Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
(16 Church Hill, St. John's)
The Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is the mother church for the Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador. Dating from 1699, the Parish of St. John the Baptist is the oldest Anglican parish in Canada. The present-day cathedral is built on the site of two previous churches and on land that was once used for public hangings up until the 1750s. The first church on the site was a wooden structure built by Rev. Edward Langham in 1758 and subsequently destroyed in a French raid of the city. In 1800 the original church was replaced by a larger structure near the same location.
After a bishopric was established for Newfoundland in 1839, the new bishop of the day, Dr. Aubrey Spencer, began to raise funds to build a large cathedral. The original cornerstone for the present structure was laid on August 24, 1843. Construction plans, however, suffered a serious blow when a major St. John's fire in 1846 rendered unusable the stone imported from Cork, Ireland.
Undaunted by the setback, Spencer's successor, Bishop Edward Feild, continued the fund raising efforts to build a proper cathedral. The 1842 cornerstone was re-dedicated on September 29, 1847. The present church was designed by renowned architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott, and constructed by well-known builder, William Hay of Edinburgh.
Scott was one of the best-known Gothic architects in Europe in the nineteenth century. In 1859 he was presented with a gold medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects. Scott served as the institute's president from 1873 to 1876. The cathedral in St. John's is but one of over 700 design and restoration projects that Scott took part in during his career. In 1872 he was knighted for his exceptional career.
The main builder on the project, William Hay, was known for his work in Halifax in partnership with David Sterling. Together, they designed and built impressive Italianate structures such as the Halifax Club in 1862, Alexander Keith's residence in 1863 and a new Provincial Building, also in 1863.
The nave of the church was finally consecrated on September 21, 1850. Construction on the choir and transept section did not commence until 1880 and was completed in September 1885. The additions to the nave gave the cathedral the shape of a Latin cross and began the era of Gothic Revival architecture in the construction of nineteenth-century Anglican churches in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Great Fire of 1892 in St. John's destroyed much of the city and extensively damaged the cathedral. The only stained-glass windows to survive the disaster were in the sacristy off the right of the main altar where the vestments were stored. Three years later the difficult task of reconstruction began. Restoration work continued under the guidance of the diocese's fourth bishop, Llewellyn Jones, and was not finished until 1905. The restored cathedral is renowned internationally as one of North America's best ecclesiastical Gothic Revival structures. The church was re-consecrated in a service on September 21, 1905.
The cathedral remains incomplete as the structure still lacks the spire which its designer, Scott, had envisaged. Although an engineering team has established that the proposed 150-foot tower and steeple is structurally feasible, the cost was estimated to be a prohibitive $3,000,000. The money in a decades-old fund established to complete the spire is still well short of the required amount. The clergy and parishioners remain committed to completing Scott's plans and are hopeful that they will see the spire erected.
Throughout the twentieth century, there have been improvements and additions made to the cathedral. In 1927 a pipe organ by Casevantes Freres of Québec was installed. Four years later a small church museum was established by Canon Peel. Peel wrote to each of the 56 cathedrals in England requesting contributions to the collection in recognition of the ties between Newfoundland and English churches. The response was favourable, but not all the English churches complied with the request. Among the objects sent were: a copy of the 1699 deed establishing the parish, historic bibles, stonework, grave rubbings and a petrified rat. The rat was donated by the Peterborough Cathedral where the creature was found in the church's rafters.
Newfoundland's Bishop Robert Seaborne, while visiting England in 1967, was presented with an ancient gargoyle from the spire of Bristol's St. Augustine's Cathedral. The Bristol cathedral is located within sight of where John Cabot first set sail in 1497 on his voyage to the new world. The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist boasts approximately an additional 170 gargoyles scattered throughout the church. Many of the carvings are fierce looking creatures meant to ward off evil spirits. Other carvings within the nave of the church depict prominent aristocrats and political leaders from England at the time of the church's construction. Two of the most prominent busts are of Queen Victoria and the former English Prime Minister William Gladstone.
Among other improvements to the cathedral in the twentieth century were the vaulting and refurnishing of a Lady Chapel in September 1972, and the restoration and opening of the Crypt in 1979. In addition, there have been numerous additions made to the cathedral's extensive stained-glass collection. Included in the collection is an impressive Te Deum window donated by former lieutenant-governor, Sir Leonard Outerbridge, and his brothers.
Since its first opening in the 1850s, the cathedral has been a mother church for the diocese. The size and boundaries of the dioceses have changed over the years, and since the latest realignment of dioceses in 1976, the cathedral is the mother church for the Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador designated the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John's a Registered Heritage Structure on November 2, 1991.
For more information visit the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist web site.
Updated October, 2005 and November, 2008.