Within stained glass

Saint Mary’s Cathedral is just steps away from campus, and home to both a crypt and a popular urban myth

Under the main floor of the Cathedral, in the crypt, the bodies of past bishops and religious leaders are buried
Under the main floor of the Cathedral, in the crypt, the bodies of past bishops and religious leaders are buried

There may be a tunnel under one of Kingston’s oldest churches, but no one can tell you for sure.

According to popular myth, an underground tunnel exists between St. Mary’s Cathedral on Johnson and Barrie Streets, and Hotel Dieu hospital, over a block away.

The gothic-style Cathedral was built in 1843 and, at the time, didn’t sport the high spire now familiar to the Kingston skyline. The building where Hotel Dieu is housed now was a teaching college associated with the Cathedral, called Regiopolis College.

Rodney Carter, an archivist at the St. Joseph Region of the Religious Hospitallers, has heard the tunnel rumour twice now.

The Cathedral’s official website claims it to be true, but Carter isn’t so sure.

“I don’t know where exactly this rumour comes from,” he said. “It’s about two blocks away through solid limestone. I’ve never seen any evidence.”

Carter, whose office is located at Hotel Dieu Hospital, first heard of the possibility when contacted several years ago by a fact checker for The Walrus magazine, who was printing a poem that mentioned the tunnel.

“I’ve been in the basement of the Sydenham Wing [at Hotel Dieu] and I haven’t seen anywhere where there could have been a passageway,” he said.

Father Brian Price, an archdiocese archivist from the Kingston area, believes there could be some truth to the rumour.

“There was supposed to be [a tunnel], but I’ve never seen it,” he said. “There’s supposed to be an entry… in the east wall of the basement of the Cathedral.”

He does know that there was a passageway at one point in time that transported heating between the two buildings.

“That became closed years ago of course and I think some of it caved in at some point in time.” Perhaps a more well-known story is of the body of the region’s sixth bishop and first archbishop, James Cleary.

For years, it was thought that he was entombed in St James’ Chapel, which is adjacent to the cathedral and sits just off of Brock St.

“He was buried in the chapel … facing the altar,” Price said. “Tradition said that’s where his body was located. But they did some work in the 1950s on the chapel and took up some of the flooring and couldn’t find the grave. So God knows where he’s gone.”

Today, bodies lie beneath the Cathedral’s main level. Tombs of early bishops and other religious figures are housed in the basement crypt, as well as parishioners who could afford to pay for their own tombs.

Upstairs, 16 white pillars run down the length of the nave and intricate stained glass windows line the exterior walls of the building.

The colourful windows were imported in the 1890s from England. In order to avoid paying tariffs, the bishop at the time, Cleary, appealed to the Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, to get a tax exemption. Macdonald tried to help Cleary, but the attempt was unfruitful.

“Tradition says that Sir John A. paid the tax himself, which was very kind of him. He was a Presbyterian,” Price said.

Although St. Mary’s may be one of the city’s most notable churches, it’s not the oldest.

“The oldest church still standing that we know about is 285 Queen St.,” said Jennifer McKendry, a local architectural historian. “The building, though, has been refurbished and now stands as a banquet hall.”

As for the tunnel rumour, McKendry said its existence is unlikely. At the time, priests traveled between only three sites — the Hotel Dieu lot, the Cathedral and the Bishop’s House.

“I really doubt priests were so scared of the weather that they couldn’t walk from one to the other,” she said.

“You have to be very careful because tunnels are the stuff of mythology and urban legends,” she said. “Little red flags should wave every time you hear that.”

Who’s buried under the Cathedral?

Alexander Macdonell (1762-1840): Was the first bishop for Kingston. He owned the land where the church now sits, and commissioned its construction. He died before it was built, but his body was later taken and interred on site.

Remi Gaulin (1787-1857): Received the second bishopship of Kingston when Macdonell died in 1840. Due to severe mental and physical disabilities, he was forced to resign as bishop in 1843. In 1857, he died in Lower Canada, but his body was transported to Kingston to be buried at St. Mary’s.

Patrick Phelan (1795-1857):
Kingston’s third bishop. He laid the church’s first cornerstone and helped consecrate the church in 1848. Died after contracting a cold at
Gaulin’s funeral.

James Cleary (1828-1898):
The sixth bishop and first archbishop of the church. He’s said to be buried under St. James’ Chapel, but when construction happened in the 1950s, his body was nowhere to be found. It’s unclear what happened to him.

Source: Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online

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