Diocese of Antigonish, Diocese ofAntigonish, Diocese of Antigonish
St. Ninian Cathedral
Diocese of Antigonish

Antigonish, NS

St.Ninian's Cathedral in Antigonish, NS, is the Episcopal Seat for theCatholic Diocese of Antigonish which includes Antigonish, Pictou, andGuysborough counties on the eastern Nova Scotia mainland, and theentire Island of Cape Breton. This See wasfirst created in 1844 as the Diocese of Arichat with the seat atArichat in southwestern Cape Breton. From the beginning, however, thebishops usually lived in Antigonish and in1886 the See was officiallyrenamed 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 peopleof Antigonish. The town started its ecclesiastical history as a mission of St. Margaret'sParish, Arisaig. St. Margaret's, the first Catholic parish in this county, had beenfounded in 1792 by immigrants from the Scottish Highlands. In 1810, the first Catholicchapel in town was built southwest of the present Bank of Nova Scotia building. Thiswas under the patronage of St. John but, in 1812, it was renamed St. Ninian, and theparish got a resident priest in 1815. To serve the growing population, under thestewardship of Rev. William Fraser in 1824, a new St. Ninian Church, 72 feet long, 45feet wide, with a spire of 110 feet high and a capacity of 800 people, was built. Itslocation was on Main Street near the site of the present John Paul Centre and Farrell'sTexaco 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 newStone church to a meeting of parishioners who approved the plan. Finances werediscussed 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 thehauling of stone from the quarries at North Grant and Brierly Brook began early inJanuary of the following year (1867). On May 16, 1867, Ronald MacGillivray,Stonecutter of HallowelI Grant, signed an agreement with Bishop MacKinnon andFather Hugh Gillis. the Pastor, to build the foundation and the walls up to the windowledges.

In the absence of the Bishop in Rome on official business, the major work ofmanaging the construction was in the hands of the hard-working and zealous FatherGillis. On June 29, 1867, two days before Confederation Day, the cornerstone was laidand the foundation blessed by Very Rev. Dr. John Cameron, then rector of theCathedral at Arichat and Vicar-General of the Diocese.

The building of the Cathedral was the work of Sylvester O'Donoghue, a native ofCoolruss, Co., Wicklow, Ireland. Trenches were dug for the perimeter of the church, thefoundation walls being 43 inches wide. The main body of the church is maintained onsquare 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 thepiers with earth fill around them. The roof, which was originally slate from Scotland, iscarried on heavy timber trusses which bear on columns and the outside wall. Mr.O'Donoghue carried out Bishop MacKinnon's instructions, especially those on theplacing of a cluster of shamrocks between two sprigs of thistle in the carved stoneabout the central door, which is flanked high up by two stone tablets displaying theamorial bearings of Pope Pius IX and those of Bishop MacKinnon. The name of thearchitect, 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). Theedifice, 170 feet long by 70 feet broad, is of local limestone and sandstone in RomanBasilica style.

It has two square towers each 125 feet high. It was constructed in seven years ata cost of 40,000 pounds, which would vary in value from $160,000 to $200,000. Theseating capacity was for 1,500. The organ, composed of 700 pipes, is an imposinginstrument, bought from Messrs. Hook of Boston. The bells, cast in Dublin, werededicated to St. Ninian, St. Joseph, St. Columba, and St. Margaret of Scotland andsuspended in the western tower in August 1874. The next month saw the plasteringcompleted, staging removed and the chancel window installed.

St. Ninian was dedicated on Sunday, September 13, 1874, with muchelaborate liturgical celebration. Although the people had referred to the new church asa Cathedral from the time it was begun, it did not officially become a cathedral until theSeat of the Diocese was moved to Antigonish from Arichat in 1886. The remains of twoof the founding bishops, MacKinnon and Fraser, rest in tombs in a vault beneath thesanctuary.

The Interior

The interior decoration was not carried out until 1899. The work was done byOzias LeDuc, a Quebec artist who had studied in Paris. Some of the paintings arebelieved to be free adaptations of works by Bonnat and Hofman, two 19th-centuryEuropean artists.

Over the center isle are frescoes depicting the three mysteries of the Catholicfaith - the Nativity, the Crucifixion, and the Ascension - plus a fourth depicting Christ asthe Good Shepherd.

Between the arches at the sides of the main aisle ceiling are frescoes of theapostles and some early saints also by LeDuc. The stations of the cross, painted oncanvas affixed to the walls, are by LeDuc or one of his students.

The large painting of St. Ninian, at the rear of the church on the "Epistle" side, isthe oldest in the church. It was executed by an Italian artist, Apollonio, as a commissionfrom Bishop Colin MacKinnon, and placed in the church of St. Ninian on Main Street in1857. The painting was moved to the Cathedral on its completion in 1874. Notice howthe slave is depicted as being emancipated by Christian faith and placed on an equallevel with his master, the highland chief. This painting was carefully restored by expertsin 1957.

The painting of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph over the side altars came tothe Cathedral in 1876 as presents from the Very Rev. Canon Walsh of New Hampshire.

Little now remains of the original sanctuary decoration; major changes weremade in 1937. Originally there was a large stained-glass window in the sanctuaryabove the altar. This was removed and blocked in to accommodate the addition of thevestry at the front of the Church. The old wooden vestry was removed and replacedwith one of stone similar to that in the main structure. Three of the panels of the largechancel window were relocated by the side altars and a new panel was added tobalance the set. The original high wooden altar as replaced with one of North Grantstone topped by a dome or baladichino. Repainting and sanctuary alterations werecarried out in 1974.

St. Ninian - Patron Saint of the Cathedral

"Preclarus doctor in orbe

nomine qui Ninia Paerlo de sermone dictus"

("a teacher famous in the world

called Ninian in his native language")

- Miraculi Nynie Episcopi

St. NinianThe Cathedral is under the patronage of St. Ninian, an obscure figure whosename is identified with the earliest foundation of the Church in what is today Scotland.In the eighth century, Bede made a brief reference to hirn which has been the startingpoint of all subsequent research pertaining to Ninian:

"In the five hundred and sixty-fifth year of our Lord's Incarnation . . . there cameinto Britain from Ireland a priest and abbot . . . by name Columba to preach the word ofGod to the provinces of the northern Picts, that is to say, to those who are separated from their southern regions by steep and rugged mountain ridges. For these southernPicts, who dwell on this side of these same mountains, had long before, as the storygoes, forsaken the error of idolatry and received the faith of truth when the word waspreached to them by Nynia (Ninian), a most reverend Bishop and holy man of thenation of the Britons, who had been regularly instructed at Rome in the faith andmystery of the truth; whose episcopal see, distinguished by the name and church of St.Martin bishop, where he himself with many other saints rests in the body, the Englishnation has just now begun to govern. The place, which belongs to the province of theBernicians, is called in the vernacular "At the White House" (Ad Candidam Casam),because he there built a church of stone in a manner to which the Britons were notaccustomed."

Two eighth-century poems about Ninian and a twelfth century life of Ninian havebeen found which shed light on his life, and we depend on these plus limitedarchaeological and linguistic evidence for our knowledge of him.

Behind the historical texts lies the figure of a real person who made a lastingimpression on those around him. It is now quite generally agreed that he was afifth-century Briton and from linguistic and literary evidence it seems fairly clear that hefounded the original Candida Casa (near the location later known as Withorn) at somedate between 400 and 420 AD The name of this early Christian missionary to Scotlandlives on here in New Scotland where the Cathedral under his patronage stands as amonument to the faith and courage of our forefathers.

Church Facts

(What is a Cathedral?

Basically, the Cathedral of a Diocese is the principal Church within that Diocese. It isthe official seat or church of the Bishop of the Diocese. The word cathedral comes fromthe latin 'cathedra' - meaning 'seat'; hence the Diocesan Cathedral is the Seat of theDiocese. Each Cathedral has a special chair (seat) reserved exclusively for theOrdinary (Bishop, Archbishop, Cardinal)of that particular Diocese.


Not every Cathedral is a Basilica, nor is every Basilica aCathedral. Every Diocese hasa Cathedral, but not every Diocese has a Basilica. A Basilica is anhonour paid to acertain church - whether it is for historical significance or as centreof pilgrimages, etc.For example, St. Peter's Basilica is not the Cathedral of the Pope,even though thePope resides nearby and uses St. Peter's for many of the solemncelebrations of theChurch. The Pope, as Bishop of Rome, has St. John Lateran as hisCathedral in theDiocese of Rome. ) In the case of the Archdiocese of Halifax, St.Mary's Basilica is both the Cathedral Church of the Archdiocese and aBasilica.

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