The drawing shows the heart of Catholic Ottawa in 1855. From left to right: the Grey Nuns' Convent and Hospital, St. Joseph's College (the future University of Ottawa), the Cathedral and the Bishop's Residence. The Cathedral still lacks an apse and is shown with steeples that did not exist yet. Erected three years later (1858), they look quite different from those in the drawing.
In September 1826, in order to set up a line of defense against its sole enemy, the United States, that invaded Canada on two occasions, in 1775 and 1812, the British Government wants to create a new route between Montreal and Kingston and to replace the existing one, believed to be too vulnerable, along the St. Lawrence River. The plan calls for the development of the Ottawa, Rideau and Cataraqui rivers, and the construction of a canal with locks to connect the rivers. The building of the Rideau canal would lead to the founding of Ottawa. The work, under the leadership of Colonel John By, lasts from 1826 to 1832. More than two thousand workers and many merchants are attracted by the project. In less than a year, around the canal entrance (pictured) there appears a small village, called "Bytown".
1827: Itinerant Missionaries and a Wooden Chapel
In 1827, a missionnary, Rev. Parick Haran, celebrates mass in private homes. On September 7, 1828, a committee is set up to study the possibility of building a church for the Catholic population. A request is sent to Colonel By for a piece of land on which a church, a rectory and a school could be built. The request is accepted and a piece of land is granted in the upper section of the town west of the canal; the church will never be built there because most of the Catholic population lives in Lower Town east of the canal and do not want a church located so far from their homes. On October 4, 1829, the missionary in charge, Rev. Angus McDonell, submits a new request for a lot in Lower Town. On May 1st, 1831, a new piece of land is granted at a nominal price, and in 1832, a small wooden church, dedicated to St. James, is built. The first mass is celebrated during the summer of 1832 by Rev. Murty Lalor. A bell tower is added in 1833 and, in order to meet the increasing population, galleries are added in 1836 by woodworker Pierre Desloges.
2. The Building of a Stone Church
1839: Plans for a Stone Church
In 1839, parish priest Jean-François Cannon and the churchwardens plan the construction of a stone church to replace the wooden chapel, which is in danger of collapsing. According to this plan, the new church's layout would be similar to St. Patrick's church, in Quebec City, built in 1831 on plans prepared by architect Thomas Baillargé. In fact, the two buildings are very different. The proposed building would be rectangular in shape, with an apse but no transept. It would be 27.4 metres (90 feet) long – half of the length of the present cathedral – by 21.3 metres (70 feet) wide and 12.2 metres (40 feet) high. The building would have a central nave and two side aisles surmounted by galleries, as well as a neo-Classical facade with two square towers. The building was to be erected around the old wooden chapel. Construction is authorized by Bishop Rémi Gaulin of Kingston during the summer of 1840.
1841: Construction Begins
The stonework contract is awarded to Antoine Robillard on February 11, 1841 and, on the following October 25, the cornerstone is blessed by Bishop Charles de Forbin-Janson, of Nancy and Toul (France), visiting Canada at the time.
The idea of building the new church around the old wooden chapel becomes so problematic for both the workers and the contractor that the construction committee recommends, on March 20, 1842, that the wooden chapel be moved to a new location on the other side of the street by June 1st. The contract is awarded for the amount of 100 louis to John Perkins on May 9. The wooden chapel is moved to the other side of the street in 1842, and four years later it is destroyed by fire.
1842: A Change of Plans: a Larger Church
Following Rev. Cannon's departure on June 4, 1842, missionnaries come and go until Rev. Patrick Phelan is appointed resident missionnary on November 22. As soon as he is settled and all things considered, Rev. Phelan believes that the stone church being built will not meet the fast population increase. He calls in, from Montreal, Jesuit Félix Martin known for his eloquence and his expertise in religious architecture. Nevertheless, his involvement in the project is limited to revising the original plan in order to extend the church to a total of 42.4 metres (139 feet) long and to give the building a perfect rectangular shape without apse or adjacent sacristy. The new church, 38.1 metres (125 feet) long by 21.3 metres (70 feet) wide, corresponds to the size of the nave of the current cathedral.
Meanwhile, Rev. Phelan is appointed Coadjutor Bishop of Kingston on February 20, 1843 and will be consecrated next August 20. On June 2, 1843, the project is approved by the churchwardens.
1844: The Coming of the Oblates
Following Rev. Phelan's departure, Bishop Ignace Bourget, of Montreal, decides to bring in a major change in Bytown's fate. In his mind, the Outaouais valley would become, in the near future, a diocese and Bytown, as the founding parish, would require more than travelling missionnaries. A stable administration was required and, according to him, only a religious community could do the job and to whom would be granted rights and privileges similar to the ones already granted to the Sulpicians in Montreal. He called in the Oblates of Mary Immaculate who just arrived in Montreal. Father Adrien Telmon is appointed parish priest and, when he arrives in Bytown at the end of January 1844, construction is suspended due to a lack of financial resources. In April 1845, a new financial drive is set up and its success is so great that works could resume on May 24, 1845. By July 25 next, the walls have finally reached their planned height.
1845: Another Change of Plans: a Gothic Church
During the course of 1845, Father Telmon believes the original plans have no "common style" and so it is necessary to redraw them. He then decided to modify the plans of the church, already under construction, to the Neo-Gothic style. As a result, the doors at ground level are neo-classical, while the windows higher up are neo-Gothic.
1846: The Walls and Roof Are Completed
The contract for the roof structure is signed on July 11, 1845 with contractor Rolland Carrer. Suspended during winter, work resumes in the spring of 1846. On May 7, 1846, a contract is signed with contractor Antoine Robillard for the completion of the facade's stonework that must be completed by July 30, 1847. Two other contracts, signed on May 14 with contractor Alex McIntosh, and on July 10 with Joseph Charlebois, for the completion of the roof.
After two changes of plans, the walls and roof are finished, five years after construction began. The church, still without steeples, is blessed on August 15, 1846 by Bishop Patrick Phelan, of Kingston. It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, under the title of the Assumption.
3. The Era of Father Dandurand: Finishing a Cathedral
1847: The Church Becomes a Cathedral
On May 27, 1847, Pope Pius IX announces the erection of the Bytown diocese and the appointment of Oblate Father Joseph-Eugène-Bruno Guigues (1847-1874) as first bishop (pictured). The erection decree is dated July 25, 1847. On July 8, a second decree confirms the appointment of Father Guigues as first bishop. He will be consecrated on July 30, 1848. The mission church is prematurely transformed into a cathedral while it is not even yet completed; its two towers reach only the roof's height, and all the interior is to be done. In 1848, Father Damase Dandurand, OMI, is appointed parish priest: he will serve for the next 30 years.
Early in his episcopate, Bishop Guigues has other priorities than the completion of the cathedral: school, hospital, orphanage and also, the lack of financial resources. Parish priest Dandurand slowly resume completion works beginning with modifications to the side windows in order to replace the two ranks of windows with high Gothic windows, and to the vault and wall coverings. With interior work sufficiently completed, Bishop Guigues decided to have his cathedral consecrated, on September 4, 1853, by Bishop Cajetan Bedini, Brazil's Apostolic Nuncio now visitiing Canada. The official patronage is modified to be the Immaculate Conception.
1855-60: Bytown Becomes Ottawa. Ottawa capital of Canada
On January 1st, 1855, Bytown obtains its incorporation as a city and, at the same time, takes the name of Ottawa. On December 31, 1857, Queen Victoria makes Ottawa the capital of the province of Canada. The diocese of Bytown officially becomes the diocese of Ottawa on June 14, 1860.
1858: The Steeples
In October 1858, Father Dandurand completes the cathedral's facade by adding steeples of his own design.
The picture at the top of this page shows the Cathedral with its new steeples, before the building of the apse.
1862: The Apse
After these projects, Father Dandurand waits a few years before tackling, in 1862, his third and last major project: the construction of a Gothic apse that will complete the cathedral's exterior architecture and allow the achievement of a more majestic decor. While the diocese faces major financial difficulties and the bishop always postpone the resumption of the construction works, Father Dandurand takes advantage, in the summer of 1862, of Bishop Guigues' absence in Europe to demolish the cathedral's end wall and conceives, with architect Victor Bourgeau of Montreal, the plans for a magnificent chancel and sanctuary, 19.2 metres (63 feet) long by 12.2 metres (40 feet) wide, that would be perfectly suited for episcopal ceremonies. At the same time, a crypt is excavated under the apse. This addition brings the total interior length of the building to 183 feet (55.8 meters). Stonework is commissionned to A. Rocque, plasterwork to Jacob Fink, and decoration to William McKay.
1866: The statue of the Virgin
Now facing a larger debt, Bishop Guigues orders, on May 8, 1865, an end to all construction work and this decision will be maintained until his death on February 8, 1874. The only exception is the installation at the top of the facade wall, on September 7, 1866, of a statue of the Virgin Mary, sculpted by Spanish artist Carbona. This wooden statue, 10 feet (3 meters) high, is covered with gold leaf.
4. The Era of Canon Bouillon: the Interior
1874: Bishop Duhamel. The Oblates Leave.
Following the death of Bishop Guigues and the appointment, on September 1, 1874, of Ottawa's second bishop (pictured), Joseph Thomas Duhamel (1874-1909), the function of parish priest is transferred to the secular clergy and Father Dandurand leaves Ottawa on May 16, 1875. He is replaced by Rev. Georges Bouillon, the priest-architect who will design and supervise the cathedral's interior decoration.
1877: The Side Galleries and the Funerary Chapel
His first notable intervention takes place in 1877 when he is asked to modify the plans of the galleries, prepared by architect George Bowes, in such a way as to provide a better view into the sanctuary and the nave. He then prepares the plan for the funerary chapel, built in 1877-8, in the crypt in memory of Bishop Guigues.
1878: The Interior Artwork
These initiatives were enough to convince the new bishop to give him carte blanche, in 1878, to complete the cathedral's interior that would be worthy for the National Capital. A new prosperity in the region contributes positively to the diocese's development. The years of great shortage the Oblates missionnaries experienced are now over. The city of Ottawa, with its new public service, is growing and the Catholic population proportionally increases.
Thanks to this new environment, the construction of the cathedral reaches its peak in the last quarter of the 19th century. To execute the decoration of the sanctuary and the nave, which he has designed himself, Canon Bouillon, between 1878 to 1885, calls on a team of French-Canadian craftsmen and carpenters/sculptors like Flavien Rochon, Philippe Pariseau, Olindo Gratton and Philippe Hébert. They were often the same men who worked on the ornamentation of the Parliament Buildings. Most of them men lived nearby and were either parishioners of the Cathedral or fervent admirers of Bouillon.
Between 1879 and 1887, they created the two lavishly decorated side altars, the main altar with its stunning 16 metre (52 feet) high reredos (pictured), the choir stalls as well as the gallery of some 80 statues in the sanctuary. Renovations and decoration were completed in 1890.
1879: The First Stained-Glass Windows
The first series of stained-glass windows is installed in the cathedral in 1879. The work of English glassworker Harwood, these windows consist of geometrical motifs painted in grisaille and embellished by light touches of vivid colours.
1879: A Basilica
On August 19, 1879, the cathedral is elevated to the status of minor basilica by Pope Leo XIII.
1886: An Archdiocese
On June 8, 1886, the cathedral is elevated to the status of metropolitan church when Ottawa becomes an archdiocese and Bishop Duhamel the first archbishop.
5. The 20th Century
1933: The Sacristy
The current sacristy is built in 1933.
1944: The Bells
A carillon of 5 bells is installed in the bell towers in 1944.
1956: The New Stained-Glass Windows
Between 1956 and 1961, most of the windows installed in 1879 are replaced by a series of 17 historiated windows, created by the celebrated Guido Nincheri of Montreal, illustrating the lives of Jesus and Mary.
1965: Liturgical Renewal
In order to meet the post-Vatican II liturgical requirements, a simple altar is installed, in 1965, at the entrance to the sanctuary along with an ambo derived from the former pulpit.
1978: A Heritage Property
In 1978, both the National Capital Commission and the City of Ottawa designated the Cathedral as heritage property.
1990: National Historic Site
The Cathedral was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990.
From 1999 to 2001, the cathedral was closed while reinforcement and renovation work took place at a cost of 10 million dollars.