Description of Historic Place
Saint Ninian’s Cathedral is a large, Romanesque style stone church. Built between 1867 and 1874, the massive stone cathedral sits high on the edge of the campus of Saint Francis Xavier University in the town of Antigonish, Nova Scotia. The exterior elements of the cathedral are strong but also simple given its large scale. The side elevations are symmetrical, divided into nine bays and the front elevation has a prominent central entrance with tall projecting towers on either side. Both the cathedral and the surrounding property are included in the designation.
Saint Ninian’s Cathedral is valued for the historical association with the development of the Roman Catholic Church in Nova Scotia. The first Roman Catholic chapel in Antigonish was built in 1810. By 1824 there was a second wooden church, Saint Ninian’s, constructed on Main Street, in the town of Antigonish. The parish grew steadily for the next forty years. In 1844 the Diocese of Arichat, which included Cape Breton Island and eastern Nova Scotia, was established. Bishop Colin MacKinnon founded Saint Francis Xavier University in Arichat and moved the college to Antigonish in 1855. He also played a key role in the building of Saint Ninian’s Cathedral. The cornerstone was laid two days before Confederation, on June 29, 1867, and Saint Ninian’s was dedicated on September 13, 1874. In 1886, Bishop Cameron moved the Diocesan seat from Arichat, and the Diocese of Antigonish was established.
Saint Ninian’s Cathedral is also valued for the building’s imposing architectural design. Built between 1867 and 1886, both the exterior and the interior of the cathedral represent solidity and beauty. The exterior of the cathedral incorporates many elements of the Romanesque Revival style, which became a popular idiom for public buildings as well as Roman Catholic churches in Nova Scotia. Saint Ninian’s Cathedral is a large, nine bay, stone structure with two impressive square towers that flank the front entrance, each measuring one hundred and twenty five feet. The interior has large frescos on the ceiling, colonnades along the sides of the nave, Romanesque arches with standing figures and etched glass arched windows. There have been renovations to the cathedral, including an addition to the rear, and restoration work to the pews and the frescos inside the church. Saint Ninian’s Cathedral has helped to establish the architectural character of Saint Francis Xavier University campus as well as being a significant architectural landmark, not only in the Town of Antigonish, but within eastern Nova Scotia.
Source: Notice of Registration of Property as a Provincial Heritage Property, Provincial Property Heritage File no. 253.
Character-defining elements of Saint Ninian’s Cathedral include:
- stone construction with limestone from the McAdam quarry, and sandstone used for the quoining and other trim elements is also local, from the Arsenault quarry;
- carved armorial crests of Bishop MacKinnon and Pope Pius IX on the façade on either side of the doorway;
- gable end above the main entrance incorporates a heavy shaped parapet, within which is inscribed, “Tigh Dhe”, Gaelic for House of God;
- above the central entrance are a humble cluster of shamrocks and two sprigs of thistle;
- double, eighteen paneled teak doors and transom incorporating nineteen symbols.
Character-defining elements of the Romanesque style of Saint Ninian’s Cathedral include:
- nine bay side elevation with a row of nine round-headed windows along each side accented by a row of nine small rose windows above;
- centered entrance flanked by two tall and square bell towers, with semi-circular, louvered belfry openings, finished by round domes and surmounted by octagonal lanterns, each topped with a cross;
- front façade has arched niches and carved scrollwork;
- round headed main entrance, with decorated keystone arch, side pilasters, and a Classical entablature and pediment;
- smaller entrances are similar but smaller in scale.
Character-defining elements of the interior of Saint Ninian’s Cathedral include:
-Large frescoed ceiling including four large circular paintings depict the Nativity, the Crucifixion, the Ascension, and Christ as the Good Shepherd;
-Etched glass arched windows decorated with small stained glass panes of Biblical symbols such as the Cross, the Ark or the Dove;
-Colonnades along each side of the nave;
-Romanesque arches supported by seven slender pillars with highly ornamented Corinthian capitals;
-Standing figures of the Apostles and a few early saints above the arches.