Description of Historic Place
St. Mary's Basilica is located on Spring Garden Road in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia, and it sits immediately at the streetline. This Gothic Revival, granite and ironstone structure was built between 1820 and 1829. Its front façade, with three large entranceways and a tall spire, is noticeable from a distance, and is considered a local landmark. Only the building on its footprint is included in the provincial designation.
St. Mary's Basilica is valued for its association with and importance to the history of the Roman Catholic community in Nova Scotia, and it is also valued for its fine degree of architectural detail.
St. Mary's Basilica is the oldest Roman Catholic church and first stone church in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The cornerstone for the Basilica was laid on June 29, 1820, and the first mass held in the completed church was in November 1829.
St. Mary's Basilica was originally named St. Peter's, taking its name from the first Roman Catholic church in Halifax, which it replaced in 1829. The first church was a small wooden structure built in 1784. After St. Mary's was built, St. Peter's was dismantled and ferried across the harbour to become the first Roman Catholic church in neighbouring Dartmouth. It was the former rector of the first St. Peter's and the first Roman Catholic Bishop in Halifax, the Right Reverend Edmund Burke, who began the construction of St. Mary's. In 1833, the name of the church was changed from St. Peter's Church to St. Mary's Cathedral.
The walls were constructed of ironstone with freestone trimmings. In 1836, a wooden steeple was placed on top of the stone tower. The thirty years following saw many changes to the exterior of St. Mary's.
Nothing now remains of the first façade which had been completed in 1829 and which stood where the inner wall of the porch now stands. It was taken away to make room for the supports needed for the present tower. The beautiful pillars of Aberdeen polished granite were imported from Scotland in 1868 to set off the new granite façade which was completed in 1873. When the cross was placed atop the new spire, it stood one hundred and eighty-nine feet above the sidewalk, reportedly the tallest free standing granite spire in North America.
The exterior façade of the church remains much the same as it was when completed in the late nineteenth century. However, none of the original windows at St. Mary's have survived; all were destroyed in the Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917.
On August 15, 1950, Pope Pius XII officially bestowed upon St. Mary's Cathedral the honorary title of Basilica.
St. Mary's Basilica is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in Nova Scotia. This large church, measuring approximately thirty-one metres, has a rectangular main plan with an apse and narthex. The main construction material is near-black local ironstone arranged on a coursed line, while the façade is granite. The roof is a medium gable.
One of the most striking features of the façade is the three gables. Typical of the Gothic Revival style, the center gable is separated from and noticeably larger than the other gables. Each gable contains one large pointed window with multiple decorative panes arranged around a circular design. This design scheme is carried down to the transoms of the three doors which are found one under each gable.
Most of the windows and doors, both on the façade and other walls, are deeply recessed and feature pointed or arched heads. The windows on the east and west walls contain stained glass whose patterns were designed for the exact size of each window. These windows also include plain lug sills. The large granite spire is placed above and behind the central gable. The façade's wall design also includes six polished granite columns with ionic capitals, engaged columns, pilasters, buttresses, plinths, and a number of carvings.
St. Mary's Basilica continues to hold regular services.
Source: Provincial Heritage Program files, no. 25, 1747 Summer Street, Halifax, NS.
Character-defining elements relating to the Gothic Revival style of St. Mary's Basilica include:
- granite front façade with three gables and three doors under each gable on the façade;
- large granite spire placed above and behind the central gable and rises to a height of one hundred and eighty-nine feet above the ground;
- stone construction, specifically near black local ironstone with freestone trimmings on the main building and granite on the façade and spire;
- rectangular main plan with an apse and narthex;
- medium gable roof;
- one large pointed window with multiple decorative panes arranged around a circular design located in each gable on the façade;
- windows on the east and west walls containing stained glass whose patterns were designed for the exact size of each window;
- plain lug sill windows on the east and west walls;
- façade's wall design including six polished granite columns with ionic capitals, engaged columns, pilasters, buttress, plinths and a number of carvings;
- central location in downtown Halifax.