St Michael’s Cathedral Basilica

By Bruce Bell, History Columnist –

Consecrated in 1848, the cathedral recently underwent a restoration to revive the hand painted ceiling and the stained-glass windows.

A few years back, St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica on Bond Street reopened after exhaus­tive renovations. Today the ca­thedral is just as spectacular as when it opened in 1848.

A century-and-a-half of grime, coal dust, candle wax and everyday pollution were all scrubbed down. Where a dark and shadowy interior hid its ar­chitectural treasures, they have once again been brought into the light.

In 1806 the Reverend Alex­ander Macdonell, then the only Catholic priest in Upper Cana­da, left Kingston to visit York, which then had about 500 peo­ple. Macdonell learned that the town had 37 Catholics without a church, and that many had never seen a priest.

In March 1806, the Crown granted a plot of land on the northeast corner of George and Duke (now Adelaide) Streets to erect a chapel for public wor­ship. That first church burnt down as the city’s Catholic pop­ulation continued to grow.

By 1841 Pope Gregory XVI chose Father Michael Power to be Toronto’s new bishop. In a city then with 13,000 peo­ple, Power presided over 3,000 Catholics. He wanted a new and larger cathedral for his growing flock.

In 1845, Bishop Power wrote in his journal, “I have bought land in the centre of the city to build a cathedral.” Under the watchful eye of architect Wil­liam Thomas, who five years later designed St. Lawrence Hall, work began on the new St. Michael’s Cathedral on April 7, 1845.

St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica. Photo: Bruce Bell

As was the practice in medi­aeval cathedral construction, men from the community dug the foundation and finished off the workday feasting on a great ox barbecued on a spit. On May 8, 1845, on the Feast of the Ap­parition of St. Michael, Bishop Power laid the cathedral’s cor­nerstone, including fragments of a stone pillar of the old Nor­man York Minster Cathedral in England.

Tending to the thousands of Irish famine victims flooding into Toronto, Power contracted typhus and died on October 1, 1847. He is buried in the crypt of his new cathedral.

St Michael’s Cathedral was consecrated on September 29, 1848, the Feast of St. Michael, by Ignace Bourget, Bishop of Montreal, who sealed into the high altar relics of the first pope, St. Peter.

In 1850 French-born Ar­mand-Francois-Marie de Chabron de Charbonnel became the next bishop. While the Prot­estant elite viewed Catholics with suspicion, Charbonnel was held in high esteem as some­thing most Protestant leaders were not: a blue-blooded aristo­crat, a count of a noble French family.

Upon his arrival in 1850 Bish­op de Charbonnel took one look at the rather bland interior of St Michael’s and set out to have it beautified; he had been conse­crated in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.

Charbonnel ordered three stained glass windows from France, installed in 1858 on the east side. He also imported the Stations of the Cross, which is why the inscriptions under each station is in French.

After 10 years, Bishop de Charbonnel was followed by Bishop John Joseph Lynch, who set out to complete de Charbon­nel’s vision of a great Catholic cathedral in Toronto.

He hired architects Henry Langley and Thomas Gundry to construct the spire of St Mi­chael’s, and in 1870 added the dormer windows to the dramat­ically sweeping roofline. Sun­light through the dormers cre­ates a breathtaking effect on the detailed painted ceiling.

Lost and hidden underneath a century and half of grime and soot, that stunning ceiling has been restored with hand paint­ing. The stained-glass windows, icons, doors, the crypt and more have been meticulously restored or rebuilt.

In honour of the church’s rich history and overall beauty, Pope Francis bestowed a new name on it: St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica. Only two churches in Toronto have that title, the first being St Paul’s Basilica on Power Street (near Parliament). Canada has 21 basilicas, there are 1,810 worldwide.

St Michael’s was rededicated on the Feast of St. Michael, on September 29, 2016, by Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto.

You don’t have to attend a Mass or even be a Catholic to visit this incredible basilica – it’s part of our history.

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