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St. Finnan’s Catholic Church has been a presence in eastern Ontario since it was first built as a mission church in 1833. Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall

St. Finnan’s joins exclusive club as Canada's newest Minor Basilica

  • April 29, 2021

OTTAWA -- A Catholic church that dates back to the early 1800s in eastern Ontario is Canada’s newest basilica, becoming one of only 27 Catholic churches in Canada to be designated as a minor basilica.

“It is a very important honour for all of us here,” Fr. Jonathan Blake of St. Finnan’s in Alexandria told Canadian Catholic News.

“It is recognition of the beauty and history of the church and the important role it has had in Alexandria and in this part of the province,” Blake said, adding that it was the merger of the Ottawa and Alexandria-Cornwall dioceses last year that is at the root of seeking special recognition from the Vatican for the church.

The church, about an hour’s drive from Ottawa, was once the home base cathedral for the bishop of Alexandria-Cornwall before that diocese merged with Ottawa to become the Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall.

While Pope Francis formally approved designating St. Finnan’s Parish as a basilica in February, a plan to hold a special ceremony to mark the occasion on April 11 had to be cancelled because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in Ontario.

Blake, who has been the pastor of St. Finnan’s for less than a year, said a special ceremony in which Ottawa-Cornwall Archbishop Marcel Damphousse was to read the Pope’s declaration to parishioners at the church will be rescheduled for a later date when COVID-related restrictions are lifted.

“It was felt that it would be better to wait until we are all able to get together and can gather in person again to mark the occasion,” Blake said.

“Hopefully, it will be sooner rather than later because this is a very important honour for all of us here and for everyone who helped with the process to get this done.”

There are four major basilicas in the world, all located in Rome, with about 1,800 minor basilicas worldwide, all of which require special designation by the Pope.

St. Finnan’s becomes the third basilica in the archdiocese, joining Notre-Dame Basilica Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Basilica, both in downtown Ottawa.

“As a point of reference, there are more than 221,000 Catholic churches in the world,” said a statement from the Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall. “With this designation, St. Finnan’s joins the ranks of such prominent minor basilicas as Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, St. Francis of Assisi in Italy and Notre-Dame in Paris.”

Most of the churches that have been designated minor basilicas in Canada are in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. There are only two in western Canada, Saint Boniface in Winnipeg and St. Joseph’s in Edmonton.

Blake said that Canada’s bishops, along with the new Ottawa-Cornwall archdiocese, were very helpful and supportive of the effort to have St. Finnan’s achieve its new status as a basilica.

“It goes through a number of different steps before it eventually gets before the Holy Father, and there was support here in Canada from the bishops all along the way,” Blake said. “It has really been a process that a lot of people helped with within the Church here in Canada and locally at the parish level here, too.

“There was a lot of effort put in by a lot of people to recognize the importance of this church to not only the people and our parishioners in this area, but its importance to the history of the Catholic Church in Canada.”

St. Finnan’s has been a staple of community life in Alexandria since the 1830s when Bishop Alexander Macdonell established a mission church in Alexandria and Fr. John McDonald was appointed pastor. The church was rebuilt in the 1880s. It had served as a cathedral — the seat of the bishop — for the Diocese of Alexandria-Cornwall until the diocese amalgamated with the Archdiocese of Ottawa last year. With the move, St. Finnan’s was returned to the status of parish church until the decree was signed on behalf of the Pope on Feb. 19 this year by Cardinal Robert Sarah, then-Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Catholic basilicas are considered pilgrimage churches, and Blake said once the COVID pandemic restrictions are eased, making St. Finnan’s a religious tourism attraction will be explored.

“That is something that can be an attraction for us in the future, and is something that some people have talked about and are very excited about here,” he said.

“Attracting Catholics from Kanata (a community near Ottawa) and from other places nearby and even from elsewhere in Canada to make a pilgrimage to Alexandria, that is something we are excited about,” Blake said.

“We are excited about sharing the beauty of our church and our parish with everyone in the future,” he said.

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