Updated June 13, 2013
Montreal is a city of many churches. This page only describes the most notable Roman Catholic churches. Many of the city's other churches are also striking buildings with beautiful interiors, but are not necessarily open except during services.
There are links to panoramic views of the interiors of these churches from photojpl.com. That site often plays music on load, but the sound icon at the bottom of the screen lets you turn it off.
Montreal's Notre-Dame Basilica has nothing in common with Paris's except the name. It's a neogothic building dating from 1829, constructed on the site of a much older and smaller church which had been outgrown by its parishioners. Its interior decoration took several decades between the original completion and the 1880s.
Notre-Dame is noted for this lavish and beautiful interior – stained glass windows, paintings, statues, gold-tipped polychrome carvings, rich altarpiece. It also has a notable Casavant organ and its largest bell, le Gros Bourdon, is the biggest on the continent.
Céline Dion got married at Notre-Dame, it's typically the site of funerals of significant people such as Pierre Trudeau and Maurice Richard, and concerts are held there. There's a regular son et lumière projection that tells about the church's history.
Also worth seeing is the Sacré-Cœur chapel behind the main altar. Badly damaged in a fire in 1978, it was reconstructed in a traditional form, but with a massive altarpiece in a modern style by Quebec artist Charles Daudelin.
Access to Notre-Dame costs $5.
Completed in 1894, Montreal's Roman Catholic cathedral was designed as a 1/3-size replica of St. Peter's in Rome, down to a copy of Bernini's baldacchino over the altar. Even at this scale the church is pretty grandiose in effect. Originally called St. James Cathedral, it was rededicated in 1955 to Mary, Queen of the World.
Where St. Peter's has statues of the apostles along the roofline, Montreal's cathedral has more of a mix. Various parishes and interest groups sponsored the statues which include such non-apostolic saints as Patrick, Joseph, Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas.
Inside, on the left, a gated crypt contains the tombs of the city's archbishops and cardinals, including that of Bishop Ignace Bourget, who spearheaded the cathedral project. There are several large paintings of events in the history of Nouvelle-France and one detects no ironic intent in passing from a depiction of the conversion of the "savage" to another showing a fiery attack on the colony.
First established in 1657 by Marguerite Bourgeoys, the current building dates from 1771; its fašade dates from 1890. In 1998, restoration work revealed several beautiful murals that had been hidden for a century or more. The decor is simple but elegant, with a nautical flair deriving from the chapel's longtime vocation as the Sailors' Church. The hanging lamps in the form of sailing ships are especially pretty.
There is a museum and gift shop and, for a fee, visitors can climb the tower for a good view of the Vieux-Port. The statue of the Virgin Mary on top of the church is said to be the inspiration for Leonard Cohen's lines "And the sun pours down like honey / On our lady of the harbour."
The church is often used for classical concerts in the evening.
A major site of Roman Catholic pilgrimage and worship, St. Joseph's began with the devotional impulse of a humble monk called Frère André who worked across the street at the Collège Notre-Dame. His original tiny chapel, begun in 1904, is still extant on the southwest side of the church shown here, which was begun in 1924 and substantially completed in 1956. It's the biggest church in Canada, and the dome is the world's third largest, after Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro in Côte d'Ivoire and St. Peter's in Rome.
Devout visitors sometimes climb the steps in the middle, kneeling to pray at every step; most walk up normally or take one of the free shuttle buses from the base.
Inside there are essentially two large churches one atop the other, as well as many side chapels including the candlelit hall leading to Frère André's tomb. The church is sometimes used for choral performances. The balconies offer a nice view over Côte-des-Neiges to the University of Montreal and beyond; public access to a new observatory at the top of the dome was announced but has been delayed sine die.
To the east side of the church is the Chemin de la croix, with a fountain pool, sculptures and landscaping, all worth a look if you're visiting.
Frère André was canonized a saint in October 2010.
Regarded as the home church of Montreal's Irish Catholics, this downtown church is less a tourist spot, more a quiet retreat for downtown workers in search of a little peace. Built in 1847, the tall, elegant Gothic structure has been extensively restored in recent years.The elaborate yet monochrome altarpiece, the heavy altar lamp with angels, and the stained glass are all notable features.