About St. Ninian Cathedral

Saint Ninian Cathedral is the Episcopal Seat for the Diocese of Antigonish, Nova Scotia. We humbly welcome all who wish to nurture their faith through sharing the Word, breaking the Bread, and celebrating God's love for us. Guided by the Holy Spirit, our mission is to worship and serve God through prayer and service to God's people, and by striving to live our lives in the likeness and image of God.

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About our Patron Saint

Saint Ninian, whose feast day is celebrated on September 16, was the first apostle of Christianity in Scotland. He was born in Cumbria of Christian parents c. 360 and was educated in Rome. He became a priest and was ordained a bishop, probably by Pope Siricius, after which he was sent to evangelize Scotland. He landed there in 397 at Whithorn near Solway Firth, where he built a stone cathedral called Candida Casa (‘White House’). He died c. 432 and was buried at Whithorn. The name of this early Christian missionary to Scotland lives on here in New Scotland, where under his patronage, our Cathedral stands as a monument to the faith and courage of generations past.

History of the Cathedral

   Saint Ninian Cathedral in Antigonish is the Episcopal seat for the Catholic Diocese of Antigonish, which includes Antigonish, Pictou, and Guysborough counties on the eastern Nova Scotia mainland, and the entire Cape Breton Island. This see was first created in 1844 as the Diocese of Arichat with the seat at Arichat in southeastern Cape Breton. From the beginning, however, the bishops usually lived in Antigonish and in 1886 the see was officially renamed the Diocese of Antigonish, making the parish church of Saint Ninian the official cathedral.  
   The present stone cathedral is the third church to serve the needs of the people of Antigonish. The town started its ecclesiastical history as a mission of St. Margaret’s Parish, Arisaig. St. Margaret’s, the first Catholic parish in this county, had been founded in 1792 by immigrants from the Scottish Highlands. In 1810, the first Catholic chapel in town was built southwest of the present Bank of Nova Scotia building. This was under the patronage of St. John, but in 1812, it was renamed Saint Ninian, and the parish got a resident priest in 1815. To serve the growing population, under the stewardship of Rev. William Fraser in 1824, new Saint Ninian Church, 72 feet long, 45 feet wide, with a spire of 110 feet high and capacity of 800 people, was built. Its location was on Main Street near the site of the present John Paul Center and Farrell’s Ultramar service station. This building served the community for fifty years.
   Father Colin F. MacKinnon was appointed bishop in 1852. In October 1865, when the parish had 400 families, Bishop MacKinnon presented the idea of a new stone church to a meeting of parishioners who approved the plan. Finances were discussed and two possible sites were considered, one being that of the present St. Martha’s Hospital, and the other the present location of the cathedral. On October 22nd, 1866, Bishop MacKinnon turned the first sod for the excavation trenches and the hauling of stone from the quarries at North Grant and Brierly Brook began early in January of the following year. On May 16th, 1867, Ronald MacGillivray, stonecutter of Hallowell Grant, signed an agreement with Bishop MacKinnon and Father Hugh Gillis, the pastor, to build the foundation and the walls up the window ledges.
   In the absence of the Bishop (in Rome on official business) the major work of managing the construction was in the hands of the hard-working and zealous Father Gillis. On June 29, 1867, two days before Confederation Day, the cornerstone was laid and the foundation blessed by Very Rev. Dr. John Cameron, then rector of the cathedral at Arichat and vicar general of the diocese.
   The building of the Cathedral was the work of Sylvester O’Donoghue, a native of Coolruss, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. Trenches were dug for the perimeter of the church, the foundation walls being 43 inches wide. The main body of the church is maintained on square piers 38 to 40 inches wide and about 80 inches high. Along the top of the piers, hand-hewn wooden beams, 10 inches in width and 12 inches in depth, are laid, supporting the main floor. There is no basement; holes were dug to accommodate the piers with earth fill around them. The roof, which was originally slate from Scotland, is carried on heavy timber trusses which bear on columns and the outside wall. Mr. O’Donoghue carried out Bishop MacKinnon’s instructions, especially those on the placing of a cluster of shamrocks between two sprigs of thistle in the carved stone about the central door, which is flanked high up by two stone tablets displaying the armorial bearings of Pope Pius IX and those of Bishop MacKinnon. The name of the architect, A. Levesque of Montreal, and the builder, Mr. O’Donoghue, are recorded here. Near the top in raised letters are two Gaelic words: “Tigh Dhe” (House of God). The edifice, 170 feet long by 70 feet broad, is of local limestone and sandstone in Roman Basilica style. It has two square towers each 125 feet high. It was constructed in seven years at a cost of 40,000 pounds, which would vary in value from $160,000 to $200,000. The seating capacity was for 1,500. The organ, composed of 700 pipes, is an imposing instrument, bought from Messrs. Hook of Boston. The bells, cast in Dublin, were dedicated to Saint Ninian, St. Joseph, St. Columba, and St. Margaret of Scotland and suspended in the western tower in August, 1874. The next month saw the plastering completed, staging removed and the chancel window installed.
   Saint Ninian Cathedral was dedicated on Sunday, September 13, 1874, with much elaborate liturgical celebration. Although the people had referred to the new church as a Cathedral from the time is was begun, it did not officially become a cathedral until the seat of the diocese was moved to Antigonish from Arichat in 1886. The remains of two of the founding bishops, MacKinnon and Fraser, rest in tombs in a vault beneath the sanctuary.

   The interior decoration was not carried out until 1899. The work was done by Ozias LeDuc, a Quebec artist who had studied in Paris. Some of the paintings are believed to be free adaptions of works by Bonnat (Crucifixion), Plockhorst (Good Shepard), Sartain (Nativity Scene), and Hofmann (Ascension), four 19th century European artists.
   Over the center isle are frescoes depicting the three mysteries of the Catholic faith - the Nativity - the Crucifixion - and the Ascension - plus a fourth depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd.
   Between the arches at the sides of the main isle ceiling are frescoes of the apostles and some early saints also by LeDuc. Amongst them, Saint John and Saint Cecilia are believed to be painted in reference to Raphael's work. The stations of the cross, painted on canvas affixed to the walls, are by LeDuc or one of his students. 
    The large painting of Saint Ninian at the rear of the church on the “Epistle” side, is the oldest in the church. It was executed by and Italian artist, Apollonio, as a commission from Bishop Colin MacKinnon, and placed in the church of Saint Ninian on Main Street in 1857. The painting was moved to the Cathedral on its completion in 1874. Notice how the slave is depicted as being emancipated by Christian faith and placed on an equal level with his master, the highland chief. This painting was carefully restored by experts in 1957.  The painting of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph over the side altars came to the Cathedral in 1876 as presents from the Very Rev. Canon Walsh of New Hampshire.
   Little now remains of the original sanctuary decoration; major changes were made in 1937. Originally there was a large stained-glass window in the sanctuary above the altar. This was removed and blocked to accommodate the addition of the vestry at the front of the church.  The old wooden vestry was removed and replaced with one of stone similar to that in the main structure. Three of the panels of the large chancel window were relocated by the side altars and a new panel was added to balance the set. The original high wooden altar was replaced with one of North Grant stone topped by a dome or baladichino. Repainting and sanctuary alterations were carried out in 1974.