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A little off Québec City’s main heritage trails, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church is one of the capital’s most impressive and richly decorated. It stands out for its towering architecture, its steeple, the high archways inside the church, and the slope it rests on. As with a number of Québec City’s older buildings, we have a major fire to thank for its current splendour.
The Saint-Jean district was booming in the early 19th century. Residents were soon asking for a church to be built close to where they lived.
Their request was granted in part thanks to a terrible fire that devastated the district in June 1845, freeing up a number of plots of land that had previously been occupied. The Church authorities acquired the lot where the church stands today and put Charles Baillairgé in charge of drawing up the plans. The young architect was just embarking on his career, but he was the latest in a long line of renowned Québec City architects and sculptors.
The church opened in June 1849 and was dedicated to St. John the Baptist, who would officially be named the patron saint of French Canadians a few years later. Used as an offshoot of the Notre-Dame-de-Québec parish, in its day it was the most impressive church in town.
On the evening of June 7, 1881, locals looked on helplessly as another raging fire destroyed part of the district—and their church with it. Only a handful of valuables could be saved from the flames before the two bell towers came crashing down.
Rebuilding the church in a now densely populated part of town was a priority for the Church authorities. The debris was quickly removed, and stones from the church’s ruins and foundations were used to build a new place of worship on the same site.
Reputed architect Joseph-Ferdinand Peachy, who himself lived in the district, was tasked with drawing up the new plans. Charles Baillairgé’s former student was the perfect candidate for the job.
Peachy’s plans dovetailed with community expectations and the church’s unique location. Since the new building was to welcome even more churchgoers and an extension was out of the question (due to the severe slope), Peachy squeezed in a few extra metres by adding a semicircular choir at the back of the church and a portico at the front. He also raised the walls for better natural lighting and to make the church more visible in a neighbourhood that had more and more two- and three-storey buildings.
Inspired by a recent stay in France, Peachy modelled the façade on Paris’s Église de la Sainte-Trinité, with three open archways, a central rosette, and niches for statues of the saints. The bell tower with its tall spire drew inspiration from the Château style, then very much in vogue in Québec City and also of French influence. These references to the motherland were in response to the nationalist sentiments felt by the mostly French Canadian community living in the Saint-Jean district.
Work on the outside of the church came to an end just as the parish of Saint-Jean-Baptiste was established under canon law, which meant that the parish council would oversee work on the interior alone. As per Peachy’s plans, the enormous nave boasted imposing side galleries. In 1885 local resident Napoléon Déry supplied the organ that still stands today in the gallery. The instrument was restored and enlarged by the Casavant organ builders in the 1920s and classified as a cultural property in 1979. It was also in the 1920s that the high altar, marble pulpit, and side altars were made by Daprato Rigali of Chicago. Louis Jobin, another parishioner, sculpted the four adoring angels on the splendid canopy above the choir.
Four medallions painted by Antoine Plamondon are set in the side altarpieces and come from the first Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church. The last mass in its walls has been celebrated on March 24th 2015.
Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church is a historical monument of extraordinary beauty, featuring a lush, ornamental polychrome interior. It is also home to a number of heritage treasures, including the Déry-Casavant organ, classified as a Québec cultural property, not to mention the marble pulpit, high altar, altarpiece, and the stained-glass windows.
It is rare for a chalice to be decorated with religious icons, but this one is.
Saint-Jean-Baptiste parish collection
Object made to commemorate a plane crash involving 7 crew members and 51 pilgrims returning from Rome in 1950. Everyone on board perished. The drawing and inscription at the foot of the monstrance recall the tragedy.
Marguerite Bourgeoys, beatified that same year, is also depicted.
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