Last Updated on 27th August 2019 by Sophie Nadeau
Close to the Rideau Canal, not far from Parliament Hill, and directly opposite from the National Gallery of Canada (i.e. where the Maman sculpture is to be spied), the Roman Catholic Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica in Ottawa is one of the top must-see attractions that the Canadian capital city has to offer. Here’s how to visit the main cathedral of Ottawa, as well as a quick history and insider tips on things to know before you go!
History of the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica in Ottawa
The basilica dates all the way back to the 19th-century, meaning that it’s the oldest still-standing church that’s to be found anywhere in Ottawa. All tin roof and several architectural designs, what you may well not know is that there have actually been several churches on the site where the Basilica is now to be found.
The original Basilica Church was constructed of wood (as was so often the case with the early Canadian churches) and was built in 1832. Dedicated to Saint-Jacques, soon enough this structure was demolished so at to be replaced in 1841 by a church with a neo-classical design that would be created from stone and tin.
The new church was built over the course of several decades and was intended to be in the Neo-Classical design. However, while Neo-Classical had been oh so à la mode when the Basilica was first being built, Neo-Gothic, and more specifically French Gothic Revival, soon enough became the most popular style of the time.
This meant that when Father Pierre-Adrien Telmon arrived from France to oversee the Cathedral’s architectural designs and construction, he soon changed the plans, and the result was a base in the Neo-Classical design and the upper echelons of the church being constructed after the French Gothic revival style.
Highlights of Ottawa Basilica
All in all, the church you see today was completed in 1847 and was soon enough appointed to be the cathedral of Bytown. And upon completion, the church was pronounced as the Cathedral of Bytown. A statue of the first bishop, Joseph-Bruno Guigues is now to be found on the grass outside of the ecclesiastical building.
Complete with a peal of bells, notable features of the church include a glistening tin roof (this is a particularly French Canadian feature), Gothic spires, a ceiling featuring hundreds of glittering stars, and a particularly impressive Organ, the Basilica of Ottawa has been designated as a National Historic Site since 1990.
The first of the surviving stained glass windows were completed in 1879 by the English stained glass window maker Horwood and feature the kind of Geometric designs that you’ll see in churches all over the UK. Later designs can be found elsewhere in the church feature biblical scenes, which predominantly dates from the 1950s.
Like many churches across the world, the Cathedral Basilica of Ottawa is also home to a treasure trove of gems and forgotten relics from a bygone era. Highlights of the Basilica’s expansive collection include a number of Golden chalices gifted for Jubilees, marriages, and the like, as well as may liturgical vestments.
How to visit Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica
Free to visit, the ecclesiastical building is open on a daily basis. Best-seen during the golden hour (i.e. sunrise or sunset- check here for my camera equipment guide), this is when the stained glass will look its prettiest, the sky will be at its softest, and the shining dome will reflect the candy colours that dance across the sky at this time.
Wander inside at any given moment and you’ll soon be greeted by a plethora of gold-gilt details, stunning stained glass windows, and a starry ceiling that you could spend hours staring at. While much of the focal interest is on the magnificent altarpiece, both aisles offer plenty of stunning viewing experiences, including intricate carvings and biblical stained-glass pieces.
For those who are particularly interested in getting a local’s perspective on the cathedral, as well as gaining some more insider knowledge, it’s worth noting that guided tours of the Cathedral are held during the summer months. Full details are to be found here. Small leaflets offering more information about the history of the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica in Ottawa are available at the entrance.
Organ recital series (featuring music played on the recently renovated musical instrument) are also held throughout the year, including during the summer months. Otherwise, you should know that the Basilica Cathedral is open throughout the year (yes, even in the winter!) Masses take place throughout the week in both French and English and free parking is available during Mass.