Description of Historic Place
Paroisse Saint-Pierre is located in the village of Cheticamp, on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia on a slight rise overlooking Cheticamp Harbour. This large sandstone church with a central tower, open belfry and rounded apse at the rear, is a prominent structure which can be seen at some distance. It has a traditional east-west orientation as was characteristic of early ecclesiastical architecture. The building and property are included in the municipal designation.
Paroisse Saint-Pierre is valued as a very fine example of French-Canadian Neo-classical church architecture. Built in 1893, it was designed by David Ouellet (1844-1915), a Quebec City architect. Joseph-Hubert Morin, a contractor from Trois-Pistoles and the other tradesmen (including Jean Belzile et Fils) who worked on the church, were all from Quebec. With its tall silver spire and steeply pitched roof, it resembles many other Catholic churches built along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec.
The church is also valued as one of only a few stone churches on Cape Breton Island and as one of the finest examples of a style of church architecture developed in Quebec which is rarely seen outside that province. The main body of the church is constructed of rusticated sandstone and consists of a long nave with a large square central tower and open octagonal belfry on the west façade reaching over fifty metres in height. The main entrance is surmounted by a large rose window with stained glass. An elongated chapel and sacristy is attached to the eastern end of the church. Most of the exterior details of the church are French Neo-Classical in origin, such as rounded arch windows with keystones, pediments, and entablatures.
The interior of the church is the most impressive aspect of architect Ouellet’s design. The barrel-vaulted nave with its two aisles and upper gallery leads the eye straight towards the main altar in the eastern apse. The ornate altar, built in 1912, has a Baroque-style baldacchino over the tabernacle. Two rows of nave piers with multiple Corinthian columns support an upper gallery and stop just one bay short of the chancel skilfully introducing the effect of a transept into the rectangular plan. The vault and ceilings, decorated with plasterwork and gold leaf, were completed by 1900.
Paroisse Saint-Pierre is also valued culturally for its central role in the spiritual life of Cheticamp, a French Acadian Catholic community. The first Acadians settled in the sheltered valley at the foot of the coastal highlands; however after the northern end of Cheticamp Harbour was opened up in 1874, the potential for developing the fishery here became obvious, and community activities slowly relocated closer to the harbour. The people were reluctant to abandon their substantial stone church at Le Buttereau (constructed in 1868) and remained in the valley until the energetic efforts of their new parish priest, Father Fiset, persuaded them to construct a new church along the harbour.
Father Pierre Fiset, parish priest in Cheticamp from 1875 to his death in 1909, began his project by establishing an annual levy in the 1880’s to raise money for the construction of a new church closer to the harbour. The church was truly a community effort. Sandstone building materials were quarried at the north end of Cheticamp Island, donated by the Robin Company, and was ferried across the ice to the building site. Once the new church was partially built, the older stone church at Le Buttereau was demolished and its stone was transferred to the new one. The rose window, the stone medallion engraved with St. Peter’s keys, some of the stone steps, the altar (now located in the sacristy) and the bell from the old outside belfry named “Marie”, were also used in the new Paroisse Saint-Pierre. Parishioners also donated wood, mortar and their labour, and after the levy ended, even their fishing catches, towards the construction. Father Fiset, who was closely involved in the community, donated his considerable energy and some of his own funds to the project. He succeeded in building an imposing and beautiful church which has become a landmark in northern Cape Breton. It is a monument to his efforts, he was buried in a crypt beneath the church.
Source: Municipality of the County of Inverness, Municipal Heritage Files, Paroisse Saint-Pierre
Exterior character-defining elements relating to the Quebec Neo-classical style of Paroisse Saint-Pierre:
- rusticated stone construction (locally quarried sandstone);
- main mass of building consisting of an east-west ecclesiastical orientation;
- bell tower with steeple on front façade with pediments just above a pair of arched windows;
- mediaeval rose window on tower with a stone medallion with incised keys representing St. Peter just below;
- nave with rounded apse at rear and attached chapel and vestry with lower roof profile ;
- three bays across front façade with main entrance at base of tower and two smaller sidedoors each with smaller rose windows above;
- side bays have arched windows above doors which are delineated by larger inset arches;
- seven two-storey arched windows along both sides of nave with keystones and lug sills;
- entablature across front façade just below main roof line which breaks to form a semi-circle above rose window;
- small pediment above double windows in tower which is echoed in the four pediments at base of tower;
- octagonal belfry and steeple with high pitched metal roof;
- small square steeple at rear of roof line just ahead of the apse;
- five-sided roof over apse with arched window on either side;
- rear chapel and vestry mirror the main body of the church but without steeples.
Interior character-defining elements relating to the Quebec Neo-classical style of Paroisse Saint-Pierre:
- central barrel-vaulted nave;
- two aisles with galleries above;
- aisle ceilings on upper and lower levels are flat with decorated plaster medallions;
- transverse round arches between each bay on both levels;
- side bays stop just short of the chancel giving the illusion of a transept;
- nave piers have multiple columns in the Corinthian order with the columns facing the nave extending to the second level where they support the gallery;
- decorated architrave just below galleries with dentil mouldings;
- solid wall arcade along edge of galleries;
- upper columns mirror columned piers below;
- restrained decoration with plaster elements painted in gold leaf;
- transverse aisle arches on both the lower and upper levels end in decorated plaster kneestones;
- altar piece, built in 1912, is situated at the east end of the church in the apse and is on a raised dais;
- elaborate three-levels of decoration with marble columned baldacchino and intricate Baroque-style entablature and pediment above with a statue of St. Peter below it;
- religious wall paintings in behind altar added by Italian artist Mario Mauro in early 20th century;
- two arched niches on either side of altar with Corinthian columns showcase two religious statues;
- large Casavant organ from St-Hyacinthe, Quebec installed in 1905 in choir loft.