|St. Joseph's Basilica. File photo.|
The Edmonton Catholics who built what is now called St. Joseph’s Basilica know all about tradition and patience. The grand building at 10044 113th Street was erected some 45 years ago, but the dream actually began nearly 50 years before that when St. Joseph’s parish was founded.
Early in the 20th century, English-speaking Catholics worshipped with Francophones at St. Joachim’s, which had been founded in 1854. But as English newcomers poured into the booming city, the need for another church became increasingly evident. And so St. Joseph’s was formed in 1913 by Most Rev. Emile Legal, first archbishop of Edmonton.
The following year, Father Alphonse Lemarchand, (brother of Rene Lemarchand, who was later to build the fantastic mansion apartment building on 100th Avenue and 116th Street), began to plan for a new church building just west of St. Joachim’s. A large basement was excavated and concreted over, but the First World War intervened and the project had to be abandoned.
It wasn’t until after the war, in 1924, that work began anew, but this time at a new location just south of Jasper Avenue and 113th Street. The cornerstone was laid November 4th, 1924.
A year later, the basement of the new cathedral was completed the cost of $140,000 and, services were held beginning March 22, 1925 in what came to be known as “the crypt.” It had room enough to seat 900.
That year, Archbishop Henry Joseph O’Leary chose St. Joseph’s as his cathedral church and it was also to become the cathedral of the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical province of Edmonton, which stretches from the 49th parallel to the North Pole. Plans for a $250,000 grand stone cathedral atop the original structure were prepared by Edmonton architect Edward Underwood, who had also designed the Misericordia Hospital just a few blocks away. The building contract was awarded to Edmonton’s Poole Construction.
By November, site preparation was underway for a structure that would have been the largest in western Canada, with seating for 1,000. It was to feature twin towers and steeples 190 feet high and a central tower reaching 220 feet into the air.
But the Depression of the 1930’s and the Second World War again intervened to postpone their best laid plans. It wasn’t until 1957 that the church commissioned Montreal architect Henri S. Labelle create a new vision for the cathedral on the site.
Labelle and associate architect Eugene Olekshy of Edmonton came up with a Gothic-style building, with arched windows and an elaborate entrance. Three years later, the parish decided to proceed with the often delayed project and the budget was placed at $1.7 million. Edmonton’s Christensen and MacDonald were named general contractors, with R.M. Hardy Associates and T.H. Newton Engineering Company as engineering consultants.
The intention was to extend the crept upwards but, as it had been built on what had formerly been a slough, cracks had developed, especially on the north side. The Dean of Engineering at the University of Alberta, Dr. R.M. Hardy, donated his time to solving the problem and, on his advice, the building was jacked up and underpinned. More than 265 piles, some of them more than 18 feet long, were installed at a cost of $100,000.
In early 1961, the superstructure started to rise from the crypt. It measured 265 feet wide and 142 feet long and rose 90 feet in the air. There was room for seating for 1,239. The floors were ceramic tile, laid in patterns reminiscent of the early Roman basilicas. Interior walls and pillars were clad with a synthetic stone called “Haydite” to subdue sound.
The finished architectural masterpiece featured some of the finest materials available, including $300,000 of stained glass windows (designed by Franz Mayer & Company) and $15,000 of gold inlaid stations of the cross, all imported from Germany. The gold ceramic backgrounds of the illustrations of Christ’s walk to Calvary were originally ordered by Hitler as decorations for lampposts for one of his rallies in Nuremberg.
The exterior was clad in Tyndall stone from Manitoba, the oak pews and panelling from Quebec, the marble altar from Barcelona, Spain, the tabernacle candlesticks from Dublin, Ireland and the carved wooden statues from Oberammergou, Germany. The crucifix was made by a German immigrant, living in Edmonton at the time and working out of a converted garage on the south side. The gallery organ was built by Casavant Freres of Quebec.
With furnishings, the final construction cost came in at just over $2 million. The church was officially opened on May 1, 1963, the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker.
A fire, deliberately set in 1980, destroyed the altar and a large sculpted wooden cross, blacking the walls and stained glass windows and causing total damage of $500,000. Four years later, in honour of the visit of Pope John Paul II, the cathedral became the first designated Basilica west of Manitoba. Among the many noteworthy events at the Basilica was the July 16,1988 wedding of Edmonton Oilers Wayne Gretzky to Janet Jones.
A version of this article appears in The Life of a Neighbourhood: A History of the Oliver District, co-authored by Lawrence Herzog and Shirley Lowe, published by the Oliver Community League.