A series of murals behind the altar of St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica painted over in the 1950s were restored to their former glory for the Halifax landmark’s 200th anniversary. Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth7

St. Mary’s bears witness to Halifax’s past

By 
  • July 5, 2020

For 200 years, St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica has been a fixture in the heart of downtown Halifax.

Despite its doors closed and services moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the planned June 29 celebration marking the two-century milestone of the second oldest cathedral in Canada was still a go, though it was subdued and looked quite different than originally planned.

“We were going to have a bigger celebration with a big Mass and a nice reception but tonight here at the house the clergy of the cathedral will just be gathering,” said Fr. Paul Morris, rector of the cathedral parish, on the eve of the anniversary. “We’re going to have a nice dinner and that’s how we’re going to celebrate here. We had bigger plans of course but it’ll be nice all the same.”

Tentative plans call for an Oct. 5 celebration to mark the occasion, but nothing is set in stone at this point because of the pandemic. The original plans would have seen bishops from across the Atlantic region attending along with papal nuncio Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi.

Morris, who grew up in the community, says the festivities may have been quieter than anticipated, but it was still a special celebration because of the deep history and significance of the cathedral to Halifax and all of Nova Scotia. 

“Outside of the pandemic, the doors are open seven days a week for anyone to come in,” said Morris, who served the parish from 2008 to 2013 before returning in August 2019 for a second tenure. “It’s a place of beauty. Many people would have a memory of attending a wedding or a baptism or perhaps their grandparents were married here. That’s certainly true for the Catholic population of Halifax.”

Located on the corner of Spring Garden Road and Barrington Street, the community grew around the church. Though things have slowed down due to COVID-19, under normal conditions it remains a bustling corner, frequented by pedestrians, visits from the faithful, those intrigued by history or others looking for refuge from the summer heat.

Catholics were among the original settlers of Halifax, founded in 1749 when the city was under the British Penal Laws imposed to force Irish Catholics and Protestant dissenters to accept the established Church of Ireland (Anglican). The laws, which put Catholics at a disadvantage, were never fully enacted in Halifax and by 1783 Catholics had obtained an exception to these laws to establish a chapel on the present site, said Morris.

The chapel evolved over the years and would soon become St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, signifying the origins of what is now the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth.

Through the hills and valleys of world and local history, Morris says the church has been a constant of the 200-year timeline of Halifax.

“Whether that be the world wars, the (1917) Halifax explosion (of a French cargo ship filled with munitions) or natural disasters, the cathedral parish was here,” said Morris, who was ordained at the cathedral in 2000. “It was from the cathedral parish here that the priests left to go out after the Titanic disaster to respond to the victims and survivors. Through all the great ups and downs of the city’s history, the church has been witness to most of it.”

For Morris, the cathedral features prominently in both his personal and priestly life. His father, Edmund, was Halifax’s mayor during the 1970s and was buried at the church upon his death in 2003. His mother is buried there as well, and he has witnessed many family members celebrate their nuptials at the parish.  

Among its many evolutions over the decades, last summer the St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica Foundation embarked on a project to uncover a set of murals that had been painted over in the 1950s. Though there has been much speculation as to why the art was covered, Morris says it remains a mystery. The delicate months-long project which was part of the buildup to the 200th anniversary celebration was completed just after the pandemic hit.

Located behind the altar, the five murals are said to be more than 100 years old and feature layered oil paintings of Mary’s Ascension in the centre, and two angels on either side. Though congregants have been able to see photos of the newly uncovered art, Morris says it will be exciting to introduce the results of the restoration to the congregation in person once they are able to gather again to celebrate 200 years of ministry.  

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