In the summer of 1989, we journeyed to Montreal Canada with excited anticipation of visiting the library at McGill University. It was summertime so despite this being our primary intention, we also wanted to see this historical city that stood apart, not just in architectural magnificence and old world charm, but also being the only French speaking province on this side of the world. My children and I drove through that part of the campus that was accessible to us but our hopes were dashed as the library and indeed most other areas of the campus were closed.
As we approached the cobble stoned heart of the city we were faced with the imposing structure of the Notre Dame Basilica, standing majestically across the road from us. I had no idea what to expect. Up to then, the most beautiful church I had entered was Scot’s Kirk in Jamaica, to which we strutted from St. George’s Primary school just up the road, in as uniformed a lined as could be expected of children, for choir practice. At seven years old the structure loomed just as large as the Basilica did in my adulthood. As an islander I remained open to all new experiences of different cultures and heritage and admired conscious appreciation of preservation in historical statements through architecture.
We ascended the wide steps leading into the church, where, upon entering we were greeted by an enchanting sea of lighted white candles, each representing one of hundreds of charities that the church supported. As the dazzling lights resonated in the depth of my soul, a fleeting thought led me to hope that that moment of reverence had impacted my children as it did me, for regardless of faith or denomination, I felt the presence of God in the Basilica.
As I continued to look around through teary eyes, the lights gradually diminished from my inner vision and brought the altar into sharper focus. The wonderful backdrop of art intricately inlaid in a profusion of stained glass with images that depicts scriptural passages and artistic expressions of Montreal’s rich history was in full view. I noted as well that each pew had carved out heads on the shoulder height extension of the arm rests. My knees answered the call for near prostration as I kneeled in unrushed prayer at the foot of the altar.
We caught up mid-stream with the guided tour and listened intently to the history of the church. We learned more about the thousands of 24 carat gold stars embellishing the blue vaulted ceiling, the details on Canada’s largest sprawling gigantic piped organ, with 7,000 pipes that measure from 32 feet at their largest to ¼ inch at their smallest; and the bell in the west tower that weighs over 11 tons or 24,000 lbs. The acoustics in the church that seats 3,500 people allow voice to be carried without the aid of electronic amplification.
Originally built in the 1600s, this Gothic Revival styled French Canadian Roman Catholic church was renovated in the 1820s by an Irish Protestant architect whose pride of work converted him to Catholicism and whose body is the only one that has been laid to rest in the crypt there. This is apt, for though its magnificence may be viewed by some as ostentatious there is something that signifies that the quintessential soul of the “creator” stands still.