The 100-year-old basilica was built despite many challenges faced by parishioners.


The 100-year-old basilica was built despite many challenges faced by parishioners.

February 3, 2014

Parish life is akin to any person's life, with experiences of joys and sorrows, challenges and successes. The life of St. Joseph's Basilica is no exception.

Jan. 30 marked exactly 100 years since St. Joseph's Parish was founded; the 30th anniversary of elevation to a minor basilica also occurs this year.

The basilica traces its history to 1877 when a chapel was built at Jasper Avenue and 112th Street. The church grew out of St. Joachim's Parish in 1913, but it was not officially recognized as a parish until January 1914.

In 1923, St. Joseph's was designated the cathedral parish by Archbishop Henry Joseph O'Leary. It had a humble beginning as a basement church in 1925. The largest church in Edmonton, it also had a debt to match.


"It has served 100 years in the community, and it's always evolving. It's always been a unique parish because it's the bishop's parish. I've been to lots of other parishes, and they are just not the same," said Greg Bounds, who helped compile the history of the basilica for the anniversary celebrations.

The glass window of the Annunciation.


The glass window of the Annunciation.

When the time to start on the upper edifice drew near, the Depression hit and plans were postponed. Another challenge was a shortage of priests. Years later, the Second World War put a further halt on attempts to complete the building.

The building fund shrunk in value, and in 1956 a building committee was formed to explore the feasibility of completing the cathedral. Another four years went by before work was started. A 1960 campaign for funds gave a boost, and in early 1961 the superstructure started to rise from the crypt.

On May 1, 1963 – the feast of St. Joseph the Worker – the cathedral was dedicated. In celebration, the priests enjoyed a dinner at the Hotel Macdonald, and the menu of that evening remains part of the archdiocesan archives.

"There is always some question about the dates. What we're celebrating is the 100th anniversary of the parish being erected. The 25th anniversary (in 1988) was for the date the superstructure of the church was finished, in 1963," explained Bounds.


Construction was no easy task, as the church includes 1,400 tons of exterior stone, 145,000 interior decorative concrete blocks, 52,200 pieces of clay tile, 918 cubic yards of concrete, 581,800 bricks, 700 square feet of marble, 350 gallons of paint, 284 tons of structural steel, and 33 tons of reinforcing steel.

Seating capacity exceeds 1,200, with a 700-seat capacity in the basement church.

"What we're talking about is how a church is built and continues to be built. It's never finished, and one of the pieces we're showing with that is the mosaic, having it blessed Jan. 30," said Mary Molloy.

"Building the house has been kind of our theme," said Molloy, an active member of St. Joseph's Basilica, who has helped organize many liturgical events, including the 100th anniversary celebration.

Today, parishioners reflect on the special features of the basilica: cathedral bells, stained glass windows, the Baptistry just inside the entrance, the massive pipe organ, and the bishop's chair (cathedra).

A German woodcarver carved the figure of Christ during the winter in an unheated garage that he used as a studio.

The elongated stained glass windows and ceramic mosaic Stations of the Cross are from Munich. When they were installed, beginning in 1962, the windows were valued at $300,000 and the inlaid Stations of the Cross at $15,000. The gold ceramic of the illustrations of Christ's walk to Calvary were originally ordered by Adolf Hitler as decoration for lampposts for one of the dictator's mass rallies in Nuremburg.

Starting in 1951, the cathedral became the first parish in Canada to hold Perpetual Adoration. Day and night it was open for prayer; someone was always inside visiting the Blessed Sacrament.

However, in the early hours of Feb. 28, 1980, an arsonist torched the cathedral, destroying the sanctuary area, blackening walls, and destroying the oak altar and large sculptured wooden crucifix. Damages exceeded $250,000. The fire caused the end of St. Joseph's open door policy and perpetual adoration. The repairs and renovations resulting from the fire were completed by December 1981.

Pope John Paul II officially granted the title of "minor basilica" to the church in 1984, in view of his visit to Edmonton and to recognize the efforts of early missionaries and the people of the archdiocese. St. Joseph's was the first church west of Manitoba to be given this honour.


"There are criteria to follow to go from a cathedral to a basilica. You've got to have the right structure, the right kind of programs, and the right history to it. Certainly having the pope there was part of the final criteria. Having the pope there was part of the impetus to apply," said Bounds.

On Sept. 17, 1984, the pope presided over an evening ecumenical prayer service in St. Joseph's Basilica.

In 1999, Archbishop Joseph MacNeil wrote of the papal visit: "People saw Pope John Paul II as a reflection of Jesus Christ. To be in his presence was a reminder of the presence of Jesus Christ in our midst. Through his various stops in Canada he challenged all of us to the following of Jesus."

A noteworthy event at the basilica was the July 16, 1988 wedding of Wayne Gretzky, then with the Edmonton Oilers, to Janet Jones.

"I think where it's located plays a prominent role in people's lives and you don't go anywhere without seeing it. It holds many of the major celebrations for the archdiocese – the Rite of Election, Chrism Mass, ordinations of priests and deacons," said Molloy.

As of July 2013, 98 priests have been ordained in the basilica.