JOHN GALT’S GHOST LIVES ON…. IN DOWNTOWN GUELPH
Here’s a quiz for you:
Name the landmark that comes to mind when I say “Paris, France.”
“Eiffel Tower.” Right?
“ The CN Tower. For sure.”
A third one…
“The Sydney Opera House.”
Now here’s one to try a little closer to home, for you southwestern Ontarians…
And while the name, “The Church of Our Lady Immaculate” might not come immediately to mind, the image surely does….
“Our Lady” towers above the downtown landscape of this mid-sized Ontario city, rising grand and glorious, all turrets and towers and parapets, dazzling in Gothic splendor.
When John Galt founded Guelph in 1827, he staked out the highest point in the landscape and claimed it for Roman Catholics. Here, one day would rise “a church to rival St. Peter’s in Rome.”
Galt’s first tribute to Catholicism burned to the ground in 1835; the second one suffered a similar ignominy in 1846. Not until 1877 would work begin on the present Church of Our Lady Immaculate.
Architect Joseph Connolly was engaged to bring John Galt’s grandiose goal to fruition. With unlimited resources and imagination, Connolly took the great cathedral in Cologne, Germany as his model.
Higher and higher, over 200 feet, towards heaven, Our Lady rose. Under the direction of gifted stone artisan Matthew Bell, an army of stone masons sculpted limestone from the nearby Grand River into detailed form. Poor Bell died when he fell from a height during work on the church.
Meanwhile a battalion of craftsmen worked on the church’s interior. Only “dazzling” would do.
Woodworkers chiseled intricate trims and carvings, while mural artists painted sacred scenes on Our Lady’s walls and ceilings. Only the finest stained glass would do, and nine luminous windows were imported from France and Germany. Sun shining through them would bathe the parishioners in heavenly blues; earthy golds and greens.
The statue of the Virgin Mary dominating the altar was created from the purest of pure, the whitest of white, Carrera marble. Our Lady’s massive pipe organ was painstakingly hand-made by the Casavant Frères in Quebec.
Eleven years after construction began, in 1888, the dedication of The Church of our Lady Immaculate was held.
A long line of priests have served the church’s flock over its 175 year history. Several are noteworthy. One, Father Sanderi became legendary for his two-hour “fire and brimstone” sermons. If this was not cause enough for congregational rebellion, he chastised his flock, many poor Irish immigrants who had fled the Potato Famine, for “stinginess” in the Sunday Mass collection.
Legend reports that the congregation eventually drove Father Sanderi from the parish. He lived for a time as a hermit on an island in nearby Puslinch Lake, before retiring to a monastery.
Father Caspar Matoga served his parishoners in the mid-1850’s. No doubt equating religious service with pain, Father Matoga preferred walking to horse and buggy transportation when visiting outlying parishes.
When exhaustion overtook the fatigued Father, he was known to lie down in the road to rest. After a walk of 30 miles to Guelph, the pious priest collapsed and died.
Current city of Guelph by-laws continue to protect Our Lady’s position in the community. “Protected areas” in Guelph’s downtown ensure clear “sight lines” to the massive church on the hill. Any communication towers built in the downtown area must not obscure the view of the church. And in the ultimate concession to John Galt’s vision, no new buildings are allowed to be taller than Our Lady.
With church membership numbering over 2500, the Church of Our Immaculate remains one Ontario’s largest parishes. Masses are conducted daily.
But history—even the most glorious examples—fades, and Our Lady is no exception. A major restoration project on the church roof and interior has been going on since 2007. This work comes with no small cost. Estimates are between $10 to $12 million.
Designated a National Historic Site in 1990, the church is open to the general public most weekdays. Tours are offered the first Sunday afternoon of every month, or by appointment.
Church of Our Lady Immaculate
28 Norfolk Street,