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One of the most imposing structures in Antigonish is St. Ninian's Cathedral. This building was the brainchild of Bishop Colin F. MacKinnon who envisaged a stone edifice redolent of the Italian Renaissance basilicas he had seen during his nine years in Italy. The dream became a reality when he approved the design specifications submitted by the Montreal architect, A. Levesque, and the parishioners pledged an annual total of 900 pounds and volunteered three days of labour each week except during harvest season. The cornerstone was laid in June 1867 and over the next seven years the Cathedral with its thick walls, square towers and lanterned domes materialized. It was a far cry from its plain wooden predecessor built on Main Street in 1824. Seated on a height of land, it appeared to preside majestically over the town. Huge blocks of limestone and sandstone, some weighing as much as two tons, were hauled to the site by horse, oxen and wagon from North Grant and Brierly Brook.
The end result of such labours was a sublime and sumptuous Roman-style basilica. The interior featured romanesque arches, rondel windows, and a double colonnade of pillars with lush corinthian capitals. The nine 30-foot high Romanesque windows with 150 stained-glass panes also heightened the opulent grandeur of the cathedral. So too did the facade with its sculptural niches, stringcourse mouldings, carved scrollwork, pedimented entrances and the chiselled words "Tigh Dhe" (House of God). The armorial bearings of Pope Pius IX and Bishop MacKinnon also ornamented the facade. As a more whimsical touch, a carved cluster of shamrocks and two springs of thistle over the central entrance celebrated the Scottish ancestry of the parishioners and the Irish roots of the master builder, Sylvester O'Donoghue. Much of the interior decoration of the Cathedral, especially the luminous frescoes, was carried out from 1899 to 1903 by the Quebec-born artist Ozias Leduc and his team of assistants who were paid 35 cents an hour and boarded at Merrimac House for $1.50 a day.
In form, structure and style, the Cathedral exemplified the Catholic preference for Romanesque and Baroque designs during the 19th century. Nevertheless, the Cathedral represented a sharp break from the traditional small-scale wooden churches of rural Nova Scotia. As such, the monumental stone edifice is a tribute to the engineering skill of its builders and the self-sacrifice and spiritual pride of its congregation. Even today the Cathedral has not lost its power to inspire as it did in 1871 when Alexander MacDonald of Keppoch wrote these following verses originally penned in Gaelic:
Great the wonder that I see Building on this site before me With the stones so smoothly hewn And so well and truly laid To make an edifice immovable Like a Rock against the waves As an iron structure Solid, taut and strong... When I walked around it Dizziness nearly overcame me As I watched the men Working at such a height I wondered how they could stand it. Their great work will Always be remembered with honor By the people who will come after them...