One of downtown London’s most iconic landmarks is St. Peter’s Cathedral, located at the intersection of Richmond and Dufferin near Victoria Park (and just down the street from the Toboggan Brewing Company). Its status as a Minor Basilica (one of only 25 in Canada) makes it a draw for the Catholic community of Ontario, and the Gothic Revival style of its design makes it a magnet for lovers of fine architecture across the continent. Its presence is tied up in the history of the city of London, being a central feature of London life for well over a century. In terms of history, architecture, and the decorative and ceremonial aspects of the cathedral itself, St. Peter’s is a fascinating part of London that combines the serenity of its gorgeous surroundings with the deep sense that one is participating in decades upon centuries of human existence merely by standing in it.
The history and architecture of St. Peter’s Cathedral in London, Ontario is in many ways a stand-in for the history and culture of both London itself and the region of Southwestern Ontario as a whole. The history of Catholicism in Southwestern Ontario itself stretches back to 1626, when a Recollet priest by the name of Father Joseph De La Roche Dallion ventured into the lands of the Neutral Confederacy, an Iroquois-speaking confederation of nations whose territory encompassed the entirety of the Southwestern Ontario peninsula. Father De La Roche Dallion held the first Mass in this region in 1626 and while he fled the next year in fear of his life the age of Catholicism in Ontario had well and truly arrived.
Organized Catholicism in Southern Ontario, however, would take a bit more time to come together. The first recorded Catholic service was held in the home of a London Township settler named Michael Flood, whom records indicate had been a citizen of the area since 1819. The first official recorded service was not held until 1827, however. That year 1827 also features the first recorded baptisms (of 1-year-old John Dignan and 3-year-old Mary Dignan), the first Catholic wedding (between John Flood and Catherine Keogh), and the first Catholic burial (of Catherine Flood). Four years later, in 1831, an actual parish would be formed in the region – but in St. Thomas, which is now a small town of 38,000 near London, which was at first designated as a mission under the parish of St. Thomas. It would be another three years before London had an actual Catholic church.
On August 10th, 1834 the precursor to the current St. Peter’s Cathedral, St. Laurence the Martyr Church, was built from logs on what is now the corner of Richmond Street and Dufferin Avenue. Now the site is the home of a yellow brick building housing downtown food stops, including the delectable Roli Poli ice cream shop; then it was the central feature in the life of London’s blossoming Catholic community. Within nine years, and the ascension of Father Michael Robert Mills to the parish seat in St. Thomas, London would become its own separate parish. It was not long, however, before disaster struck. While St. Laurence the Martyr Church had survived the Great Fire of 1845 (which had destroyed 150 buildings, around 20% of the town of London at the time), it was set afire deliberately on April 24th, 1851. A new church was commissioned, although the town’s Catholic community was forced to rent out the Universalist Church (known as the “Old Kirk” church) for masses and other ceremonies. The new church, retaining the name of St. Laurence the Martyr, was made of brick instead of logs and was placed on the northeast corner of Richmond and Dufferin, where a modern glass-dominated tower stands today. That church would remain the central figure in Catholic life in London for a century, although a name change was just around the corner.
On February 21st, 1856, Pope Pius IX formally removed nine counties from what was then the Diocese of Toronto and established the Diocese of London, with Pierre-Adolphe Pinsoneault named as the first Bishop of London. At the Festival of St. Peter and St. Paul (a solemn occasion that functions as a holy day of obligation) Bishop Pinsoneault received his seat and changed the name of St. Laurence the Martyr Church to a now more familiar St. Peter’s Cathedral. Only three short years later, however, Bishop Pinsoneault moved his residence from London to Sandwich (a township in what is now Windsor, Ontario) and petitioned the Pope to turn the Diocese of London into the Diocese of Sandwich, which was accomplished on February 2nd, 1859, the day of Candlemas, or the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. It would take a whole decade to move the Diocese back to London. By that time, Bishop Pinsoneault had been forced to resign in 1866 having accumulated a significant amount of debt for the Diocese. Bishop John Walsh became the head of the Diocese of Sandwich and in 1867 moved the seat back to London; it would take until November 15th, 1869 for the Pope to decree that the administrative section would go back to its original status as the Diocese of London.
Now firmly re-seated in London, Bishop Walsh announced in 1880 plans to replace the existing cathedral with a much more impressive affair. To this end, the Diocese contracted Joseph Connolly, a noted Irish architect of Gothic Revival cathedrals, to design it, and the ground was first broken on August 10th, 1880. On May 22nd, 1881, the first cornerstone was laid and blessed. After four years of construction it was completed, and April 19th, 1885 Bishop Walsh gave the final sermon in the old cathedral before consigning it to be torn down; the new, current St. Peter’s Cathedral was first opened on June 28th, the Vigil of St. Peter and St. Paul. Bishop Walsh would, in later years, be promoted to become the Archbishop of Toronto.
From the original construction of the cathedral in 1885 on into the 20th Century, St. Peter’s Cathedral would be the central monument to the growing Catholic population of London, a growing population that would also see the construction of St. Peter’s Seminary and Brescia Hall, which is now the site of Western University’s Brescia College. In 1926, the centennial celebration year for the city of London, St. Peter’s Cathedral received a new Casavant organ, a million-dollar musical instrument that can still be heard in the cathedral today. The Diocese also took the opportunity in that year to redecorate the cathedral, painting the interior and adding in new paintings and a large number of new stained glass windows made at McCausland Studios in Toronto. New stations of the cross and choir stalls were installed, having been manufactured by Globe Furniture of Waterloo, Ontario. In 1949 the Shrine to Our Mother of Perpetual Help was dedicated, a feature that is likely the first of its kind to be dedicated in Canada. In 1957, after the deconstruction of the old post office in St. Thomas, Bishop John Cody took stones from that tower aside to be rebuilt into a new bell tower for St. Peter’s Cathedral. That tower was completed with bells in 1958 and St. Peter’s status as a full-fledged Cathedral was complete.
ARCHITECTURE AND FEATURES
St. Peter’s Cathedral is designed in the style known as Gothic Revival, which was what architect Joseph Connolly was known for at the time. Gothic Revival is a style that hearkens back to the way cathedrals were designed in the medieval period between the 12th and 16th Centuries. These involved a lot of flourishes that were popular in the pre-industrial era: pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses. As such, St. Peter’s Cathedral is the perfect specimen of how the movement was interpreted and adapted as it moved across the ocean from it’s European origins to North America. The façade of St. Peter’s Cathedral resembles in many important ways the cathedral at Reims, in France, a structure that dates back to 1211 (and the site of which has held a Catholic church since 496). St. Peter’s echoes the triple arch entry, the twin-tower design, and the great round stained glass window design that dominates the central face of the cathedral. St. Peter’s Cathedral is a much cleaner design, however, framed in inviting warm brick tones rather than the imposing and rather intimidating design of the ancient Reims Cathedral. It is a curious mixture of industrial construction sensibilities and Gothic yearning for a traditional, agrarian era that marks out this particular branch of the Gothic Revival.
The stained glass windows were originally installed in 1889, commissioned by Bishop Walsh as a way of adding serenity and grace to the four-year-old cathedral. Included in this initial set of commissions were seven large windows, four clerestory windows, two medallion windows in the sanctuary, six windows in the side chapels, and rose windows in the transepts and in the choir loft. At the time, the last windows to complete both the nave and the clerestory areas were left out. These were put in place during London’s centennial celebration year in 1926. These last windows, unlike their original counterparts from 1889, were paid for through donations from the community, often in the name of deceased relatives. During this restoration and completion some of the original 1889 windows were also replaced; the originals, still perfectly usable, were donated to the Martyr’s Shrine in Midland, Ontario.
The bell towers that were added in 1958 were originally meant to be topped with tall spires, befitting the original Gothic Revival style. During construction, however, it was decided that the towers as they were, in reality, would not be able to hold the weight of the spires and the idea was abandoned. The focus of the towers is instead on the dozen carillon bells that ring out in pomp and glory over downtown London; each of the bells is inscribed with the name of a saint and a verse from Scripture.
The Casavant organ is a feature of particular note St. Peter’s Cathedral. The original organ in the cathedral was a standard two-manual instrument (meaning that there were two playable keyboards for the hands as well as the pedalboard for the feet) that had originally been installed in 1886. It was the organist for St. Peter’s, Dr. Louis Balogh, who, during the spate of renovations leading up to the centennial year of 1926, proposed replacing it with an organ designed by the Casavant company of Ste. Hyacinthe, Quebec. The new organ, unveiled for the first time on September 26th, 1926, featured three manuals, 59 stops, and 3,869 pipes. Unlike many similar organs, it has two features that are unique: the Vox Humana stop, a reed stop with a half-length pipe that is designed to imitate a human voice; and the Cor Anglais stop, The first Mass conducted with it also featured Dr. Balogh’s own composition, “Missa S. Michaelis Archangeli.”
The cathedral also features some of the artwork of local artist and one-time Yale art professor Philip Aziz. Bishop John Cody commissioned Aziz in 1952 to transform what was then the Sacred Heart Chapel in the cathedral into the current Christ the King Chapel, which included painting seven medallion pieces on the walls. His work can most notably be seen today in the sets of crosses and candlesticks that sit at the side altars.
One feature of particular historical interest is on the façade. Amongst the gargoyles placed in the style of Gothic cathedrals are images of two local Bishops, one on either side of the main entrance to St. Peter’s. On the left is the image of Bishop Walsh, meant to commemorate the man under whom the cathedral was originally built and who oversaw a period of great growth in the Catholic community of London. On the right is the image of Bishop Cody, who completed the construction of the cathedral and under whom, in 1961, St. Peter’s was raised to the status of being a Minor Basilica by Pope John XXIII.
St. Peter’s status today as one of only 25 Minor Basilica in Canada ensures that it is a destination landmark for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The nature of its architecture, as well as the beauty of its windows and the delightfully rich sound of its Casavant organ, make it one of the most impressive cathedrals on the continent and one that stands tall as being one of the most important contenders for the title of THE iconic London landmark.