Basilica has 100 years of memories

A display at the 100th anniversary celebration of St. Joseph's Basilica in Edmonton describes Blessed John Paul II's visit to Edmonton in 1984.


A display at the 100th anniversary celebration of St. Joseph's Basilica in Edmonton describes Blessed John Paul II's visit to Edmonton in 1984.

February 17, 2014

The archbishop, former rectors and hundreds of St. Joseph's Basilica parishioners celebrated a beautiful faith journey 100 years in the making.

On Saturday, Feb. 1, people relived the journey of the basilica, from the start of construction in 1923 to its consecration in 1963 and onward. As the seat of the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, people reflected on the key features of the basilica, and the meaning they hold for them.

Around 1913, planning began for the new church. The basement was dug and cemented until the First World War interfered with financing and the project was delayed.

"The priests and people of this parish had a vision and a determination to build a church for the future with the capacity to hold more than 1,000 people. At the time, the city of Edmonton was growing rapidly, and soon other parishes would be established," said Father Martin Carroll, the current rector.

Carroll spoke on the transformation of a building into God's house. The cathedral crypt church was consecrated March 22, 1925. From 1930 to 1950, there were challenges due to shortages of priests and a shortage of funds. The Depression of the 1930s and later the Second World War postponed plans to proceed.

Fr. Martin Caroll

Fr. Martin Caroll

In October 1956, the building committee undertook a feasibility study to construct, furnish and finance the upper level. A funding campaign was launched and St. Joseph's Chapel was constructed in 1957. Consecration of the upper cathedral was in 1963.


Mary Molloy, who chaired the 100th anniversary committee, noted that it takes more than bricks and mortar to bring God's presence into life.

"Each of us has a faith journey that has contributed to the life of this community," said Molloy. "Whenever there was a need for a religious opinion or I was asked for advice, I often turned to this religious community for help."

Father Mike McCaffery served as the 13th rector of the basilica from 1987 to 1993. On June 10, 1990, he blessed the three bronze cathedral bells. McCaffery said acquisition of the bells was made possible when Edith Stevens donated $100,000 to buy the bells in memory of her parents.

Mary Molloy

Mary Molloy

For Margaret Athaide, the bells brought back memories. Her village had a cathedral and the church bells rang to signify the hour for worshippers to go to church, a call to prayer, or perhaps to attend a wedding or funeral. On April 2, 2005 she was reminded of the power of the church bells.

"On April 2, the bells of the basilica rang, but not at their regular time. The deep, clear sound resonated across the skies," said Athaide, noting that the ringing bells marked the death of Pope John Paul II.

"The sound of the bells brought sadness for the death of the pope. That ringing stirred memories long forgotten of my childhood in Goa, India" she said.

The day of the pope's death, she was at the basilica, deep in prayer, hands clasped together, feeling shocked and astounded. The next day, her image was on the front page of the Edmonton Journal.

"I realized that the photograph had captured something significant – a moment when nothing else mattered except for my faith," said Athaide.


Father Miguel Irizar, associate pastor at the basilica, told of the building's 69 stained glass windows. They depict scenes from the Bible, as well as the church's connection to St. Albert, the original seat of the diocese.

Margaret Athaide

Margaret Athaide

In June 1978 the last six stained glass windows were received from Franz Mayer in Munich. These were installed in the archbishop's sacristy and main sacristy. Collectively, the windows tell the story of salvation history.

Organist David Moret provided a history of the basilica's massive pipe organ. Built by the Casavant Brothers of Quebec, the organ is one of the largest in Western Canada. There are three manuals, 42 stops and more than 3,000 pipes. An immense blower that sinks 18 metres below the choir loft supplies the air for the mighty organ which can deliver the sound of a full orchestra.

Playing a choral improvisation on O Sanctissima was organist Monica Rist.

Pope John Paul II was one of the most travelled world leaders in history, visiting 129 countries during his pontificate. His Edmonton visit in 1984 is still fondly remembered.

Fr. Mike McCaffery

Fr. Mike McCaffery

A brief video called A Saint Among Us was shown during the evening. Narrated by Archbishop Emeritus Joseph MacNeil, the video highlighted the pope's visit, and the elevation of St. Joseph's Cathedral to a minor basilica.


Archbishop Richard Smith said many people have grown so accustomed to rapid change that the idea of something changeless, permanent or stable seems almost impossible to comprehend.

That leaves them, he said, with no reasonable basis for hope.

"As the people of God we are called to announce there is, indeed, reason for hope. The reason is Jesus, in whom God's never changing love has been revealed and remains ever with us. This mystery of divine love is the heart of the Church," said Smith.

That mystery is the deepest reason for celebrating the parish centennial, the archbishop said.

"This structure has taken time to build and remains unfinished. This building tells us something critical, something central to our Christian life; that we need to allow God's grace to work within us," said Smith, noting that everyone is an unfinished project, continually developing.