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It’s an area of downtown St. John’s built by early immigrants which helped lay the foundations of life in Newfoundland and Labrador as is it known today, says Anne Walsh, chair of the Ecclesiastical District Working Group.
“We see this whole (Ecclesiastical) District as a seedbed of a culture, a new culture,” Walsh said. “That’s a part of its universal significance.”
The area, which is located in the centre of the City’s Heritage Area 1 and spans approximately 61 acres, was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in 2008.
The Ecclesiastical District
Irish, English and Scottish immigrants all relied on these buildings which housed the institutions responsible for education, health care and religion, and set up the entire framework of settler society, executive director of the Basilica Heritage Foundation John FitzGerald said.
“There’s nothing like this anywhere else, not only in Canada, but nothing like this district of all these Christian churches from the mid-19th century really anywhere in the world outside of Europe,” FitzGerald said. “They arose here in this place … before the state did, before the government did.”
Along with members of Gower Street United Church, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (The Kirk) and the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Walsh and FitzGerald are at the front of an effort to get the area put on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List. If accepted, it would join places like L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site and Gros Morne National Park.
The idea came a couple years ago when the four churches got together, according to FitzGerald.
“It’s crazy, we’re all Christian denominations and we never had very much to do with each other,” he said. “We realized we’ve got a lot more in common than the stuff that divides us.”
The Ecclesiastical District Working Group is currently in the process of putting together a proposal which will eventually be given to a representative of the federal government. That representative will then present it at the world meeting.
“UNESCO designates these things because they are of outstanding universal value,” FitzGerald said. “We’ve had a number of people who have experience with UNESCO World Heritage Committee tell us that we would be an excellent World Heritage district."
One of the reasons the area stands out is for the distinct architecture of each church, Heather McClellan, member of the board of managers for the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church said.
"The Anglican Cathedral is considered the best example of English neo-Gothic architecture in the new world," McClellan told The Telegram via email. "(And) the Roman Catholic Basilica is considered one of the best examples of Italian Lombard Romansque architecture in North America."
The Gower Street United Church is a great example of Romanesque architecture, she said.
"As Protestant dissenters from the Anglican Church, they sought to design and build a Church that reflected their independence from the Church of England," McClellan said.
And the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church was built in a High Victorian, Scottish, neo-Gothic Revival style.
"As a Church of Scotland, it reflects the spire, and Victorian and Gothic elements, found in their mother church of St. Giles (Cathedral) located in Edinburgh, Scotland," she said.
Apart from the distinct architecture, colourful stained glass artwork, surrounding landscape and historical aspects of each building, there is a cultural connection for the community to this day, Fitzgerald says.
“The Kirk has the Tuckamore (Festival), The Once have their Christmas concert (at Gower Street United) … The Messiah at the Basilica,” he said.
And though it isn’t their main concern, there is notable interest from tourists as well.
Recently, an article in a magazine by Norwegian Cruise Line which highlighted the area was brought to McClellan’s attention.
McClellan says people are fascinated by holy places around the world, like the Vatican and Egypt.
“And we’re starting to be recognized as one of these holy places,” she said.
FitzGerald adds that student tour guides working for the Basilica in 2019 carried handheld counters from June 1 to Oct. 1. They counted approximately 35,000 visitors.
It will be years from now before their proposal is completed and presented to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, but the group is confident as they look at the massive task ahead of them.
“It’s sort of a grassroots, ground-up kind of a thing,” FitzGerald said.
They hope to be considered for UNESCO World Heritage status by 2024.
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