Notre Dame Basilica – Montreal, Québec - Atlas Obscura

Notre Dame Basilica

A grand Gothic Revival basilica with stained glass depictions of Montreal's religious history has only one soul resting in its crypt. 


The Notre Dame Basilica is anything but ordinary, and credit for its splendor goes to the only person buried in its crypt - the man who built it.

In 1824, the Montreal flock had outgrown its church, and it was time for something bigger and better. Commissioned to design a new place for the congregation to call home, Irish-American James O’Donnell, a New York Protestant, had a grand vision.

Obsessed with the intricate, dramatic trappings of the Gothic Revival architecture movement, O’Donnell took the style and ran with it. Seas of color, intricate carvings, and ornate stained glass covers palatial floors and soaring ceilings in the spectacular church that remained the largest in North America for over 50 years. The church was so decadent a smaller, more modest chapel was built behind it for more practical use.

Another noteworthy attraction of this breathtaking basilica is its famous Casavant Frères pipe organ - 92 electropneumatic action stops, 4 keyboards, and a sound-bending 7,000 individual pipes. This massive instrument of heavenly chorus put Casavant Frères on the map as master organ builders back in 1891.

James O’Donnell, his architectural peak reached with the fabulous Notre Dame, wished to be buried inside the walls of his magnum opus, but there was one hitch - he wasn’t a Catholic. On his deathbed, O’Donnell converted, and now remains the only corpse residing in the magnificent crypt of his own design.

Know Before You Go

Métro Take the Orange line to Place d’Armes Station. Exit on Saint-Urbain Street and walk uphill toward Place D’Armes Square. Bus Take southbound Saint-Laurent bus No. 55. Get off at the Notre-Dame Street stop east of the Basilica. For more information, please visit the STM (Société des Transports de Montréal) site online :

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