St. Dunstan’s is the fourth church built on the current site in Charlottetown, the first being a wooden structure that was erected in 1816. Inside, more than 300 angels can be found adorning the walls, windows and pillars. Photo from Wikipedia

An Island gem marks 100th anniversary

  • September 18, 2019

For almost three centuries Catholics in Prince Edward Island have been able to call St. Dunstan’s their home, the last 100 years in the current cathedral basilica situated prominently on historic Great George Street in the heart of Charlottetown.

The grand old lady marked the milestone with a centennial Mass Sept. 15 and parish picnic that followed to culminate months of celebrations surrounding the 100th anniversary of the fourth church built on the same site in the island province’s capital city. A parish mission took place over the following week. These events were preceded by a centennial concert held at the cathedral in the spring.

It’s been a good year for St. Dunstan’s, said Fr. Keith Kennific, the rector who spent the first 13 years of his life there as a parishioner. He received his First Communion there in 1963 and was confirmed in 1964. 

Plenty of people have taken part in the centennial festivities and the anniversary has drawn a lot of attention island-wide, he said.

“Most Catholics in a small place like Prince Edward Island have a connection to it,” he said.

St. Dunstan’s is an icon in this Maritime city, situated in the oldest part of the downtown just up from Charlottetown Harbour and along the road to Province House, where the Fathers of Confederation in 1864 set in motion the beginnings of a soon-to-be new land called Canada (hence the city’s motto of “Birthplace of Confederation”). It is a huge tourist attraction in this smallest of Canadian provinces, welcoming thousands who visit this gem of an island.

“I would say it’s one of the top tourist attractions in the city of Charlottetown for sure,” said Kennific.

It has a storied past that makes for an interesting stop along the tourist path. The current church is the fourth building to grace the site as the mother church of Canada’s second oldest English diocese. The first church was a wooden structure erected in 1816 that was replaced in 1843 by a larger wooden cathedral. Just over a half century later, in 1896, the cornerstone of the third cathedral was laid on a church that would be built of stone. Yet that couldn’t keep fire from ravaging the church just 17 years later, which set the stage for construction of the current building that was completed in 1919. 

It’s a magnificent structure, an example of high Victorian Gothic Revival architecture. It is the most visible landmark in Charlottetown with its spires towering over the city. It strikes many visitors as being far too big for such a small town, with a population of just over 36,000, something Kennific hears often when he speaks with tourists, many who arrive by sea in cruise ships.

The French Gothic exterior draws the gaze to the three-metre (10-foot) tall spiral crosses atop each spire, while four carvings on the outside doors depict the four Gospel writers. The altar area — measuring 11.2 metres high and 13.4 metres long— houses 23 statues of saints and angels. Nearly 300 angel representations are presented in the stained glass, below Stations of the Cross, on light fixtures and in gilded bands adorning the church pillars.

The building itself is in good shape, a tribute to the constant upkeep at the parish of between 600 and 700 households. Plenty of structural work has been completed over the years, much of it not noticeable to the average eye, but essential work needed for a church of this age, which was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990, said Kennific.

“The basilica in Charlottetown, it’s like a venerable old parent who needs the care now of her children in many respects,” said Kennific. 

Among these projects has been the re-emergence of the church bells in the tower which have been ringing again since Canada Day 2017. They had been removed from the tower in the 1970s because of structural concerns but 18 bells were returned to the north tower after being tuned up in the foundry in South Carolina where they were produced following a fund-raising campaign.

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