Wednesday 27 March 2013

The Church of Our Lady

Actually, the full title is The Church of Our Lady Immaculate, but the label is often shortened to just "The Church of Our Lady" for purposes of conversation. Here is an image of the Church of Our Lady from an unused postcard in my collection.

As the postcard was not used, there is no date or postmark, but you can just see the tail of a slab-like car from the around 1970 on the extreme right, dating the photo to that period. The postcard was produced by "Mutual Wholesale Stationary Limited" of London, Ontario, and finished in "Prismaflex color" by Wilson, Dryden, Ont.

The basic facts about the Church are summarized nicely by Anderson and Matheson (2000, p. 181), which I will excerpt briefly here:

Like traditional European towns, Guelph's Victorian skyline was defined by its church spires, most of them the product of a church-building fever in the late 1860s and early 1870s. The most commanding was the Church of Our Lady (1876–1888), the third Catholic church built on that site, succeeding the original St. Patrick's which was burned, and St. Bartholomew's [which was torn down]. Designed by Joseph Connolly, the leading Catholic architect in Canada, it was consciously modeled on medieval French Gothic precedents even though it was never a cathedral. The towers and interior were not completed during the 19th century.
I will save more background material for other postings.

The theme of this post is the "commanding" nature of the church, especially due to its siting. The downtown core of Guelph is overlooked by three drumlins, hills left over from the retreat of the glaciers. The closest is the site of the Church. So, the Church towers over the local scene through its lofty perch. Also, the Church anchors Macdonell St., a main axis, which stretches between the Church and the site where John Galt founded the town with the felling of a maple tree. How did a Catholic church end up on a premiere site in a planned, British town?

Briefly, the answer is that Galt was friends with the region's Catholic bishop, Alexander Macdonell, a fellow Scotsman. Macdonell was of material help to Galt in gaining access to the land. Galt reciprocated by naming a main street after the bishop and designating the choice site for the Catholic church, as Galt explains himself (Johnson, 1977, p. 113):

... a beautiful central hill was reserved for the Catholics, in compliment to my friend, Bishop Macdonell, for his advice in the formation of the [Canada] Company.
Also, it seems that Galt hoped Guelph would become the seat of Cardinal Weld and thus add to its importance. This ambition was never realized.

The vertical thrust of the building's facade makes it an impressive capital for the hilltop. With its two towers, central spire (somewhat in the background in the postcard), and tall pointed front gable, the church reaches heavenward. The only way to do it justice is with a portait-oriented picture. The oddity of the other option, that is, landscape orientation, is evident in the postcard below.

This postcard is also unmarked but appears to be from a series produced in the mid 1950s by "The Photogelatine Engraving Co. Ltd" of Toronto using the Kodachrome process. Although it is taken from a similar perspective as the first card, it illustrates the awkwardness of trying to capture the rather vertical facade in a horizontal frame. Our Lady appears like a weird, limestone toad squatting on a lily pad.

Here is a view of the Church from Google Streetview, from roughly the same perspective as the postcards above. Of course, it is available only in landscape orientation, so it appears a little different than the top view.

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To illustrate the dominance that the church enjoys by virtue of its site, I will include some further Streetview sightings here. This view is from near the foot of the drumlin, at Gordon and Surrey Streets.

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The view below is from the opposite direction, at the intersection of Yarmouth, Quebec, Paisley, and Norfolk Streets.

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The view below here is from near the crest of another drumlin across the downtown, on Eramosa Road. This view is more impressive in real life than it seems possible to capture in Streetview.

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I do not want to belabour the point, but I think that one more perspective will be of interest. In this case, the Church tower-tops can only be glimpsed in a gap in the tree-tops along Wellington Street. Yet, it is there, and more visible in the winter when leaves have fallen away.

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The value of these views is shown by the fact that the City passed a by-law in 1974 limiting the heights of buildings and towers along sight-lines to the Church. These views, like the building itself, are a part of the City's charm and heritage.

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