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.