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Art shines at St. Boniface Cathedral

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The St. Boniface Cathedral, which attracts thousands of visitors each year, rests not far from the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers and is a historic landmark in Winnipeg -- the oldest permanent mission in Western Canada.

Yet, the current cathedral, built in 1972, within the ruins of the 1908 basilica, is, thanks to a renowned franco-Manitoban architect and other artists, noted for its strikingly contemporary and modern appeal.

"The entire cathedral complex is a marvellous juxtaposition of the 'old' basilica ruins with the new, still contemporary cathedral with its modern, evocative artwork," says Philippe Mailhot, director of the nearby St. Boniface Museum.

Destroyed by fire in 1968, the remains of the majestic church were incorporated into the plans of the newer cathedral by Winnipeg architect Étienne Gaboury.

In 1981, Gaboury also won a competition to design the stained-glass windows in the cathedral, an enormous project in itself.

The distinctive and dramatic windows, 14 in all, are a revised version of the traditional Stations of the Cross arrived at through consultation with a special committee of parishioners. The windows line both walls on either side of the cathedral. Two additional windows sit above the entrance and above the sanctuary.

The images of Christ flow in a continuous pattern, a "roadway, chemin de croix or the way of the cross," explains parish priest, Fr. Marcel Damphousse, while explaining the significance of each of the windows.

The glass surrounding the images of Christ is mostly transparent, allowing the trees, the sun and the world outside to extend beyond the boundaries of time and space and into the cathedral.

"I wanted to have stained glass that didn't destroy the character of the cathedral. Transparency... was very important to retain the outside environment, nature... the openness," says Gaboury.

"But Christ is always translucent. It is a very special colour of glass -- a very special white and I use that colour only for Christ. The cross is primarily a symbol. I treat it as an ethereal object. The cross, therefore, unlike Christ, is always transparent."

Of the windows, Mailhot says, "Visitors are blown away by Étienne's version of the Last Supper with Judas' face turned away from Christ."

The Last Supper sits above the main entrance and was inspired, Gaboury says, by Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper.

This version, however, is strikingly abstract, and boldly contemporary. Horizontal lines run throughout the windows linking them in one continuous movement, with some breaks, and are symbolic of the road -- the way of the cross, he says.

"There is also a lot of suggestion of movement, of violence -- expressed right up to the last window," says Gaboury. "I use colour sparingly, mostly blue and green with blue representing innocence and red representing passion."

The final window, The Resurrection, differs dramatically from the other windows for it is bathed in vivid orange hues symbolic of the exaltation of the risen Christ.

Mailhot calls it "la piece de resistance." Positioned above the sanctuary and not visible to the congregation, it can only be seen from the nave when the image of Christ is "projected against the sanctuary wall" and "the skies are clear and the sun is in the right position."

"I remember one group which I had told to watch the wall when I noticed afternoon clouds beginning to break up while I fetched another group milling within the ruins," Mailhot says.

"For a fleeting 20 seconds, the image appeared sharp and clear before fading again. One woman looked at me and said, 'Had you not told me what to expect, I would have thought I had just seen a miracle.'"

Sculptures of Mary and Christ hang above the sanctuary and were created by another franco-Manitoban artist, Réal Bérard. Mary is depicted here as Our Lady of Red River. Dressed in moccasins, a shawl and with a Métis sash wrapped around her waist, the sculpture echoes the early parish's strong Métis and French-Canadian roots.

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Also of note in the cathedral is artwork by Robert Freynet on the Life of St. Boniface as well as a painting by Adrienne Bouchard Langlois and tapestry by Thérèse Aubin, which commemorate the 175th anniversary of the parish.

The fabrication and installation of the stained-glass windows was done by John Edwards and John Nutter of Design Glassworks.

Tours of the St. Boniface Cathedral and the museum's special display, A Beacon on the Red: The Cathedrals of St. Boniface, may be arranged by calling 986-8496. ($7 adults $6 seniors/children)

Cathedral-only tours, including the cemetery, are the same as the museum ($6 & $5). For more information, visit

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 12, 2011 J13

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