The Catholic Church of Charlottetown dates back to 1721 when two missionary priests came to minister to the spiritual needs of the early French settlers. A small church was built at Port la Joye, an early French settlement located across the harbour from Charlottetown. This settlement, including the little church, was destroyed during the English invasion in 1758 and the inhabitants were deported to France.
In 1772, religious persecution in Scotland prompted a number of Catholics to seek refuge in the New World. Many settled in Scotchfort, a community about 20 km east of Charlottetown. Father James MacDonald, the young priest who came with them, died in 1785 and is buried in the French cemetery in Scotchfort. Settlers were without a resident priest until Father Angus Bernard MacEachern arrived from Scotland about five years later.
Father MacEachern's arrival marked a pivotal time in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in PEI. At the time, the Maritime Provinces were included in the Diocese of Quebec. The Bishop of Quebec granted Father MacEachern permission to administer to the native Scots in eastern PEI and the Acadians west of Malpeque. Before long, his parish included all of PEI, the Magdalen Islands, Cape Breton Island and the Northumberland Shore of Nova Scotia.
The area was vast and settlements were widespread. To transport his Mass kit and vestments, Father MacEachern crafted a small horse-drawn vessel that navigated small bodies of water and, when fitted with runners, served as a sleigh during the harsh winters. The original vessel, restored in 1949, and his snowshoes are displayed inside the Basilica.
The First Bishop
In 1829, Charlottetown was raised to an Episcopal See, the second English speaking diocese in Canada and the first in the Maritime Provinces. Right Reverend Angus Bernard MacEachern became the first Bishop of the Diocese of Charlottetown.
St. Dunstan’s Chapel
There is only one cathedral, the official church of the bishop, in a diocese. It houses the cathedra or Episcopal chair, the symbol of the bishop’s authority as chief shepherd of the diocese. The primitive wooden church built on this site in 1816 and dedicated to St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury became the cathedral for the Diocese of Charlottetown. It was replaced by a new larger wooden cathedral in 1843.
The cornerstone for the third of four cathedrals, the first built of stone, was laid in 1896. The hard Wallace stone foundation and lintels and softer Miramichi stone walls complemented the 25-year old rectory next door.
Built in the form of a Latin cross with 200-ft twin spires and the finest pipe organ in the province, the new cathedral was a tribute to the growing Diocese of Charlottetown. Alas, on March 7, 1913, just six years after the Cathedral's dedication, it was destroyed by fire.
Scottish architect J. M. Hunter and contractors James Metcalfe and Company re-constructed the walls of the burned cathedral. Inspired by St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, they procured the finest materials and craftsmanship to fashion an elegant English Gothic interior that far surpassed the original cathedral in magnificence. Bells similar in number and tone to those of St. Patrick’s Cathedral were installed in 1928 but later removed due to structural concerns with the bell tower.
When this fourth cathedral was completed in 1919, it was the largest and most fire-resistant cathedral in the Maritimes. One decade later, for the 100th anniversary of the Diocese of Charlottetown, the pope honoured the enormous financial sacrifices Islanders made to resurrect this house of God from its ashes by granting St. Dunstan’s the title of Basilica. Only 20 in Canada bear this honorary title.
St. Dunstan’s Basilica
In 1990, the federal government designated St. Dunstan’s Basilica a National Historic Site of Canada citing it as one of the most elaborate churches in the Maritimes and a fine example of High Victorian Gothic Revival architecture.
Situated on historic Great George Street near Province House with spires reaching the highest points on the city skyline, it is the most visible landmark of the city.
The parishioners of St. Dunstan’s and residents of the community are proud of the historical and spiritual significance of this Basilica and contribute generously to preserve it.
Following the devastating fire in 1913, Roman Catholics throughout the province and other members of the community donated generously to support the reconstruction. It is as a result of similar generosity today, that parishioners are able to maintain its original grandeur.
If you would like to contribute to the continued restoration of our beautiful Basilica, please visit the parish office in the stone building next door: Mon-Fri, 9:00 am-12:00 noon and 1:00 pm-4:00 pm or contribute online at www.stdunstanspei.com. We appreciate any financial support and will issue an official tax receipt for all donations received.
The Gothic Art and Architecture
During your tour you may notice:
The French Gothic exterior design lifts our gaze heavenward to the 10-ft tall spiral crosses at the top of the spires.
Four carvings at the outside doors depict gospel writers; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Each is identified with Gothic script and their creature as described in the Book of Revelations.
The focal point of the interior, the 37-ft-high altar, and 44-ft-long altar screen, houses 23 statues of saints and angels. The German-crafted Rose window, though seemingly petite, spans 14 feet.
Nearly 300 angel representations are presented in stained glass; below Stations of the Cross; on light fixtures; and entwined in gilded bands of foliage adorning the pillars.
Large ceiling bosses depict the message of the church (boat) spreading faith (cross), hope (chalice), and charity (heart) in PEI (provincial emblem) under the patronage of St. Dunstan. Smaller bosses represent five victorious powers of WWI: Shamrock of Ireland; Rose of England; Thistle of Scotland; Fleur-de-lis of France; and Cross of Italy.