Architect Napoléon Bourassa (1827-1916) often described his style as “eclectic,” borrowing from the rich traditions of the buildings he saw during his three voyages to Europe (including his extended stay between 1852 and 1855 to study the masterworks of France and Italy). As he often said, art is archeology. It’s a process that digs into the past to find ideas that can still speak to the present. Bourassa also introduced additional elements—not always historical—that he was especially fond of and that are echoed in his other architectural efforts.
Most astonishing of all: Bourassa apparently had no formal training in architecture. Certainly the notes and sketches he made during his extended stay in Europe contain many architectural references and details. But, at least in his early years, he thought of himself as a teacher and painter, especially his portraits. Indeed, his portraits are perhaps the most accomplished of all his works.
In selecting Napoléon Bourassa to design their church, the Dominicans chose someone very much acquainted with the Romanesque Revival. His Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes in Montreal, built earlier, was clearly inspired by Romanesque principles.
So, too, is St Anne. Rounded arches cap most of its windows, while huge ones span the indoor area where the nave and transepts meet. Many smaller ones arch over the statues that line the name of St Anne and rounded corbels support the façade and tower eaves.
As with the ancient pilgrim churches, a large ambulatory, with five projecting chapels, encircle the sanctuary, both in the upper church and the lower “basement” shrine. Both have intricately carved wooden ceilings, a hallmark of early Romanesque churches. (St Anne’s ceilings and pews are made, in part, of red oak.)
Shallow buttresses support the exterior’s north and south sides. Unlike later Gothic structures, whose vertical lines draw the eye upward, Romanesque churches emphasize horizontal elements, often dividing the composition into three tiers or “layers.” This is precisely what both the exterior and interior designs of St Anne’s feature.
By incorporating gray marble, both inside (for the wainscoting and some of the pillars) and outside (virtually the entire building is made of the long-sought bluish-gray marble), St Anne reflects its Roman and Romanesque roots. The stone’s pale color also lightens the “heaviness” that Romanesque Revival buildings often have. The exterior marble used at St Anne, whose building blocks are intricately arranged into seemingly random patterns, is of fine grain, which prevents it from accumulating dirt and soot. The church’s exterior probably looks the same today is it did in 1906. (Because its exterior stones aren’t polished, most people don’t realize that the church is built of marble.)
One of the most striking features of St Anne is its gallery of large statues that line the interior. Bourassa was a great fan of sculpture and many of his students went on to specialize in sculpting. One of the them, Louis-Philippe Hébert, became Canada’s greatest sculptor. Hébert’s student, Joseph-Olindo Gratton, was also very well known. Gratton’s most famous work was the collection of statues that grace the façade of Montreal’s Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, a scaled-down replica of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It’s almost certain that he was the sculptor for the statues in St Anne’s Church.
The statues above and around the sanctuary portray Christ’s twelve apostles, along with St Paul, St Augustine of Hippo, and St Joachim (husband of St Anne). Those along the nave depict a communion of saints who are especially revered by French Canadians or who played in important role in the history of the Order of Preachers (a.k.a. the Dominicans). Smaller statues of angels overlook the saints.
An arcade of statues like this is rare in Romanesque Revival structures. However, it was rather common in ancient Roman architecture, with arcades of statues of gods, goddesses and heroic people standing beneath rounded arches. A good example is Rome’s legendary Colosseum, where many dozens of statues once stood under the stadium’s exterior arches.
Bourassa was not, however, locked into the principles and practices of either ancient Rome or of the 11th- and 12th-century Romanesque period. He was well aware of the 19th-century reinterpretation and revival of Romanesque principles, too. By alternating rough-textured and smoother stones on the church’s exterior, for example, and by deeply recessing many of its windows while capping them with crescents of stones, the architect shows that he was very much a part of the Romanesque Revival.
Bourassa also very successfully addressed the issue of interior light. He used translucent windows with lightly applied colored elements to fill the main church and basement interiors with filtered natural light. (In the early 1960s these were replaced by stained-glass ones.) [...]
[...] St Anne also features elements that are Bourassa’s own. He seemed especially fond of diamond or triangular shapes, not only at St Anne but at other structures he designed. Two diamond-shaped windows flank the façade’s small, round window and triangles cap many other windows. A triangular shape appears over the main entrance door and, far above, as a triangle-topped pediment. Inside, the lower pillars are connected at their tops by triangular shapes, as are those in the basement shrine.
And what of the towers’ peculiar domes? They vaguely resemble the domes that topped certain late-19th-century buildings, like Philadelphia’s City Hall, the central towers of some of Fall River’s mills, and even Fall River’s original City Hall. But there may be another explanation.
At the time of Bourassa’s 1888-89 visit to France, rumors of a new, clever art object, the Fabergé egg, were circulating in Europe. First designed in 1885 for Russia’s tsar, a Fabergé egg is a sort of precious, intricate version of the Easter egg. These art objects were sometimes decorated with a scalloped design. St Anne’s original copper domes were also scalloped. And a Fabergé egg is usually set in an intricate supporting “nest,” sometimes decorated with small circular medallions. So were St Anne’s tower domes. (During the 1950s–60s remodel, these medallions were removed, as were the domes’ scalloped surface, and replaced with a simpler design.)
Could it be that St Anne’s unusual tower domes are based on Fabergé eggs? Perhaps. Here’s another clue. In art, the egg shape is often associated with birth. And the pivotal fact in St Anne’s life is that she gave birth to Mary. A Fabergé egg dome would be cleverly appropriate for a church dedicated to St Anne.
Granted, this interpretation is certainly a stretch, even farfetched. Probably it’s all a complicated coincidence. Then again, it’s plausible that Bourassa, scholarly and devout, could very well have understood and applied these “hidden” allusions into St Anne’s design. If he did, it was an apt choice.
It’s valid to try to interpret what Bourassa had in mind as he designed St Anne. But it’s misleading to think that St Anne Church was build exclusively to his vision. Almost surely supervising engineer and architect Louis Destremps contributed ideas to its final form, as did Bourassa’s assistants and, of course, the Dominicans. Cost considerations dictated many alterations and artistic ones influenced others.
Ultimately, the creators of St Anne are the thousands of parishioners who helped pay for this magnificent structure and who, in some cases, were the carpenters, stone smiths and other laborers who built it. Without their pride, faith and enterprise, St Anne Church would not exist.
Excerpted from the St Anne’s Church centennial booklet (2006), written by Marc Mancini.