rebuilt Sacré-Cœur Chapel, featuring a bronze retable by Charles Daudelin and a mechanical organ by Guilbault-Thérien.
Recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1989, Notre-Dame Basilica holds the fourth position among America’s recognized religious edifices, trailing behind the Cathédrale Saint-Patrick de New York, the Cathédrale nationale de Washington, and the Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal.
Church of La Visitation-de-la-Bienheureuse-Vierge-Marie
The Church of the Visitation of Montreal, also known as the Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is the oldest church on the island of Montreal, built with fieldstones between 1749 and 1751.
Its facade, made of cut stones, was modified between 1850 and 1870. Located at 1847 Gouin Boulevard East in Sault-au-Récollet, Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough, the church holds historical significance, as Jacques Cartier passed through the site in 1535, and the first mass in Montreal was celebrated in 1615 with Champlain present.
Despite population growth in the 19th century leading to the reconstruction of many parish churches in Montreal, the Church of Sault-au-Récollet retained its structure through various restorations and additions. It features a Recollect plan, lacking transepts, and a narrowed choir. The consecration was performed by Bishop Henri-Marie du Breil de Pontbriand of Quebec in 1752.
Philippe Liébert oversaw the interior decoration, including the pulpit, tabernacle, and paschal candlestick modifications. David Fleury-David completed the wooden vault and renovated the altars, while Vincent Chartrand designed the current pulpit.
The original organ, likely built by Samuel Russel Warren, an important organ builder from New England, dates back to the 1800s. A contract was signed with Hellmuth Wolff on December 23, 1991, to construct a new organ that retains the old instrument’s architectural features. This harmonious blend of old and new gives the organ a unique character.
In 1850, an extension to the nave and a new facade were added following the approval of Ignace Bourget. John Ostell, virtually acting as the architect of the Diocese of Montreal, designed the facade, which contrasts with the church’s warm interior.
Considered “classable” in the first report of the Commission des monuments historiques in 1923, the church was designated as a heritage building on October 3, 1974, with a protective area delimited around it on July 8, 1975.
The Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, located in the Old Montreal district, is one of the city’s oldest churches, built in 1771 on the site of an earlier chapel. Situated at 400 Saint Paul Street East, it holds historical significance as a designated Historic Place of Canada, and it is often referred to as the Sailors’ Church due to its connection with sailors arriving in the Old Port of Montreal.
The chapel’s history is intertwined with St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, who played a pivotal role in its establishment, rallying colonists to build it in 1655. After a fire in 1754, the current stone church was completed in 1771, preserving the rescued reliquary and statue of Our Lady of Good Help. Over the years, the chapel became a pilgrimage site for sailors, who offered prayers for safe sea voyages.
Today, the chapel houses the Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum, dedicated to the founder’s life and early Montreal history. Visitors can explore the crypt, which serves as an archeological site, uncovering First Nations and French colonial artifacts and the foundations of the first chapel and colony fortifications.
The interior of the chapel features marble and gold in the sanctuary and walls, with beautifully painted scenes depicting the life of the Virgin. Statues of the Virgin Mary, including one nicknamed “L’Étoile de la mer,” grace the chapel. Ex-votos, miniature ship models offered by sailors as tokens of gratitude, are suspended from the ceiling.
The site’s historical significance was recognized when it was designated a heritage building in 2014, along with three associated objects and the chapel’s archeological site. With its rich history and architectural beauty, the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel continues to be a cherished landmark in Montreal.
Church of Saint-Pierre-Apôtre
The Church of St. Peter the Apostle (Église Saint-Pierre-Apôtre) is a Roman Catholic parish church situated in the Village neighborhood of Montreal. It holds historical significance as a designated Historic Place of Canada.
The church’s origins trace back to Pierre Beaudry, who donated a portion of his land for its construction, challenging the influence of the Society of Saint-Sulpice in Montreal. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate from France settled on the site in 1841, establishing the Maison Saint-Pierre-Apôtre.
Construction of the church began in 1850 under architect Victor Bourgeau. Rivalry between the Sulpician and Oblate Fathers was prevalent, but Saint-Pierre-Apôtre became an independent parish in 1900.
Today, the church features the unique Chapel of Hope dedicated to AIDS victims. The complex includes the rectory, sacristy, clock tower, and former choir school and elementary school.
The church boasts three naves terminating under a polygonal apse, while the neoclassical-style rectory was built in 1854-1856. Guido Nincheri later decorated the interior, and stained glass windows from Bar-le-Duc, France, adorn the church.
With its significant history and architectural beauty, St. Peter the Apostle Church remains a notable landmark in Montreal.
Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral
Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral, also known as Mary, Queen of the World and St. James the Great Cathedral, is a minor basilica in Montreal, serving as the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal.
It is the third-largest church in Quebec, following Saint Joseph’s Oratory and the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. The cathedral measures 101 m (333 ft) in length, 46 m (150 ft) in width, and reaches a maximum height of 77 m (252 ft) at the cupola, which has a diameter of 23 m (75 ft).
Located at 1085 Cathedral Street, the cathedral is situated near the Bonaventure metro station and Central Station in downtown Montreal, dominating Dorchester Square. It was commissioned by Mgr. Ignace Bourget, the second bishop of Montreal, to replace the former Saint-Jacques Cathedral that had been destroyed in a fire in 1852.
To counter rivalries with other religious orders, Bourget decided to create a scaled model of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which led to a controversy over its location in the predominantly English neighborhood.
Construction began in 1875, and the church was consecrated in 1894 as Saint James Cathedral. Later, it was designated a minor basilica in 1919 by Pope Benedict XV. In 1955, it was rededicated to Mary, Queen of the World, upon the request of Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger. The cathedral underwent restoration works between 1955 and 1960.
Designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2000, the cathedral continues to be an iconic landmark of Montreal, showcasing beautiful chapels, paintings, statues, and an impressive organ.
Saint-Jacques Cathedral (Cathédrale Saint-Jacques) served as Montreal’s Roman Catholic cathedral from 1825 to 1852, honoring St. James the Greater. Initially, it was the seat of the auxiliary bishop of Quebec in Montreal until the Roman Catholic Diocese of Montreal was established in 1836, making it the cathedral of the new diocese.
Located at the corner of Saint-Denis and Sainte-Catherine streets, it was the city’s first purpose-built cathedral. Construction began in 1822, and the cathedral was consecrated on September 22, 1825. Sadly, it fell victim to the Great Fire of July 9, 1852, along with 1,200 other buildings.
After the fire, the diocese moved temporarily to nearby chapels until it finally settled on the current site of Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral, dedicated to St. James. Saint-Jacques Cathedral was rebuilt as a parish church in 1857 by architect John Ostell, but it suffered two more fires in 1858 and 1933.
Although its congregation declined significantly, the church continued as a pilgrimage center and Christian church of Expo 67. In 1973, the building was purchased by the Université du Québec à Montréal. It was demolished, except for the remaining spire and transept, which were integrated into the university’s Pavillon Judith-Jasmin. These remnants are now classified as historical monuments by the Government of Quebec.
Saint-Édouard Church is a Roman Catholic church in Montreal, dedicated to Edward the Confessor, King of England. Its construction began in 1901 and was completed in 1909. Located at 6500 Saint-Vallier Street, near the intersection of Saint Denis Street and Beaubien Street, it became a significant place of worship as Montreal experienced rapid growth in the 1890s.
Initially, the parish began with a temporary chapel on Saint Denis Street, established in 1896. However, due to the increasing population, a larger church was required, leading to the construction of Saint-Édouard Church. The building’s facade is adorned with limestone elements, and the organ, built by Casavant Frères in 1913, remains in excellent condition.
Throughout the church’s interior, frescoes, sculptures of saints and biblical characters, and a carved wooden bas-relief depicting the Last Supper add to its artistic beauty. The church’s walls are decorated with oak paneling, featuring vine leaves and grape clusters, masterfully crafted by the Caron brothers. The church’s richly illuminated interior includes vast stained glass windows, and a beautiful cruciform vault is painted by Joseph Richer.
The Church of the Holy Spirit of Rosemont (Église St. Esprit de Rosemont) is a Roman Catholic church in Montreal, built between 1931 and 1933 with unique Art Deco architecture. Designed by Joseph-Égilde-Césaire Daoust, it stands on Masson Street in the Vieux-Rosemont neighborhood.
The church was constructed in two stages, the first in 1922-1923, and the second in 1931-1933. Originally featuring a steeple atop a Gothic Revival bell tower, it was later removed due to instability caused by nearby mine explosions. The steeple was replaced with three-dimensional crosses at each corner of the tower.
Inside, the church boasts an expansive interior with a three-aisle nave and semicircular apse. Notably, it houses a Casavant Frères organ, which underwent restoration after water damage in the 1990s.
The building’s gray limestone, quarried nearby, was used in its construction. Artist Guido Nincheri created the striking windows, and unique Art Deco lamps and churchwardens’ pews grace the church, adding to its distinctive charm.
Saint-Viateur d’Outremont Church
St-Viateur d’Outremont Church (Église Saint-Viateur d’Outremont) stands as a remarkable Roman Catholic church in Montreal’s Outremont borough, precisely located at 183 Bloomfield Avenue, near Laurier Avenue West.
This architectural gem was constructed in 1911, following the prestigious 1910 Eucharistic Congress of Montreal, and became the first parish of Outremont, signifying a separation from the neighboring Saint-Louis du Mile-End parish.
Designed in the Gothic Revival style, the church boasts elegant and slender arches that lend an air of grace to the building. The interior of St-Viateur d’Outremont Church is adorned with stunning stained glass windows, masterfully crafted by the talented artist Guido Nincheri, whose work adds an exquisite touch to the sacred space.
The church’s dedication ceremony took place on October 26, 1913, an event celebrated with great reverence by the faithful community. Within its walls, visitors are treated to finely detailed oak woodwork, skillfully crafted by Philibert Lemay. Notably, the original plaster statues were later replaced with captivating wooden statues, sculpted by Médard Bourgault in 1950, becoming cherished attractions of the church.
Adding to the church’s grandeur, the magnificent organ was crafted in 1913 by Casavant Frères and underwent a meticulous restoration process in the early 1990s. Today, St-Viateur d’Outremont Church stands as a cherished symbol of spiritual devotion and architectural splendor in the heart of Outremont.
Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church (Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal) is a Roman Catholic church built in 1872 in Montreal. Located at 4237 Henri-Julien Avenue, it is the largest church in Montreal after Notre-Dame Basilica and Saint Joseph’s Oratory, accommodating up to 2,800 people.
The church’s history saw some setbacks, including a fire that destroyed it in 1898. However, it was reconstructed and inaugurated in 1903 with a Casavant Frères organ. Another fire struck in 1911, leading to a new reconstruction under architect Casimir Saint-Jean, resulting in its present form in 1912.
The interior features stunning Baroque revival architecture, adorned with original chandeliers, ornate pulpit, cabinet benches, and confessionals, all contributing to its splendor. Stained glass by Guido Nincheri was added in 1932.
The church was renovated in 1987 and received recognition from the City of Montreal in 1989. It remains a cultural hub with regular concerts. Notably, it houses two organs, including the prestigious Opus 615 of Casavant Frères in the gallery, restored in 1995 and 1996. Additionally, a third, more modest organ, resides in Saint-Louis Chapel, adjacent to the main church.
Church of Saint-Léon-de-Westmount
The Church of Saint-Léon-de-Westmount is a Roman Catholic church situated at 4311 De Maisonneuve Boulevard West in Westmount. Constructed in 1901, it was designed by renowned Montreal architect Georges-Alphonse Monette and adorned by Guido Nincheri from 1901 to 1903, using the buon fresco technique.
Representing the Romanesque Revival style, the church features an Italianate façade with a bell tower and holds the distinction of being a National Historic Site of Canada, designated in 1997 and plaqued in 1999.
In the late 19th century, Montreal was expanding eastward rapidly, while Westmount, inhabited by the elite, developed more slowly. Catholic residents of Westmount had to travel to other neighborhoods for Mass until the Archbishop of Montreal, Mgr Paul Bruchési, approved the division of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce parish and established the new Saint-Léon parish in 1901, serving both Anglophone and Francophone Catholics.
Saint-Léon-de-Westmount became the first Catholic church dedicated to Francophones in the area. The founding pastor, Abbé Joseph-Alexandre-Stanislas Perron, enlisted architect Georges-Alphonse Monette to design a Neo-Romanesque style church.
Construction began in October 1901, the cornerstone was blessed on May 18, 1902, and the church was inaugurated on October 11, 1903. The current façade was added in 1920, replacing the original Neo-Romanesque one.
In 1928, under the guidance of Pastor Gauthier, Guido Nincheri took on the project of decorating the church, designing and executing frescoes, stained glass windows, and other ornamental elements. This collaboration with fellow Italian artisans resulted in a unique masterpiece, admired for its beauty and craftsmanship.
The interior boasts carefully selected stones, walnut Honduras pews, and a bronze cast Way of the Cross, with molds crafted by a Florence workshop. This labor of artistry and dedication extended from 1928 to 1944 for the main structure and to 1957 for the decoration.
Church of Nativité-de-la-Sainte-Vierge-d’Hochelaga
The Church of Nativité-de-la-Sainte-Vierge-d’Hochelaga is a Roman Catholic church in Montreal, completed in 1924. Originally founded in 1867, the first building opened in 1877 but was later destroyed by fire in 1921.
Father Georges-Marie LePailleur rebuilt the church using the original facade and bell tower, which dates back to 1906 and contains five bells.
Father LePailleur dreamt of establishing an independent bishopric and engaged architects Dalbé Viau and Alphonse Venne, who designed Saint Joseph’s Oratory, to reconstruct the church with the stature of a cathedral. Though it never became a cathedral, the church is sizeable.
The interior was adorned by Montreal artists Alexander Carli and Nicholas Petrucci in 1921. Their most notable work is the monumental frieze “The Apotheosis of the Virgin Mary,” installed in 1927. It consists of 27 paintings depicting the Blessed Virgin’s life, religious institutions, bishops of Montreal, and the city’s founders. The frieze showcases 320 life-sized depictions of people made from plaster or marble dust dissolved in adhesive and spans the church’s perimeter just below the ceiling.
The 14 windows, added in 1964-1965, are masterpieces by Guido Nincheri, devoted to the Virgin.