Café des Tours supervisor Sapphira Sinasac, along with Fr. David Bergeron, at the café within Ottawa’s Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica. Photo by Sapphira Sinasac and Emma O’Reilly

European charm brewing at Ottawa cathedral

  • January 5, 2024

With each sip of foamy, aromatic cappuccino goodness, the caffeine connoisseur becomes more enveloped in an atmosphere of peacefulness where time seems to melt away.

Suppose you close your eyes to visualize such an idealized café experience. You will likely think of backdrops like the tranquil French Riviera or the picturesque cobblestoned streets of Milan. Transcendent, hours-long escapism is primarily the province of European coffeehouses. For many in North America, visiting a coffee shop is a transient diversion from a busy day.

Café des Tours, located on the lower level of the historic Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica in Ottawa, is emerging as a delightful exception to the Canadian cup of joe paradigm since its opening last summer.

“People who miss their home across the pond have commented that there is a European flavour to the café and style to the coffee itself,” said Fr. David Bergeron, the cathedral’s pastor. “They told us that even the look was of Europe. I was surprised to hear that, but it is a compliment knowing the tradition of cafés in Europe.”

Admirers have told Bergeron and Café des Tours supervisor Sapphira Sinasac that their establishment is aesthetically reminiscent of Vienna, Rome and Kraków. Some of the charms mentioned by customers are the church pews refurbished as café seats, the light white and blue colour scheme and the old-fashioned street lamppost lighting complemented by flickering candles.

Sinasac said all these features “contribute to a very elegant, restful, welcoming atmosphere.”

Earning favourable comparisons to celebrated European bistros is a welcome development, but it was not the motivating force behind Bergeron’s desire to found Café des Tours.

During his previous assignment as pastor for Queen of Peace Parish in Houston, Texas, the Companions of the Cross priest fantasized about setting up a coffee truck so he and his parish community could evangelize those not attending Mass. However, that idea was not logistically feasible. Bergeron put his aspiration on the shelf, but upon his return to Canada in June 2021, he was encouraged by the Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall to “think outside the box.”

“Then came back this dream of mine,” said Bergeron. “In a sense, rather than going into the streets to do ministry, the streets are coming to us, especially during the busy touristic season. We want to create a space for evangelization.

“Right now, we have a lot of students who give us a few hours as baristas amid all their other activities and occupations. Many are involved in evangelization ministries, mainly NET (Canada) and CCO (Catholic Christian Outreach). They are people who are ready to share the Good News. This is a way for people who do not feel comfortable in a Mass setting to come. We’re not too much in their face. We ask the Lord to help us show His face in the hospitality. I think one of the special ingredients for all of us is love.”

The Café des Tours team’s efforts are brewing some promising results. For instance, one couple noticed the Stations of the Cross on the wall and wanted to learn about their significance. Several other tourists agreed to take a pamphlet about the Rosary home. One daily regular recently signed up for the cathedral choir. Some Western Canada and U.S. guests declared they would talk to their bishop about instituting a similar missionary project.

In addition to the Stations of the Cross, there are many other religious artifacts to pique visitors’ interest. Café des Tours showcases the mitres (ceremonial headdress) of the first seven archbishops of Ottawa. Joseph-Bruno Guigues, Ottawa’s original bishop; Joseph-Thomas Duhamel, the first archbishop; and Georges Bouillion, the priest-architect who designed and supervised the cathedral’s interior decoration, have exhibitions in their honour. Bergeron considers “the highlight” of all the displays the historical tribute to Archbishop Alexandre Vachon, who masterminded the inaugural Marian Congress in 1947. More than 200,000 pilgrims participated in what was then the largest religious conference in the world. 

Ingenuity with the hot drinks is another tactic employed to precipitate spiritual curiosity. The baristas add gold dust to the cappuccinos on Marian feast days and other special solemnities. This has opened up conversation, like on Aug. 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when customers were told “You can put gold dust on your cappuccino today because today the Church is celebrating the feast of the Assumption.” Naturally, some asked, “What is the Assumption?”

On gold dust days, the foamed milk may depict the Nativity scene and an outline of the Virgin Mary.

Sinasac relishes these artistic touches. She also enjoys serving drinks like the Mystical Rose tea latte and food dishes like mini-pumpkin loaf cakes with cream cheese glaze and brie croissant sandwiches.

Last May, Sinasac worked for another well-established coffee shop in Ottawa (she opted not to provide the name) when her friend working for the cathedral basilica informed her of Bergeron’s plans to start a café.

“I didn’t understand how that could work, but the Lord was working on my heart,” wrote Sinasac in an email. “I didn’t want to let go of the security of my place. I firmly believed that I could not be trusted with responsibility for anything like this, not even for the one-man coffee-cart-in-the-corner kind of basement café, which was my original conception of the plan. But the Lord and my housemate were gently persistent.”

In late June, Sinasac and Bergeron met. The latter provided a tour and explained his ambitious grand design of converting the basement into a café. 

“I went home terrified,” recalled Sinasac. “But also deeply at peace and with a curious ache to stay at the cathedral. I had not been to Notre Dame more than a couple times each year, despite having grown up in this diocese, but that night, my heart was tugged achingly to remain.”

After completing a final interview and coffee testing — “a delightful duty” for Sinasac — she accepted the job. She appreciates offering the café’s guests a serene setting each day.

“It is a place to rest. It is peaceful. It feels like coming home. That is the experience I hope to share with our guests, especially reflecting the deeper belonging they each are invited to in the heart of the One enthroned upstairs.”

Café des Tours is less than three weeks shy of its six-month anniversary on Jan. 25. This hub of drink, food, fellowship and religious enlightenment could ascend to even greater notoriety in 2024 as positive word of mouth spreads. It helps that café regulars volunteer to assist in marketing and publicity efforts.

There also appears to be a steady stream of international clientele. Diplomats from Japan, Hungary, the Philippines, Portugal, Holland and Bulgaria have all popped in to experience the vibes, brews and goodies.

Whether the customer walking through the door is an ambassador’s spouse or a student from the nearby Richard Robinson Fashion Design Academy, the objective for the Café des Tours is the same: offer an environment that feels like such a warm blanket, a la Europe, that guests are in no hurry to leave.

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