Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver

The parish began in June of 1885 when the Right Reverend Louis d’Herbomez, OMI, Vicar Apostolic of British Columbia, appointed Father Patrick Fay to care for the two settlements of Granville: Gastown and Hastings. Father Fay was chaplain to the Canadian Pacific Railway workers.


Father Fay said the first Mass on the Feast of the Holy Rosary, 1885. Regular Masses were held in Blair’s Hall on Abbot Street and in Keefer’s Hall, at Alexander and Water Streets. In 1886 there were 69 Catholic families in the “parish” and the need of a permanent church was obvious. The people decided to build. In choosing a site for the new church Father Fay looked south from the waterfront, up the slopes of the uncut forest, and pointed to the tallest tree, the land was acquired and a wooden church was built.

Records indicate that the first Mass was said in it on Rosary Sunday, 1889. The church was later enlarged and a bell tower built.

In the year 1898, Father J.M. McGuckin, OMI, decided to build a larger and permanent church; and on July 16, 1899, the cornerstone of the present church was laid. It was opened on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1900, and was regarded as the “finest piece of architecture west of Toronto and north of San Francisco.” In 1916 the Church of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary was declared a Cathedral.

Built in the form of a cross, the Cathedral dimensions are: 161 feet long, 104 feet across at the transepts, 62 feet across the nave and the aisles, 62 feet from the floor ceiling, 217 feet to the top of the larger steeple.


Holy Rosary Cathedral is built of sandstone from Gabriola Island on foundations of local granite. The Cathedral was designed by T.E. Julian and H.J. Williams. R.P. Forshaw was the contractor.

A number of renovations have taken place through the years. The most recent were in 1983-1984 in preparation for the Holy Father’s visit to Vancouver on September 19, 1984.

Holy Rosary Cathedral




The tradition of iconography is part of the patrimony of the Catholic Church. It is passed on by the visual quotation of images dating back to St. Luke, the first Christian iconographer. Our new crucifix is a continuation of this tradition.

The Holy Rosary Crucifix was commissioned by Archbishop Miller in 2015 to aid the faithful in focussing their attention on the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith. He requested that it be in the Romanesque style of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. In this a tradition Our Lord is portrayed affixed to the cross, His Eyes open, triumphant over death, standing in a position which reminds us of the orans posture of the priest. This type is sometimes referred to as “Christus Triumphans”. An excellent example of this style is the cross before which St. Catherine of Siena received the stigmata. While studying in Italy the iconographer saw a modern version of The Cross of the Stigmata of St. Catherine by his master, don Gianluca Busi, a priest of the Archdiocese of Bologna. A ‘quotation’ of this corpus was the basis for the design of the Holy Rosary Crucifix.

The crown of thorns, now common on crucifixes, was not shown in crucifixes of this period. This was introduced in the thirteenth century.

Another feature of the Romanesque style is the use of bright colours to represent the cross itself. This is done to emphasize the spiritual significance of the cross. The azurite blue used here evokes thoughts of heaven and ties the cross visually to the blues of the sanctuary. Azurite is one of the most precious natural pigments, and therefore eminently suitable for the task.


Above Our Lord’s arms are the abbreviations which look like IC and XC. They are the first and last letters of IHCOYC, (Jesus), and XPICTOC, (Christ). On His halo are the letters Ό ωΝ which mean He Who Is, or the name of God, a clear statement of His divinity.



The two subsidiary figures, Our Lady and St. John, are represented at half the scale of Our Lord; this emphasizes the centrality of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.

The inscription above Mary’s shoulder is a Greek abbreviation for Mother of God.  Her inner garment is blue-green, representing her humanity, the outer a rich wine red, representing her being clothed in divine grace.  The red of the outer garment contains hematite collected in Marathon, Ontario, and the highlights contain red ochre from the soil of Mother Angelica’s convent I Alabama.

The inscription above John means The Holy John, or simply, St. John.

Surrounding the cross are 223 beads forming a rosary including the Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious and Luminous Mysteries.
The wood of the cross is approximately 4cm thick Baltic birch plywood trimmed with 2 cm x 7.5 cm solid oak. It was constructed by Darrell Doering of Holy Family Parish. It is painted in egg tempera, the traditional medium of iconography. Fifteen books, or approximately 6000 square inches, of 22K gold, was used in the creation of this crucifix. On the back is a 1/4” stainless steel plate supporting the eye bolts used for hanging; it is adorned with the first words of the Gospel Acclamation for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, “Adoramus Te Christe”, We adore you, O Christ, (and we bless you; because by your cross you have redeemed the world.)

This humble description of the properties of the cross is meant to be of some assistance to those who seek to understand it better, but the best way to come to know the cross is to spend some time looking upon it and allowing Our Lord to speak to us through His image.




Architects T. E. Julian and H. J. Williams designed the classic cruciform structure with narthex, nave, transepts and an apsidal chancel. Construction under the charge of R. P. Forshaw and Company took just 491 days.

Norman columns support the nave arcades which in turn support a Gothic tunnel vault. The columns are finished with a highly polished, red Scagliola marble. Non-structural ribs decorate the vault with simple molding accenting the intermediate ribs.

The cathedra sits in the middle of the sanctuary against a Gothic-style oak altar-piece with richly detailed gold foliage and angels set in relief. The towers of the reredos are also decked with delicately carved angels carrying torches, thuribles and sacred books.

Many updates have been made to the sanctuary over the years – the most significant changes being those for the Golden Jubilee, modifications decreed at Vatican Council II in the 1960s and some upgrades for the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1984.
Between 1995-1997, the Cathedral was re-roofed and the interior repainted between 2004-2006. Upgrades have been done to the stonework at the front entrance and sides as well as the pillars and floor. New light fixtures, pews and an upgraded sound system were added at this time.
As with most heritage buildings, maintenance is an ongoing effort which depends on the good stewardship and kind support of its parishioners and friends.

The dimensions of the building are:

• 161 feet long
• 104 feet across at the transepts
• 62 feet across the nave and the aisles
• 62 feet from the floor ceiling
• 217 feet to the top of the larger steeple



Like many Gothic cathedrals, stained glass windows are an important feature of Holy Rosary. There are 21 significant windows with pictorial displays.

The oldest window is on the east wall of the Sanctuary next to the shrine of the Blessed Virgin—the Church Triumphant with the Risen Christ among saints and martyrs. The most gazed-at stained glass images must be the clerestory windows depicting Christ and the apostles in the sanctuary above the altar. The best-known windows whose heritage the Cathedral shares with all of Canada, are the Guido Nincheri windows.

Nincheri is recognised as one of the most prolific religious artists of Canada for his large murals, frescoes and stained glass art. His work can be found in over 60 churches in North America. He created a series of five windows for the Cathedral over a span of a dozen years.

It was in 1941 Archbishop W. M. Duke directed the Rector, Father John Miles, to solicit estimates for five stained glass windows by Guido Nincheri. It would take 13 years for the work to be completed.


Our Lady of the Holy Rosary

On the north side of the west transept, this window was the first of the five Nincheri windows to be installed in the year 1941. Our Lady with the Child in vibrant colours dominate; both Mother and Child hold a rosary in hand. At their feet are St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Siena, traditional saints of the Rosary. The window was chosen by Canada Post in 1997 for its annual Christmas stamp and a plaque commemorates this fact. View window.


Baptism of the Lord

Archbishop Duke, when ordering a window of the Baptism of the Lord in 1941, was eager to duplicate a window in the Cathedral of St. John, New Brunswick, from where the Archbishop had come to Vancouver. Professor Nincheri’s rich colours make it unique. The location of the window was determined by the proximity of the Baptistery which has since been moved to the west transept. The window was commissioned and completed in January 1954. View window.
Jesus Heals the Sick This window along with the Baptism of Our Lord were commissioned in 1950 and completed in 1954. They were shipped out of the Nicheri Studios via Canadian Pacific Express in January that year. Due to cold blustery conditions, the windows were not installed till March that year.


Jesus with the Children

The depiction of Jesus with little children was one of the original themes. It would appear that the hand of Jesus has been damaged over the years and repaired by inferior craftsmen. The tremendous colours, so characteristic of Nincheri, are particularly vibrant here.


The Assumption

The commisioning of this window which had been earmarked ten years earlier, was finally confirmed in 1951. It was completed and shipped out of the Nincheri studios in November 1953 and installed later that year. With its bright colours and interesting composition, the window is a fitting memorial of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life. We are reminded of our faith in the resurrection of the body and of life everlasting: she is model, exemplar, and hope for the Church. View window.






Of the fifty or so towers outside of England where the bells are hung in the English way, there are three in British Columbia: Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria, Westminster Abbey in Mission and Holy Rosary Cathedral.

The solemn blessing or “baptism” of the bells at Holy Rosary took place on Sunday, October 21, 1900. At the time there was a ring of seven bells, named after the seven Sacraments. They were not hung for change ringing at first. At the time they cost $9,000 and were cast in Savoy, France. They ranged in weight from 700 lbs. (318 kg.) to 5,000 lbs. (2,273 kg.).

The bells were shipped across China and the Pacific Ocean to Vancouver. The bells were not tuned to scale and therefore not melodic. So it was decided to send them to an English Foundry near Bristol. Some of the bells were melted down and recast to make a ring of eight tuned bells—a full octave.

After a third oceanic crossing they were finally re-hung for change ringing in 1906. The heaviest weigh 16 hundredweight, or 1,700 pounds. Mr. Alfred Limpus was the one who initiated the changes and was Ring Master for many years.

Change Ringing

Change ringing differs from other forms of bell ringing in which the bells are “hanging dead” with the mouth of the bell down and swung gently, or stationary, with the clapper moved against it. Each change-ringing bell, on the other hand, is connected to a wheel and rope, by means of which it is swung through a full circle each time it rings. This arrangement allows the bell to produce a fuller note than it would if hung stationary.

The equipment needed for change ringing is shown in the diagram. The bell is in the “set” position. When the ringer pulls the rope the bell will swing through a full 360 degree arc, the stay and the slider preventing the bell’s continuing for an extra revolution in one direction and winding up the rope. The stay is designed to break if struck with such force that the bell might otherwise shatter.


Bells hung for change ringing (called a “ring” of bells) may vary in number from four to twelve—the Cathedral has a “ring” of eight bells. They are arranged in a frame so that their ropes fall in a circle in the ringing chamber. Into each rope is woven a three-foot-long tuft of brightly coloured wool, called the “sally,” which allows the ringer to catch and pull the rope with a minimum of damage to the hands and which serves as a visual clue to where the bell is ringing in relation to others.

Ringing changes is simply varying the order in which the bells strike. This is accomplished by slowing down one bell and speeding another so that the two trade places in the sequence. The rules of change ringing call for no bell to move more than one position at a time, though more than one pair can change places.

Hundreds of methods have been composed for change ringing, and new ones are published almost weekly. They come with simple names like “Little Bob” and “Grandsire” or with more exotic titles like “Francis Genius Delight” and “Annabelle’s London Surprise.”

The first peal rung in Canada was at Holy Rosary Cathedral on Dominion Day, July 1, 1911. A tablet in the ringing chamber commemorates this event. There were 5,040 changes and it took two hours and fifty-nine minutes.




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