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St. Finnan’s Basilica: One Of 1800 Worldwide!

ALEXANDRIA, small town located in the North Glengarry township, Glengarry county, Ontario, Canada; population just under 3,000, equally Anglophone and Francophone, sharing residency in approximately 1350 housing units of different types; originally known as Priest’s Mill when founded in 1819 by Scottish emigrants, most of whom spoke English and their native Gaelic dialect; one hour away from major Canadian cities and the USA border, many ancestral red brick building sharing street space with modern commercial buildings, serviced by VIA Rail daily, golf course, hockey club, some major industries and big box stores and most of the other components you would expect to find in ‘Smallville’.

So what is so special about this small town from rural eastern Ontario to make it so special, ONE OF ONLY 1800 WORLDWIDE? Its BASILICA. But what is a ‘basilica’? Very legitimate question, as I myself had to research and find a source and explanation for this ‘title’. A church is a church and a parish is a parish: those two words are more familiar to us and easily identifiable; but when does a church become a cathedral or when does it become a basilica? Here is a short answer that should enlighten everyone: parishes are local entities that belong to a regional entity called a diocese; the head of a diocese is the bishop or archbishop; bishops and archbishops take residency in a parish of their choice and that parish’s church is invested with the title of ‘cathedral’; let’s put dates, names and places as  examples: in 1890, Pope Leo XIII established the diocese of Alexandria in Ontario and named Fr. Alexander Macdonell as bishop; he chose St. Finnan’s parish as his episcopal seat, thus elevating the church to a cathedral; in 2012, Bishop Marcel Damphousse was ordained 8th Bishop of the diocese of Alexandria/Cornwall at St. Finnan’s cathedral; in 2020, Pope Francis amalgamated the dioceses of Alexandria/Cornwall and Ottawa to create the Archdiocese of Ottawa/Cornwall and, as sitting Archbishop Prendergast’s episcopal seat was in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Ottawa and his successor Bishop Damphousse chose to stay there, Alexandria St. Finnan’s church reverted from cathedral to simple parish.

While this explains the entitlement of ‘cathedral’, what then is a ‘basilica’? In Latin times, the common meaning of the word ‘basilica’ was ‘city hall’, which with the surge of Christianity, became ‘worship place’; much later, the term was bestowed to Catholic churches as an honorary title with special ceremonial rights; this title can  never be taken away. There are only four major basilicas in the world, all located in Rome and all known as the four great Papal churches of Rome: St. Peter, St. Mary, St. John and St. Paul; worldwide, there are just over 1,800 minor basilicas out of some 220,000 churches; minor basilicas all have a special lien with the Pope: as example, the right to display Papal symbols, regalia and insignia. In Canada, only 26 churches have been granted the title of basilicas; in our own Archdiocese, only three: Ottawa’s Notre-Dame, Ottawa’s St. Patrick and…Alexandria’s St. Finnan.

St. Finnan’s church was built in 1883-1885 under plans of architect Willliam H. Hodson and by contractors Chisholm & Sons from Lochiel at an incredible cost of $35,000; a lot of free labor and weekend church-raising bees must have contributed to this low cost; it is reported that the stone was brought in from the Ottawa area by barge on the Ottawa river down to Hawkesbury where it was transferred onto wagons and sleighs and then headed to Alexandria. The church was named honoring a 6th century Irish monk and missionary, Finnan (or Finan) who was recognized as ‘a man of venerable life, an eloquent teacher, remarkable for his training in virtue, his liberal education, chiefly devoting himself to good works…’

On February 19, 2021, Cardinal Sarah signed a decree on behalf of Pope Francis which raised the status of St. Finnan’s church to the status of Minor Basilica; this nomination followed intense lobbying by a group of parishioners who decided to petition Rome following the loss of its ‘cathedral’ status: they put together a very detailed and informative document on the church’s architecture, history and features. The Papal consent meant that this little-town church joined the ranks of such famous other basilicas as Notre-Dame (Paris), Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico), St. Joseph Oratory (Montreal) and Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Shrine (Québec)!

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