PASSION & HISTOIRE BLOG – Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About the Saint-Boniface Cathedral

Kenza Zaoui - Translated by Thea Wortley

The Saint-Boniface Cathedral is understandably one of the most photographed monuments in Winnipeg and Manitoba. It’s located in the historical Old Saint-Boniface region, at the heart of the francophone community. The more I spend time around it, the more I find it beautiful. Today, I’m going to try to tell you some of its secrets.

Currently coexisting at the corner of Taché and de la Cathédrale Avenue are a cathedral and a church: they are the fifth and sixth religious buildings in this spot.

The Origines of Catholic Presence in Winnipeg 

The site has been consecrated since 1818. The Saint-Boniface Mission was created at the request of inhabitants that wanted a permanent Catholic place of worship for the Red River colony. It was Provencher who was at the head of this Mission, a name that you’ll recognize! The first francophone parish in Western Canada was thus born, with a territory stretching from the west of Lake Superior to the Pacific; a rather gigantic territory!

The first three cathedrals that succeeded in Saint-Boniface were actually closer to the river. The first was too small and had to be rebuilt; the third burnt down in 1860, the fourth also had to be rebuilt for being too small, and the fifth burnt down July 22, 1968. It was the biggest Catholic church in Western Canada and it would also have been the oldest had it not burnt down.

The Cathedral Ruins

These are ruins that you can admire today thanks to community efforts and a designation as a provincial historical site.

To better comprehend the scale of the Saint-Boniface Cathedral, walk around it from outside. Two thousand members could’ve attended mass. Additionally, the Cathedral was built of Tyndall stone, this Manitoban limestone that conceals fossils.

This site isn’t just ruins. The bells still ring at noon and 6:00 pm, and today, the Cathedral’s remains are still used by the community and host a variety of community events: sports sessions, theatre performances or outdoor film screenings (you can find the summer 2020 programing at the CDEM’s website)

Another question you’re surely asking yourselves, why Saint-Boniface? It was Provencher himself that chose this name because Saint Boniface was his favourite Saint. He evangelized Germany in the VIIth century and is still today the patron Saint of the Netherlands and Belgium.

The New Church

The sixth church, the most recent, was built by architect Étienne Gaboury between 1970 and 1972 after an important debate on the reconstruction of the Cathedral. It integrates architectural elements from the Cathedral and the two mix, the old cathedral and the new church. To realize this, you have to do the tour: the entire back of the building incorporates the original stones. The chimney too was part of the old cathedral.

And the interior, what’s it like? It’s nice and simple. It’s one of the first churches built after the council of Vatican 2, that aimed to render churches less austere and more welcoming for members.

The church pays tribute to Saint-Boniface Archbishops but also to the First Nations community and the Voyageurs (inside you can see a traditional métis sash and pay attention to how Mary is dressed!). The windows represent a path of crosses and the last hidden window illuminates the statue of Jesus perfectly.

All around the Cathedral, the cemetery is just as moving. Although the archives were lost in the fire, there are believed to be about 6 000 tombs, the oldest dating back to 1818. And the most famous, the one not to miss, is, of course, Louis Riel.

The Saint-Boniface Cathedral is in Winnipeg, at 180 de la Cathédrale Avenue. 

The ruins are accessible free of charge at all times. 

The church is also at 180 de la Cathédrale Avenue. For the summer of 2020, it’s unfortunately closed with the exception of priests and masses. However, Tourisme Riel’s guided walking tour (every day from May to September at 10:30 am and 1:30 pm) brings you there and some pictures allow you to see still the interior of the buildings.