Notre-Dame de Québec is a cathedral-basilica with primatial status, being the mother church of a primate of the Catholic Church in Canada, in this case the Archbishop of Québec. It is also the see of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Québec.
Located in Québec City at 16 De Buade Street, in the historic district of Old Québec, the majestic Notre-Dame de Québec is next to the Séminaire de Québec and opposite city hall. It is part of a historically uniform group of buildings that includes its rectory, the episcopal palace of the Diocese of Québec, the former Université Laval and the entire religious and institutional centre of the Old Québec heritage site. The cathedral-basilica overlooks Sainte-Famille Street in the distance, a tourist artery in the provincial capital that is home to the Musée de l’Amérique francophone.
Sitting on the site of Québec City’s first chapel, which was erected by Samuel de Champlain in 1633, the earliest incarnation of the current cathedral-basilica was built in 1647 and named Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix in reference to a short-lived truce signed with the Mohawk nation in 1645. In 1664, it became North America’s very first parish church, Notre-Dame-de-l’Immaculée-Conception.
The church was granted cathedral status following Monsignor François-Xavier de Montmorency-Laval’s appointment as bishop of the newly created Diocese of Québec in 1674, making it an official place of worship and the headquarters of a diocese. The building had to be reconfigured as a result of this new episcopal status. Monsignor de Laval secured funding from King Louis XIV in 1683, but it fell far short of what he would need to achieve his goal. He hired architect Claude Baillif anyway. A subtle power struggle then began with Québec City’s residents, who were secretly reluctant to contribute to funding a cathedral, even partially. The bishop therefore decided to spend all of his scarce resources on the new church’s façade. It was not until 1697, under the bishopric of Monsignor Jean-Baptiste de La Croix de Chevrières de Saint-Vallier, that the nave was built and extended the structure erected in 1647 to the “cathedral” façade built under Laval. A more skilful diplomat than his predecessor, Monsignor de Saint-Vallier even managed to get Québec City parishioners to fund its completion.
The church built in 1647, and altered in 1684 and 1697, was extended again when the choir was built between 1742 and 1748 under intendant Gilles Hocquart. Two aisles were added, and the nave was raised to allow for direct lighting through a clerestory. Architect Gaspard Chaussegros de Léry, the king’s engineer, confirmed that the cathedral was configured like those in France, with nave, aisles and tribunes, and that it was also brightly lit. Notre-Dame-de-l’Immaculée-Conception retained this relatively balanced form until the end of the French Regime.
In 1759, the church was destroyed by a fire that started when the eastern part of the capital was bombarded by British gunboats during the siege of Québec (see Seven Years' War). It was rebuilt as quickly as possible, starting early in the British Regime, but difficulties arose and political power struggles with the occupying force delayed many aspects of the work. The reconstruction project began in earnest in 1766. After work was completed in 1771, the cathedral looked much as it did before the Conquest, although the steeple rebuilt under architect Jean Baillairgé was smaller than its predecessor.
The interior layout of the cathedral, now called Notre-Dame de Québec, was furnished to spectacular effect between 1786 and 1799, with Jean Baillairgé and his son François overseeing the project. In 1797, they delivered the cathedral’s main altar, which was made to look like the façade of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In 1799, François Baillairgé built a parish pew (also known as a churchwarden’s bench) in the same vein, with carved decoration in keeping with the original architectural setting.
Thomas Baillairgé, François’s son, went back to work on the façade between 1829 and 1843, but was unable to finish because of the building’s structural limitations and weak foundations. The façade left incomplete by Baillairgé was still the most elaborate neoclassical church frontispiece in all of Québec. The architect took pains to create a stunning, perfectly geometric structure that reflected the layout, in plan and terracing, of the interior spaces.
In 1874, Pope Pius IX elevated the cathedral to the status of minor basilica to mark the bicentennial of the Diocese of Québec. This meant that in its new capacity as cathedral-basilica, Notre-Dame de Québec was now an official Catholic pilgrimage site, the very first in North America. Its architecture continued to be worked and reworked. In 1897, when the north and south sacristies were being restored, the decision was made to add a wedding chapel to the end of the north sacristy. Known as the St. Louis Chapel, it was finished and decorated in 1916.
On 22 December 1922, fire laid waste to the cathedral-basilica just as a round of ambitious interior work was being completed. Architects Tanguay and Chênevert had just enhanced the classical detailing initially envisioned by Gaspard Chaussegros de Léry, which François Baillairgé had begun to introduce. The flames completely destroyed the rich, subtle ornamentation. The loss in terms of heritage value was beyond measure. Construction of the current church began in 1923. Large in scale, the work incorporated non-combustible materials into every component of the building’s structure. Unfortunately, this was an attempt to restore a cultural asset that was irretrievably lost. Substantial new work began in 1960 and stretched throughout the 20th century, primarily involving the configuration of the crypt that now houses the tombs of most of Québec City’s bishops and four governors of New France (Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac, Louis-Hector de Callières, Philippe de Rigaud de Vaudreuiland Jacques-Pierre de Taffanel, Marquis de La Jonquière). A funeral chapel was set up in 1993, to which the remains of Monsignor de Laval were relocated.
On 23 June 1966, the Québec Ministère de la Culture et des Communications classified Notre-Dame de Québec as a heritage building. On 1 January 1989, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated it a historic site.
On 8 December 2013, Notre-Dame de Québec officially became custodian of the only holy door outside of Europe. A holy door is a sacred portal the Pope or one of his cardinals solemnly strikes down to mark the beginning of a Holy Year. Only seven churches in the world currently have a holy door: Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, St. John Lateran's Basilica and the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, all in Rome, Italy; the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L’Aquila, Italy; the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Santiago de Compostela, Spain; and the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec in Québec City, Canada.
To the front of Notre-Dame de Québec lies a parvis, or forecourt, surrounded by a stone wall topped with a street furniture-style cast bronze fence dating from 1857. Its two asymmetrical domed steeples, main façade and side walls are made of stone and its roof of copper. Inside, the vault and walls are made of plaster. The vault is in the shape of a semicircular arch, while the floor plan is rectangular. The choir is a projecting hipped-gable apse, and the interior layout consists of a nave in three sections. The cathedral-basilica has three Casavant organs, including one from 1927 that has 94 stops. The existing stained glass was made by the firm of Meyer d’Autriche. With its vast array of religious paintings and woodwork, its crypt and holy door, Notre-Dame de Québec is a cherished place of worship in the area and could be considered an important museum of Québécois and global religious art.