The Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is a stone, English Gothic Revival church built on Church Hill in downtown St. John’s and is bound on all sides by city streets. The designation is confined to the footprint of the building.
Statement of Significance
Formal Recognition Type
Registered Heritage Structure
The Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was designated a Registered Heritage Structure by the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1991 for its historic and aesthetic value.
Anglican clergymen were some of the first religious leaders to set foot in Newfoundland, accompanying naval convoys and explorers with royal sanctions, such as on Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s expedition in which he claimed Newfoundland for England in 1583. One of the first resident clergymen of the Church of England was Erasmus Stourton who was stationed in Ferryland around 1627-1628. Following several quarrels with neighbouring Roman Catholics, Stourton was expelled by Sir George Calvert for his behaviour. For several decades after this incident, there were very few permanent representatives of the Church of England in Newfoundland, with one French Catholic missionary noting that of the 20 English settlements he had visited, not one had a missionary of its own. This trend began to change at the end of the 17th century.
Not including St. Thomas’ Anglican Church, built in 1836 and still standing today, there have been at least six different Anglican churches in St. John’s leading up to the construction of the cathedral. The first stood within Fort William, approximately in the location of the present-day Sheraton Hotel and its predecessor the Newfoundland Hotel. This church was destroyed during a French attack on St. John’s in 1696. This devastation prompted the five hundred residents of St. John’s to write to the Bishop of London, Henry Compton, in 1699, requesting the appointment of a Church of England priest who could oversee the construction of a new church. Reverend John Jackson had previously been to St. John’s as a naval chaplain and was moved by the colony’s plea. He was appointed by the Bishop and arrived on the island in 1701. This, along with the construction of a new church in 1702, marked the beginning of the Anglican parish of St. John’s, making it one of the oldest in Canada.
In 1839 the Diocese of Newfoundland and Bermuda was formed, with Aubrey George Spencer to serve as Bishop. Bishop Spencer made repeated note of his displeasure with the existing church which was built in 1800, and in 1843 he commissioned the design of a cathedral from a Mr. Purcell. Stone was cut and shipped from Cork, Ireland, and the cornerstone was dedicated in on the 21st of August. That same year, Bishop Spencer transferred to Jamaica after finding the Newfoundland climate too harsh for him to continue travelling between parishes, and Edward Feild replaced him.
During the Great Fire of 1846 much of the city was ravaged and the cut stone needed for the cathedral was damaged or destroyed. Bishop Feild commissioned a new design from the renowned English architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, who was responsible for designing, restoring, or overseeing the work of over 700 buildings throughout his life. The nave was built between 1847 and 1850 and it alone served as the Cathedral for thirty years until the transepts and chancel were begun in 1880 and consecrated in 1885.
A tower was intended to be added above the intersection of the transepts and the nave, but only seven years after the consecration, almost all of St. John’s was struck by the most devastating fire in its history. The Great Fire of 1892 left 11,000 people homeless and caused 13,000,000 dollars in damage. Bishop Llewellyn Jones, having confidence in the protection of the stone walls of the cathedral, allowed many residents to store their belongings within the church. As the fire grew, the roof caught fire and soon crumbled down onto the possessions below, resulting in a fire that then destroyed the church from the inside out. Timbers burned, the nave was destroyed, the clerestories fell, and all but one stained glass window were lost. All that remained were the exterior walls, pillars, and the base of the intended tower.
Restoration of the church began in 1893 with the choir and transepts, which served as the place of worship until the reconstruction of the nave was completed in 1905. Relatives of Sir George Scott, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and John Oldrid Scott, were hired to oversee the reconstruction of the cathedral. The original Scott design was lost during the fire, but by measuring the surviving structure and making detailed notes of the debris, the cathedral was rebuilt as accurately as possible.
In 1984 the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was the recipient of the Southcott Award by the Newfoundland Historic Trust for architectural excellence, being one of the most significant examples of Gothic Revival church architecture in the province. The cathedral is an expression of Bishop Feild’s desire for a “proper” Anglican cathedral, as was his desire in all churches commissioned and designed during his time as bishop. It is built in English Gothic Revival style based on a Latin cross plan. The vaulting in the transept and choir ceilings was raised beyond that of the nave when it was rebuilt. The rock used in the building is white, fine-grained sandstone which was imported from Scotland. Approximately 7500 tons of Newfoundland quarried bluestone was used in the building of the walls.
Other architectural features include the clerestory, the buttresses, the triple lancet windows and a slate roof. The multi-gables have finials at their peaks and there are round windows located prominently in each gable end and a rose window above the High Altar. The Cathedral has numerous gargoyles and carvings including sculptures of actual people prominent in the Diocese, the nation, and the Empire during the construction of the church, such as Queen Victoria. The oldest gargoyle located in the south transept may be as much as 1000 years old and came from a spire on top of Bristol Cathedral, in the city from where John Cabot set off in search of the New World, and was gifted to Bishop Robert Seaborne during a visit to England in 1967. The Cathedral also has numerous other plaques, relics, and historic pieces of stonework, as well as a museum and archives.
Source: Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador property file “St. John’s – Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist – FPT 1621”
Character Defining Elements
All those elements that embody the Gothic Revival style of architecture, including:
-features which define the building as a Cathedral, including its massive scale and plan;
-its English Gothic Revival style;
-use of white, fine-grained sandstone and local bluestone;
-steeply pitched, multi gabled roof with finials at peaks;
-slate roofing shingles;
-size, style, trim and placement of windows;
-round windows in gables;
-rose window above the High Altar;
-stained glass windows;
-size, style, trim and placement of exterior doors;
-gargoyles and other sculptures;
-interior features associated with the English Gothic Revival style, including but not inclusive to choir, transepts, vaulting, nave, high altar;
-spatial relationship to other buildings in the St. John’s Ecclesiastical District;
-its prominent, elevated sitting on Church Hill;
-building orientation, and;
-viewscapes to and from the Cathedral.
The six known predecessors to the cathedral each had short-lived existences. The church built after Rev. Jackson’s arrival was quickly destroyed by fire, once again at the hands of the French, in 1705. In 1708, St. John’s was captured by the French, and the replacement church was used as a prison and warehouse. The first Anglican church constructed on the present location on Church Hill was built in 1720 but fell victim to poor craftsmanship and decay in 1757. That same year, Governor Edwards made a proclamation that all residents of St. John’s were to assist in the building of a new place of worship, or were to pay someone to take their place. In his notes there is a record of those who violated that order. This church also succumbed to disrepair in 1798, and a new church was built in 1800. This structure had a very simple design, and strangely sat jutting out onto most of Church Hill itself, allowing only a narrow lane for people to pass by. After Bishop Spencer’s arrival in 1839, he repeatedly made note of its dilapidated condition. The journal Ecclesiologist wrote of the church as a “wooden shed of the most monstrous description.” The fire of 1846 destroyed this church, as well as what little work had already been done on Spencer’s cathedral. Spencer’s chosen design had apparently not been well liked by Bishop Feild, and he saw the destruction as an opportunity to commission new designs, resulting in the design of the church today.
Location and History
City of St. John's
016 Church Hill
1847 - 1847
Sir George Gilbert Scott, William Hay