Monday, June 7, 2010

Cathedral adds timeless beauty to downtown Winnipeg

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St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral is a jewel in downtown  Winnipeg.
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St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral is a jewel in downtown Winnipeg.

It is somewhat of a wonder that a tiny castle-like treasure from another era has managed to survive as a modern city has sprung up hurriedly and noisily all around it. Continuing to offer a quiet respite smack in the middle of busy downtown Winnipeg is the medieval-looking stone beauty we know as St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral.

It was during the tumultuous years of the Métis uprising under Louis Riel, in 1869, that a small mission church was born on the west side of the Red River on Notre Dame Street E. and Victoria in what was then the village of Winnipeg. Rooms were rented by Alexandre-Antonin Taché for the purpose of running a Grey Nuns' school, known today as St. Mary's Academy, and a church that would serve English-speaking Catholics.

Until the time of St. Mary's, Catholics living in the village of Winnipeg had to cross the river without the benefit of bridges in order to attend mass at St. Boniface Cathedral. Father Joseph McCarthy was to be the mission's first pastor.

A year later in 1870, Manitoba became a province. Three years later, the City of Winnipeg was incorporated.

By 1874, the mission of St. Mary's was moved to the St. Mary Avenue site in Winnipeg where seven lots were acquired, some given to St. Boniface Archdiocese by the Hudson Bay Company. A small two-storey structure was built there that housed the mission chapel on the second floor. Pastors of the second church were Father Baudin and Father Lacombe.

In April 1876, St. Mary's Parish was canonically erected by Archbishop Taché under the holy name of Mary and four years later in 1880 the cornerstone was blessed for a new church to be built on the site. Although begun, this church, which is the third and present church of St. Mary's, would take years to be completed.

Consecrated in 1887 by the Archbishop of Montreal, Édouard Fabre, this church was designed by C. Balston Kenway in the Romanesque Revival style featuring arched windows and much brick work but was much simpler and plainer overall than what was to come later.

During the late 1800s, immigrants pouring into Winnipeg, some British, others Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish and Mennonite in origin, began to alter the social and physical landscape of the city. People from many parts of the world came, in fact, each of them bringing with them a bit of their own past, customs and culture. By transplanting their institutions and their traditions, they transformed the face of the flat prairie city into a rich and diverse cosmopolitan centre.

When, as a result, the church became too small to accommodate the growing number of worshippers, it was expanded in 1896 under the guidance of Father Guillet. Its façade was redesigned by the fairly new but promising architect Samuel Hooper. An enlarged vestibule, two larger side chapels and two new lofty towers, each with its own spire, were also added along with meticulously detailed stonework.

By 1907 there were Polish, German, Ukrainian, English and French Catholic churches in the city. And by 1912, during the peak of Winnipeg's growth and prosperity, St. Mary's acquired property near Broadway for the purpose of relocating to, what was then, a much more residential area. The plans came to a sudden halt during the years of the First World War and the city's economic decline. They were not to be pursued again.

Differences among the needs and customs of many diverse groups of people that made up Winnipeg did not always make for smooth sailing. In 1915, the Archdiocese of Winnipeg was created and a year later, Archbishop Sinnott was consecrated as its new archbishop. In 1918, St. Mary's was designated a cathedral.

The early years of Sinnott's appointment, unfortunately, coincided with the discovery that St. Mary's was deeply in debt, related to the earlier land purchase. It took the parish 40 years to pay it off.

Only to add to the dark cloud hanging over the new cathedral was a fire that started in the cathedral's basement in the spring of 1919. It caused $30,000 in damages, a huge sum at the time.

Various renovations and repairs were required over the ensuing years in order to keep the structure in working order. The interior of the church has also been lightened and brightened over the years and medieval-style stained glass windows have been added.

Unknown to the church, further extensive damage was discovered in the late 1980s in the timber and concrete base under the floor of the church, caused by the long-forgotten fire of 1919. A new floor had to be put in and a million dollar's worth of reconstruction had to be done.

Because of the much-needed repairs, the 100th anniversary of the building's dedication, which was supposed to be in 1987, was held the following year. What was amazing to Father Sharbel at that time was that the floor had held up at all through those entire years during lengthy ceremonies attended by crowds of worshippers.

Both a mystery and a miracle, 141 years later, from the time of its first chapel, St. Mary's Cathedral continues to lend its timeless beauty to the ever-changing downtown city landscape.

The Archdiocese of Winnipeg, today, contains about 52 parishes and the cathedral itself continues to be the spiritual home to about 900 families of worshippers. Winnipeg Free Press

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