In 1834, when Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming revealed his plan to erect a large and imposing stone church as a Cathedral for Newfoundland, St. John's, was a small town of some 19,000 inhabitants, of whom about 14,000 were Catholic.
At that time, all of Newfoundland was a Vicariate Apostolic, under the jurisdiction of Bishop Fleming. The old Chapel, which had served as the Catholic Cathedral for all Newfoundland for over fifty years, was a small wooden building, erected on leased land on Henry Street, where the Star of the Sea Hall now stands. By 1834, the lease was running out, and the building was falling into ruin. Indeed, it provided so little protection from the elements that thos assisting at Mass were often exposed to pelting rain, freezing winds, or drifting snow. It was imperative that a more fitting sanctuary be erected for the offering of the Perpetual Sacrifice.
The site chosen by the Bishop for the new church was a section of open ground near Fort Townshend. This had been reserved for military use but was actually vacant, and not likely to be used, since new barracks were being erected on Signal Hill, and all members of the Garrison would be transferred there on their completion. However, neither the military nor the civil authorities were inclined to co-operate with the Bishop in his efforts to acquire the site. Every obstacle was placed in his path and his numerous requests and appeals met with indifference or outright antagonism. Nearly five years of difficult and frustrating negotiations took place, and the Bishop made five hazardour journeys across the stormy Atlantic in sailing vessels, before he finally secured the land. In April, 1838, by gracious decree of the new Queen, Victoria, a definitive grant of some nine acres was made for the purpose of erecting the new cathedral and related buildings.
Great was the joy of the Catholics in St. John's when the news was received, and with unbounded faith and energy they embarked on the great work. As soon as the land was surveyed and delimited by Army and Government engineers, a very large crowd of men, women and children gathered at the site with tools, posts and nails and took possession of the ground in a most decisive manner, erecting a substantial fence five feet high all around the property in less than twenty minutes.
May 27, 1839 was the day appointed for the commencement of the excavation of the site. All classes joined in the work, women even using their aprons to carry away the gravel, 8800 cubic yards were excavated; a task which had been estimated to take two months was completed in two days.
As soon the winter snow was deep enough, the men proceeded to the woods some twelve miles distant to obtain the timber needed for the scaffolding. Between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., in one day, they brought to the site some 4,000 pieces of timber, each of some 30 feet in length.
It was the Bishop's original intention that the stone required for the construction of the church would be procured locally, and large quantities were quarried and transported from Kelly's Island, Conception Bay: from Signal Hill, St. John's; and several other sites near the city. However, it soon became apparent that it was simply too difficult and too expensive to land enough local stone in St. John's for the needs of so large a building. Bishop Fleming therefore arranged to have Galway limestone and Dublin granite shipped from Ireland. Again, there was no lack of workers, Protestants as well as Catholics, residents of the town as well as those from nearby settlements, all helping to unload cargoes and to haul stone from the wharves to the building site.
In addition to their voluntary manual labour, the fishermen and sealers of the whole island contributed generously from their meagre earnings to the funds required for the work. Indeed, the clergy had frequently to remonstrate with the people, who often placed the needs of the church before the needs of their own families.
It should not be forgotten, either, that during this same period, Bishop Fleming was involved in building convents for both the Presentation and Mercy Sisters.
At last, on May 20, 1841, the cornerstone of the Cathedral was laid, in an impressive ceremony. For the Catholic population of St. John's, it was a glorious and joyful day.
Slowly but surely the work on the great Cathedral progressed. Losses in the Great Fire of 1846, the failure of Wright's Bank in London, where all the funds ofr the Church had been deposited, and various other calamities, impeded, but did not halt for long, the work on the edifice. On January 6, 1850, the Feast of the Epiphany, the Cathedral was sufficiently completed to be opened for worship. The first Mass was celebrated by Bishop Fleming, but the frustration and toil of thirty years had taken their toll, and the Bishop was visibly a dying man. He managed to complete the Mass, bless the church and preach to the people. Then he retired, worn out by his labours, to the old Monastery at Belvedere where, at the age of fifty-seven, he died, on the Feast of St. Bonaventure, July 14, 1850. He was buried in the church which was his monument.
Construction did not cease, however, with Bishop Fleming's death. His successor, Bishop John Thomas Mullock, co-adjutor Bishop, and friend and colleague of Bishop Fleming, worked unceasingly to bring the Cathedral to completion. To him fell the task of repairing major structural faults which developed in the church because of the unskilled labour used in its construction. It was Bishop Mullock, too, who was responsible for the decoration and embellishment of the interior, the erection of altars, statuary and monuments, and the installation of the Grand Organ. All his efforts were directed towards making the church not merely suitable for the needs of the people, but "worthy of the Majesty of the Most High, day and night enthroned in the Tabernacle."
Finally, in February, 1855, Bishop Mullock was able to announce to his people that work on the Cathedral would soon be finished, and the date of Consecration was set for September 9, 1855.
Twenty-one years had elapsed from the time Bishop Fleming inaugurated the work of building the Cathedral to the time of its Consecration. The tremendous enthusiasm of the people, and a week-long schedule of events, ensured that the ceremonies would be long remembered. Four members of the hierarchy were invited to St. John's to participate in the Consecration: Most Rev. John Hughes, Archbishop of New York; Rt. Rev. Armand-Francois de Charbonnel, Bishop of Toronto; Rt. Rev. Thomas Louis Connolly, Bishop of New Brunswick; and Rt. Rev. Colin Francis MacKinnon, Bishop of Arichat (Antigonish), Nova Scotia.
The Prelates arrived by sea early in the night of Monday, September 3, 1855, and proceeded immediately to the Cathedral, amid the tumultuous welcome of a large and enthusiastic throng of spectators. Every available space along the rough of the procession was densely packed. The great bells of the Cathedral, together with those of the Old Chapel and of the convents, pealed forth. The windows of the houses along the route were brilliantly lighted and the streets were illuminated not only by the gas lights but also by flaming torches, giving a most picturesque appearance to the town. The procession weneded its way to the Cathedral, where the prelates knelt in prayer. After a benediction was given to the congregation, Bishop Mullock spoke to the crowd, thanking them for the warm reception they had given the visitors. All then disperesed for the night.
During the next few days, the prelates were entertained at various functions, and received addresses of welcome from the Benevolent Irish Society, and other groups.
On the day of Consecration, great crowds of people flocked into St. John's, from remote as well adjacent settlements. It appeared that the entire Catholic population of the island had come to participate in the ceremonies. The Consecration of the Cathedral was carried out by Bishop Mullock, with all the solemnities prescribed in the Roman Pontifical. Twenty-two of the thirty priests in Newfoundland were present, as well as the Secretary-Chaplain to Archbishop Hughes, and the Chaplain to Bishop MacKinnon.
On the evening of September 8, vigil had been kept before the relics of the saints, which were enshrined in a protected place near the entrance of the Church. On the day of Consecration the lengthy ceremony of blessing the exterior walls, the interior of the church, and the altars took place. The relics, having been carried in procession around the outside of the church, were then brought into the church and sealed within the altarstone. The altar was incensed and anointed, as were the side altars and the twelve crosses of consecration which had been fixed to the interior walls. The first High Mass was then celebrated by Bishop Connolly, and Mass concluded with the singing of the Te Deum.
The celebrations with which the day of Consecration came to a close were truly impressive. That night, the entire frontage of the Cathedral and adjacent buildings was decorated with 1500 coloured lamps, while the Catholic people in every quarter of the town vied with one another in illuminating the windows of their houses. Tar barrels blazed in the streets, firearms were discharged, and sky rockets streamed through the air. Every available means was employed to proclaim the prevailing joy and thanksgiving that the great work, which was truly a labour of love, was at last accomplished.
On September 10, 11 and 12, a Solemn Triduum was held in the Cathedral, in honour of the Immaculate Conception, which had been proclaimed a dogma of the Church by Pope Pius IX on December 8 of the preceding year. Each morning Solemn Potnifical Mass was celebrated, Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament imparted, and a sermon preached on the mystery. Various other ceremonies and receptions took place during that week.
The Consecration Ceremonies came to an end the following day, September 16, with a High Mass sung by Archbishop Hughes and a sermon preached by Bishop Connolly.
The visiting prelates left St. John's by steamer on Wednesday, September 19, amidst the ringing of bells, the discharge of sealing guns, and the enthusiastic cheers of the assembled crowds. The last view the prelates had from the deck of the steamer was of the newly consecrated Cathedral, rising majestically above the town which gave it birth
In 1955, the Cathedral attained the Centenary of its Consecration. From June 24 to 29 that year a variety of events took place to commemorate the day when the Catholic people of St. John's, and their beloved prelate and priests, saw the fulfillment of their dream, and the triumph of their faith.
For more than a year, a programme of renovation, redecoration and refurbishing had been carried out, under the guidance of the Most Rev. Patrick James Skinner, Archbishop of St. John's, with the intention of enhancing the simple beauty of the Cathedral and makin of it a temple even more worthy of the Most High God.
The first formal ceremony of the celebrations was the Liturgical Reception of James Charles Cardinal McGuigan, Archbishop of Toronto, which took place in the Cathedral on St. John's Feast Day, June 24. A crowd of thousands packed the church and watched the large procession of prelates, monsignori and priests for the brief and simple ceremony. That night, the historic anniversary was celebrated, as is the custom in Newfoundland, with a great fireworks display on Signal Hill. The display lasted for over two hours.
On Sunday, June 26, a Pontifical High Mass was celebrated in the century-old church by Cardinal McGuigan. More than one hundred and twenty Archbishops, Bishops, Monsignori and priests were present. During Mass, a congratulatory message was read from His Holiness Pope Pius XII. At Solemn Pontifical Vespers that night, Archbishop Skinner made the historic announcement that the Cathedral had been raised to the rank of Minor Basilica by His Holiness.
The word Basilica means Royal Hall, and is fittingly applied to the dwelling place of the King of Kings. The title is, however, restricted to certain churches, truly outstanding for their historical, artistic and ecclesiastical importance, and is an honour conferred by the Sovereign Pontiff only on rare occasions.
Various other functions, public and religious, took place during those days of rejoicing: a public reception for Cardinal McGuigan; a Children's Day at the Basilica; a reception for the Prelates at Government House; a Civic reception at Bowring Park; and a Centenary Musicale and Pagean-Drama. A Centerary Parade, and a solemn Pontifical Mass in St. John's Ball Park, on the evening of June 29, attended by a congregation of approximately 20,000, brought the week to a truly magnificent climax.