The St. John’s Ecclesiastical District is a large, linear shaped parcel of land located in the center of St. John’s, in the one of the oldest sections of town. This district includes churches, convents, monasteries, schools, fraternal meeting houses and cemeteries and evokes a visual panorama of imposing masonry buildings of varying architectural styles. Within this organically patterned landscape and generous open spaces are some of the province’s most important 19th century “mother churches”, including representatives from most major denominations prevalent in Newfoundland and Labrador. The buildings vary in size, scale and formality and the district exemplifies its strong educational thrust through the continued uses of many of the buildings for their intended purposes, such as the schools and churches. The district spans an area of more than 61 acres. The natural evolution of the area is evident through its architecture and mature green space. Newer buildings included within the district boundaries have been designed to be sympathetic to the styles of the original buildings. The designation is purely commemorative and includes all buildings, lands, landscape features, structures and remains within the boundaries.
Statement of Significance
Formal Recognition Type
City of St. John's Heritage Building, Structure, Land or Area
The St. John’s Ecclesiastical District has been declared a municipal heritage district by the City of St. John’s for its historic and aesthetic value.
The St. John’s Ecclesiastical District has a strong historic association with religion and education for Newfoundland and Labrador. The collection of ecclesiastical and fraternal buildings, which comprise the district, represents the pivotal role of the churches in St. John’s society in matters spiritual, educational, charitable, political and recreational for more than 175 years. Although many of these historic functions have been taken over by the provincial government, the area continues to contribute strongly to the community through the various schools and the churches whose facilities serve many cultural and social needs and expressions. It is the spiritual center of St. John’s and of the founding religions and it is used by many groups and faiths for ongoing cultural and social activities.
The St. John’s Ecclesiastical District is also historically valuable because of its associations with the religious leaders who were the overseers of daily operations. In a town whose population was once divided along religious lines, individual buildings and clusters thereof are associated with personalities who sat in the seats of religious power and the people who found themselves under their guidance. The denominational clusters of buildings serve to emphasize both the differences and similarities of each religious group at the same time. The buildings remain as imposing, lasting reminders of the institutions responsible for their construction and the contribution of these religious institutions to the community, both positive and negative.
The St. John’s Ecclesiastical District achieves aesthetic value through the formal styles, scales and placements of buildings, landscape features and structures, which show the roles and dominance of religion in the history and development of the capital city. The overall visual impact of the area is achieved through the uses of varying materials, architectural styles, open spaces and statuary whereas today areas like the Ecclesiastical District are no longer being built. Where religion played a crucial and fundamental role in developing the community, these buildings stand as physical testaments to this influence.
Also aesthetically valuable is the use of natural, enduring materials which dominate the district’s landscape. The buildings, constructed in stone and brick, reach skyward with their spires and towers, yet remain solidly firm on their well-built foundations. The varied ornamentations, statuary, grave markers, monuments and fencing, paired with the mature trees and generous use of green space, all combine in a cohesive and organic manner.
The St. John’s Ecclesiastical District achieves environmental value in several ways. The district is a visual landmark for fishermen. Situated on upwards-sloping land the brick and granite buildings rise above the harbour, marking the way for fishermen returning from the fishing grounds as they enter St. John’s harbour. This visual landmark continues to be used to this day, and the views of the district from the harbour, as well as the views of the harbour from the district are considered valuable to the community. Other environmental values include the footpaths, the close proximity of the buildings to each other and the back alleyways reminiscent of 19th century St. John’s; a trend that doesn’t exist in newer parts of the city. The area was intentionally picked by early church leaders to emphasize the dominant position of the churches. The big stone churches held the leaders of society who, in their infinite wisdom, could peer down on the masses of common folk and pass down their laws and rules. The physical location of the church buildings deliberately forced the less-enlightened to look up to the church: a literal reaction to a figurative idea.
Source: St. John’s Ecclesiastical District Ward 2, Recognition in the St. John’s Municipal Plan, St. John’s Municipal Plan Amendment No. 29, 2005 CD R2005-04-26/11
Character Defining Elements
All those elements that relate to the variety and the uses of formal architectural styles and designs often typical of each denomination, including but not limited to:
-Gothic Revival, Classic, Romanesque, Second Empire and Georgian masonry buildings;
-high quality of craftsmanship;
-the uses of architectural features typically found on specific architectural styles such as arched window and door openings on the Gothic Revival Anglican Cathedral and the Latin cross layout of the Romanesque Catholic Basilica;
-use of symbols and inscribed identifications such as those found on the BIS (Benevolent Irish Society) building in the forms of carved stonework and statuary on the exterior façade of the building;
-decorative elements which reflect the grandness of the buildings, including stained glass windows, towers, spires, belfries, the Basilica Arch and grand entryways with generous open green space;
-dominating nature of spires in an area where they stand out among primarily low buildings; and
-various roof shapes, windows and door openings, massing, size and orientation.
All those elements that relate to the predominant use of high quality, durable materials, and to the variety of these materials, including:
-use of locally quarried granite and bluestone incorporated into masonry buildings;
-use of imported stone incorporated into masonry buildings; and
-use of slate and other durable materials.
All those elements that relate to the physical location of the district, including:
-prominent location on a hill/ slope making it visible and symbolic;
-existing major views to and from the district;
-informal organic layout and the ability to read the natural land use patterns and circulation routes;
-relationship of major religious institutional buildings to their immediate setting and surroundings; and
-interrelationship of buildings and denominational clusters, such as the Roman Catholic cluster of its convent, monastery, church and school.
All unique and special elements that define the district’s long and religious/educational history, including:
-formal landscape elements such as walls, fencing, statuary, grave markers, Basilica Arch and monuments;
-the interrelationship between buildings, such as the nearness of the Presentation Convent, the Basilica, the Monastery and St. Bon’s School, and the ability to access each by footpaths marked out for more than 175 years, and through back doors and alleyways;
-non-formal and traditional treed footpaths and monuments, including unmarked trails through cemeteries; and
-openness of landscape.
All those elements that reflect the continuing uses of the district, including:
-religious, educational and community uses for cultural purposes.
Location and History
City of St. John's
1826 - 1923