Christmas stamps honour the beauty of Kingston’s St. Mary’s Cathedral

  • November 2, 2011

KINGSTON - We are justly proud of our Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, and so should Catholics across the land, for Kingston is the mother church of all English Canada. I count it a great blessing that I offer the Holy Mass there every Sunday night. Now Canadians from sea to sea shall have the opportunity to honour our cathedral with every letter and card they send.

On All Saints Day, Canada Post unveiled its Christmas stamps for 2011 at a special ceremony in our cathedral. Three images from the cathedral’s magnificent stained glass windows were selected. The angel appearing to Joseph will grace the domestic stamp, the Nativity the American stamp and the Epiphany was chosen for the international stamp.

Canada Post chose to use stained glass images for this year’s Christmas stamps and selected St. Mary’s Cathedral for both esthetic and historic reasons. Many churches have excellent stained glass, but the history of our St. Mary’s has a special appeal. The windows were commissioned and designed by James Vincent Cleary, the first archbishop of Kingston, in 1883. When they arrived from England, delivery was held up until the relevant duty was paid. Archbishop Cleary was either unable or unwilling to pay the duty, and went to Sir John A. Macdonald, Kingston’s own man in Parliament. In a pleasant instance of co-operation between crown and Church, Canada’s first prime minister facilitated their delivery. History does not record whether the duty was ever paid, and if it was, who paid it.

We are blessed across the archdiocese of Kingston with many fine churches featuring splendid stained glass windows — including my own on Wolfe Island. The series in the cathedral though, is the most extensive, and tells the story of the whole history of salvation. The windows do not focus solely on the life of Christ or the Blessed Mother, but begin with Adam and Eve, and continue — unusually — through to the life of the early Church. The concluding window depicts the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul.

The windows of our St. Mary’s thus echo the universal masterpiece of all stained glass, that other “St. Mary’s” in Chartres, France. Chartres Cathedral also tells of all salvation history and illustrates that medieval innovations in the use of stained glass still have the capacity to raise the mind and heart to God.

“Chartres also teaches us about the importance of beauty and the beautiful for Catholic faith,” writes papal biographer George Weigel in his book Letters to a Young Catholic. “The sad fact is that a lot of contemporary Catholicism is ugly: ugly buildings, ugly furnishings, ugly decorations, ugly vestments, ugly music. There are exceptions, huge exceptions, to be sure. But the general Catholic drift is not, to put it gently, toward the beautiful. That’s not just an esthetic problem. It’s a serious religious and theological problem.

“Why? Because beauty helps prepare us to be the kind of people who are comfortable in heaven — the kind of people who can live with God forever. Beautiful things and beautiful music draw us out of ourselves and into an encounter with a truth that’s beyond us, yet accessible to our senses. The beauty of Beatrice drew Dante out of himself and into paradise, and into an encounter with the beauty that is Love itself.”

It is sometimes said that architecture is poetry set in stone. Chartres as the Divine Comedy set in stone is a felicitous image. St. Mary’s Cathedral is a more modest but worthy architectural setting of the great 19th-century Catholic hymn of praise to the Mother of God under the title of the Immaculate Conception. Our cathedral took the name in 1843, the dogma was defined in 1854 and Our Lady confirmed it herself by the apparitions at Lourdes in 1858.

It was a blessed thing to unveil the new stamps on All Saints Day, for the history of stained glass addresses very much the vocation of every Christian disciple to holiness. Canada Post’s notes about the new stamps speak of the importance of stained glass in teaching the faith to a population unable to read. That’s true enough, testifying to the Church’s desire to use all possible media to preach the Gospel. But the great stained glass cathedrals — whether in Chartres or in Kingston — were works of the people above all. It was volunteer labour and local fundraising which accomplished such great feats that are, frankly, beyond the wit or generosity of today’s generations to accomplish.

I customarily buy enough stamps at Christmas to last the whole year. In the electronic age, that’s not very many. But it would be good if many Canadians did the same, supporting a worthy initiative from Canada Post and honouring the history and beauty of our cathedral in Kingston.

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