Ninian's Cathedral in Antigonish, NS, is the Episcopal Seat for the
Catholic Diocese of Antigonish which includes Antigonish, Pictou, and
Guysborough counties on the eastern Nova Scotia mainland, and the
entire Island of Cape Breton. This See was
first created in 1844 as the Diocese of Arichat with the seat at
Arichat in southwestern Cape Breton. From the beginning, however, the
bishops usually lived in Antigonish and in1886 the See was officially
renamed the Diocese of Antigonish, making the parish church of St.
Ninian the official Cathedral of the Diocese.
The present stone Cathedral is the third church to serve the needs of the people
of Antigonish. The town started its ecclesiastical history as a mission of St. Margaret's
Parish, Arisaig. St. Margaret's, the first Catholic parish in this county, had been
founded in 1792 by immigrants from the Scottish Highlands. In 1810, the first Catholic
chapel in town was built southwest of the present Bank of Nova Scotia building. This
was under the patronage of St. John but, in 1812, it was renamed St. Ninian, and the
parish got a resident priest in 1815. To serve the growing population, under the
stewardship of Rev. William Fraser in 1824, a new St. Ninian's Church, 72 feet long, 45
feet wide, with a spire of 110 feet high and a capacity of 800 people, was built. Its
location was on Main Street near the site of the present John Paul Centre and Farrell's
Texaco service station. This building served the community for fifty years.
Father Cohn F. MacKinnon was appointed Bishop in 1852. In October 1865,
when the parish had 400 Families, Bishop MacKinnon presented the idea of a new
Stone church to a meeting of parishioners who approved the plan. Finances were
discussed and two possible sites were considered, one being that of the present St.
Martha's Hospital, and the other the present location of the Cathedral. On October 22,
1866, Bishop MacKinnon turned the first sod for the excavation trenches and the
hauling of stone from the quarries at North Grant and Brierly Brook began early in
January of the following year (1867). On May 16, 1867, Ronald MacGillivray,
Stonecutter of HallowelI Grant, signed an agreement with Bishop MacKinnon and
Father Hugh Gillis. the Pastor, to build the foundation and the walls up to the window
In the absence of the Bishop in Rome on official business, the major work of
managing the construction was in the hands of the hard-working and zealous Father
Gillis. On June 29, 1867, two days before Confederation Day, the cornerstone was laid
and the foundation blessed by Very Rev. Dr. John Cameron, then rector of the
Cathedral at Arichat and Vicar-General of the Diocese.
The building of the Cathedral was the work of Sylvester O'Donoghue, a native of
Coolruss, Co., Wicklow, Ireland. Trenches were dug for the perimeter of the church, the
foundation walls being 43 inches wide. The main body of the church is maintained on
square piers 38 to 40 inches wide and about 80 inches high. Along the top of the piers,
hand-hewn wooden beams, 10 inches in width and 12 inches in depth, are laid,
supporting the main floor. There is no basement, holes were dug to accommodate the
piers with earth fill around them. The roof, which was originally slate from Scotland, is
carried on heavy timber trusses which bear on columns and the outside wall. Mr.
O'Donoghue carried out Bishop MacKinnon's instructions, especially those on the
placing of a cluster of shamrocks between two sprigs of thistle in the carved stone
about the central door, which is flanked high up by two stone tablets displaying the
amorial bearings of Pope Pius IX and those of Bishop MacKinnon. The name of the
architect, A. Leveque of Montreal, and the builder, Mr O'Donoghue, are recorded here.
Near the top in raised letters are two Gaelic words: "Tigh Dhe" (House of God). The
edifice, 170 feet long by 70 feet broad, is of local limestone and sandstone in Roman
It has two square towers each 125 feet high. It was constructed in seven years at
a cost of 40,000 pounds, which would vary in value from $160,000 to $200,000. The
seating capacity was for 1,500. The organ, composed of 700 pipes, is an imposing
instrument, bought from Messrs. Hook of Boston. The bells, cast in Dublin, were
dedicated to St. Ninian, St. Joseph, St. Columba, and St. Margaret of Scotland and
suspended in the western tower in August 1874. The next month saw the plastering
completed, staging removed and the chancel window installed.
St. Ninian's was dedicated on Sunday, September 13, 1874, with much
elaborate liturgical celebration. Although the people had referred to the new church as
a Cathedral from the time it was begun, it did not officially become a cathedral until the
Seat of the Diocese was moved to Antigonish from Arichat in 1886. The remains of two
of the founding bishops, MacKinnon and Fraser, rest in tombs in a vault beneath the