Our Shared History
Long an icon of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, in its time the Basilica was the largest Irish cathedral outside of Ireland, and was the largest building project to its date in Newfoundland history. More than 170 years since its cornerstone was laid, the Basilica of St. John the Baptist remains a unique symbol of the strength, faith and determination of a people committed to living on a harsh coast of the North Atlantic.
The Basilica, at the time of construction considered and called a Cathedral, was built between 1839 and 1855. At that time, St. John's was a small town of 19,000 citizens, about 14,000 of whom were Roman Catholic. The existing Chapel for the city's Catholics was severely lacking, and news of the new Cathedral was met with excitement and scores of people ready to pitch in. In addition to their voluntary manual labour, fishermen and labourers from throughout the colony contributed generously to raise funds required for the work. Indeed, the clergy frequently had to remonstrate with the people, who often placed the needs of the church before their own.
Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming fought hard to secure the land where the Basilica is located, on the highest ridge overlooking the city and facing the entrance to St. John's harbour. The Basilica is built in the form of a Latin cross in the Lombard Romanesque style and was designed by the German architect Ole Joergen Schmidt. Michael McGrath of Waterford, Ireland, supervised construction; because of differences of opinion, the original builder was later replaced by James Purcell.
Initial construction was supervised by Irish-born Bishop Fleming, the Vicar-Apostolic and first Bishop of Newfoundland. His successor, Bishop John Mullock, continued the project. Built by the sweat and toil of the local people, the Basilica is a thoroughly Newfoundland building.
The Basilica is unusual among North America's 19th century public buildings. It was constructed using limestone and granite imported from Galway and Dublin and 400,000 bricks from Hamburg, Germany. Local sandstone quarried from St. John's, Long Pond and Kelly's Island in Conception Bay give the Basilica its characteristic grey colour.
When consecrated on September 9, 1855, the Basilica's cost was placed at half-a-million dollars, which was principally raised by locals. This is both an amazing testament to their enduring faith, and to the zeal of their Bishop and clergy.
With a repository of art, statuary, stained glass, rare books and archived materials, the Basilica is recognized as an internationally-significant treasury of Irish and English ecclesiastical art. Surviving the Great Fire of 1892, it houses much of the history of Newfoundland and Labrador, and regularly welcomes scholars and historians to its library.
For its centenary celebration in 1955, Pope Pius XII named the church a minor basilica, as is now reflected in its name. In the Roman Catholic Church, a minor basilica designation bestows certain rights and precedences.
The Basilica became a National Historic Site in 1983, celebrating it as an early example of Romanesque revival style in North America and acknowledging its centrality to the spiritual and culture lives of Roman Catholics in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Basilica is also a Registered Heritage Structure and Provincial Historic Site.
For more in-depth explanation of different artifacts throughout the Basilica, please see our Basilica Tour.
Highlights of the history of the Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist include:
- In May 1838, the land on which to build the Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was finally granted to Bishop Anthony Fleming by Queen Victoria.
- On May 21, 1841, the cornerstone for the cathedral was laid. Citizens of all denominations participated in the ceremony.
- An ailing Bishop Fleming celebrated the first Mass on January 6, 1850, in what was then the shell of the structure, with only the exterior walls complete. He died on July 14 of that year.
- The Basilica was consecrated on September 12, 1855 with Archbishop Hughes of New York presiding over the Consecration Celebrations.
- On June 24, 1905, Archbishop Howley was invested with the Pallium, signifying the raising of St. John’s to the rank of an Archdiocese and Primatial See.
- In 1955, Pope Pius XII designated the cathedral a Minor Basilica, an honorific meaning “Royal House” to recognize its outstanding religious, historical, and artistic significance.
- In September 1984, Pope John Paul II helped celebrate the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the Catholic Church in Newfoundland and Labrador with a milestone “pastoral visitation” to the province. Among his itinerary was a Meeting with Catholic Educators at the Basilica Cathedral.
- On September 12, 2005 the Basilica marked the 150th Anniversary of its Consecration.
Image from P.J. Kennedy, ed. The Centenary of the Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, St. John's, Newfoundland: 1855-1955 (St. John's: Centenary Souvenir Book Editorial Board, ©1956).
Through the better part of two centuries, the Basilica has served as a place of celebration, often reflecting our unique position in the British Empire, in Canada and in the world. Through the years, events at the Basilica have captured our heritage and showcased our special relationships:
- The Prince of Wales visited the Basilica in July of 1860. He was only 19, representing Queen Victoria on a visit to Newfoundland, Canada and the United States. He was the first member of the British royal family to visit North America.
- In May of 1955, the Portuguese government presented the statue Our Lady of Fatima to the people of Newfoundland. Carried through the streets by 5000 fishermen of the famous White Fleet, it was placed in a niche under the Basilica’s west gallery. It stands as an enduring monument to centuries of commerce between Newfoundland and Portugal.
- In August 1984, the Basilica of St. John the Baptist was designated a National Historic Site by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.
- Pope John Paul II visited the Basilica and addressed Educators of Newfoundland and Labrador on September 13, 1984.
- December 1987 saw the inaugural performance of Handel’s Messiah by the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra.
- In 1988 the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador declared the Basilica of St. John the Baptist a Registered Heritage Structure.
It is a testament to its singular role in the community that the Basilica has many times embraced Newfoundlanders and Labradorians as they assembled en masse to remember and grieve for the loss of lives. It is also a gathering place for the province to pay tribute to distinguished Newfoundlanders.
- As a memorial to parishioners lost in World War I and World War II, a great pipe organ from the world-renowned Casavant Frères firm was installed in 1955. The 66 stop organ with 4,050 pipes is the largest musical instrument in the province.
- On February 19, 1985, four days after the unbelievably tragic loss of the Ocean Ranger, the Basilica was the gathering place for grieving families and friends during an all-denomination service of remembrance for the 84 victims of the disaster.
- In December of 1991, thousands paid their final respects to former Premier Smallwood, Father of Newfoundland's Confederation with Canada. National and provincial dignitaries gathered to honour the life of Joey.
- Hundreds gathered on October 9, 2006 to pay tribute to Craig Dobbin, a local entrepreneur who rose from a modest childhood to create the world's largest helicopter conglomerate.
- The province’s multi-faith memorial service was held on March 18, 2009 at the Basilica, for the 17 people who died when Cougar Helicopter 491 crashed into the Atlantic, en route to the oilfields off our shores. Thousands gathered to grieve and provide support to those left behind.