The following tour is an exploration of the various styles and forms in which Mary (Jesus’s mom) has been rendered using materials intended to withstand our varied climate.
There are many other statues of Mary scattered throughout the region that aren’t part of the tour, but are identified on the map with yellow markers. Descriptions of some can be found at the bottom of this post. Most are located on the grounds of Catholic churches and institutions, for, as noted in season 2 of The Derry Girls, ‘Catholics really buzz on statues…’ to which Sister Michel responded ‘I do enjoy a good statue, it has to be said.’.
Our first stop is on the north side of St-Vincent Hospital just inside the hospital grounds. This version of Mary is placed within a grotto of uncoursed random masonry with a smaller female figurine knelt in prayer below. The scene depicts of an apparitions 14-year old Bernadette Soubirous had in Lourdes France in 1848. Most Catholic statues of Mary are one of many Marian apparitions recognized by the church. This plaster casting of Mary is a replica of an original by Joseph-Hugues Fabisch sculpted in 1864, based on the description provided by Bernadette. During the apparition Mary instructed Bernadette to dig into the ground from which a spring of healing waters flowed. This association with healing would explain why this work was chosen for this hospital site.
Second stop is at St-Patrick’s Basilica on Kent Street. Here she stands on a dome calmly gazing down with arms outstretched perched atop a fluted column. The bright white substrate in which she is rendered stands in stark contrast to the grey stone of St-Patrick’s Gothic Revival design. This pose derives from an apparition that the Catholic nun Catherine Labouré had in Paris in 1830. Based on Catherine’s description the image was reproduced as a devotional medal by the goldsmith Adrien Vachette and became known as the Miraculous Medal or the Medal of Our Lady of Grace. Mary stands on a globe representing the earth, crushing a rather distraught snake under her feet. The snake however was not included in Catherine’s original description of the vision. The medals became extremely popular when originally struck, and continues to be so amongst Catholics. Being such a recogniseable depiction of Mary, it was translated into sculptural form and is the most repeated pose in which Mary is depicted around town, as you will notice in the examples included at the end of this post.
Our next stop is infront of the Notre Dames Cathedral where Mary can be found holding infant Jesus way atop the peak of the front facade. Installed in 1866, it was sculpted out of wood by a Spanish artist named Carbona and is covered in gold leaf. Here the proportions and detailing are less delicate than other works seen on this tour, which works well relative to the width and height of the facade and the extended distance the sculpture is away from the viewer. Mary is also wearing a crown, popular in the Middle Ages as a representation of her as queen of heaven. The same arrangement can also be found at the top of the front portal of Laon Cathedral in France from the 12th and 13th century. She strikes the same pose on the front facade of Notre-Dame de Paris. The original reference of a sculpture depicting Mary in this pose was at the time of her first ever supernatural appearance in 40AD while she was still alive. As legend goes, St James was over in Spain having a tough time spreading the gospel so Mary appeared in a vision to cheer him on. The apparition instructed James to build a shrine in Zaragosa at the site of this miraculous vision. As Mary was transported to Spain by a bunch of angels, others angels proceeded to make a sculpture of her in Spain holding the baby Jesus and sporting a crown while standing atop a pillar. This event came to be referred to as Our Lady of the Pillar.
Continuing East into Vanier I rode up Pères-Blanc Avenue onto the grounds of what was once the scholasticate of the Society of the Missionaries of Africa but is now a park and interpretive facility run by the city. In the centre of a round-about at the end of the avenue there is a painted statue of Mary atop a stone pedestal. Mounted on the front of the pedestal is a bronze plaque that reads ‘NOTRE DAME D’AFRIQUE PRIEZ POUR NOUS A.D. 1955’ with an embossed outline of the African continent. The statue serves as a remnant of when the Pères-Blancs occupied this spot of land. The crown she is wearing is more massive than the medievel style seen on the cathedral. This larger crown is similar to the one she is sporting when depicted as Our Lady of Fatima, another vision reported in 1917 by three sheperd children in Fatima, Portugal. The Immaculate Heart of Mary is also included as a pendant. Her outer garment is blue, the colour most commonly associated with Mary. The historical use of Marian Blue as it is commonly referred to, is attributed to the great cost of Lapis Lazuli, a rare mineral used in the creation of blue pigment. Lapis Lazuli was more valuable than gold due to its rarity. As such blue was only used for the most precious applications, like in painted renderings of Mary’s clothes. Thus, the association stuck.
Our final stop is the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes also in Vanier. As the name suggests this is a direct reference to the original site in Lourdes France. Here we have Mary in a much larger grotto of stacked stone than the one at St Vincent Hospital accompanied once again by a praying Bernadette. The statue is painted to further ressemble the original in France. Attached to the walls of the grotto are mini plaques giving thanks for various cures that devotees have attributed to her. It’s quite the site. At the entrance there are placards filled with many more dedicated plaques installed throughout the years. Opposite and curling up the hill to the left of the grotto are a series of framed depictions in relief of the stations of the cross leading to a sculpture of the crucified Jesus. There are three of the stations that include Mary, easily identified dressed in blue.
There is a novella by the Irish writer Colm Toibin titled The Testament of Mary that I highly recommend. It gives a powerful humanised depiction of Mary told from her point of view near the end of her life. In this story she describes the events leading up to the crucifixion of her son. It provides a powerful contrast to the way Mary has come to be represented through various forms, in our instance sculptural. This novella was adapted for Broadway and was nominated for three Tony Awards, including Best Play.
The following are additional statues of Mary found throughout the region that aren’t part of the tour. Their locations are included on the above map and are identified as yellow markers.
Saint Charbel Parish – 245 Donald St (added Oct 2020)
Saint Charbel Parish is a Maronite Catholic church. Here she is depicted in the Miraculous Medal pose. Her cape and the globe on which she stands is painted a light Marian blue Some lovely gold trim has been added to her robe. The Immaculate Heart rests on her chest, something not described in the original pose. The land on which the church is built was purchased in 1994 so it’s relatively new. The location of the statue, immediately to the right of the entrance, seems to have been chosen from the outset, as the pedestal on which she stands is clad in the same stone facing as the building. This is striking as it breaks the strict symmetry of the churches facade.
Madonna Care Community – 1541 St. Joseph Boulevard (added Oct 2020)
This statue of the Madonna surrounded by juniper bushes is located just infront of the porte-cochère of an Orleans retirement home that opened in 2007 and it is one of a country wide chain called Sienna Senior Living. None of the other homes in this coporate chain have religious titles or symbols in their name so I’m not sure why this one does. Possibly because Orleans has a high Franco Ontarien Catholic population so the name and statue are used to appeal to this segment of population(?). Regardless, it seems to have no affiliation with a religious order. This rendering of Mary seems younger than how she is usually depicted. Photos of this statue were often shown in the news media when 30 residents died of the covid pandemic in early 2020 along with two staff workers.
Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church – 289 Spencer St (added Oct 2020)
Her name is in the title so, not surprisingly, she is prominently located right by the entrance. That said, she only appeared in this spot after this originally-Anglican-church switched and joined the Catholic faith in 2012. Biking by one Sunday I was fortunate to encounter one of the priests (past minister) who told me the statue just suddenly appeared after the denominational transition was complete. Here she is once again depicted in the popular Miraculous Medal pose. The priest put the red rosary around her neck, a replacement of a blue one I had noticed earlier in the year that someone had snatched. As it’s such an intimate little church the scale of the statue needn’t be large to be noticeable, especially right at the main entrance. It’s bright whiteness also helps it stand out against the brown stucco walls and black mailbox with sticky address numbers.
St-François-de-Sales – Pointe Gatineau (added Nov 2020)
This large church is located on the north shore at the confluence of the Gatineau and Ottawa rivers. While the church is quite grand, Mary’s statue is proportionally very small, located way off to the left at the entrance to an attached building. Here she is once again depicted in the Miraculous Medal pose draped in blue, mounted on an elevated round concrete slab with lots of room for offerings from the faithful. The concrete slab is a relatively recent addition as evidenced by it’s modern form and confirmed by the blue insulation peaking out at the base. The custom of including Miraculous Medal statues of Mary outside most Catholic churches in the region appears to be tradition that started sometime well after the older churches were built.
St Anthony’s Church – Corner of Gladstone and Booth St (added Dec 2020)
To the right of the stairs leading up into St Anthony’s Catholic Church you will find Mary in her role as Our Lady of Sorrows identifiable by the seven swords piercing her chest. Carved in white marble, the swords themselves were sculpted seperately from the rest of the statue and glued into place with a thick brown adhesive, four of which are broken at the handle. The white vinyl text on the polished stone base lists those individuals along with two funeral homes that donated funds to purchase this statue on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the church in 2013. The text is English and Italian as this church serves Ottawa’s Little Italy community where it is located.
St Monica Parish – 2080 Merivale Road (added Nov 2020)
What is striking about this statue is how disconnected it’s associated church in style and siting. St Monica Parish is a strict modernist design with minimal exterior embellishments, which was common to that period architectural style. In marked contrast, the statue of Mary is part of it’s own distinct landscaped installation of a much more haphazard design, located a generous distance behind and away from the church. Fronted by a semicircle of randomly cut flagstones on which two benches of different colours are placed, the statue is set amongst a pot-pourri of plantings and nick-nicks. Some are temporary, like the various flowers. Some are plantings, some are potted, and some are plastic like the one placed in Mary’s outstretched hand. Other embellishments are more permanent, such as the multicoloured stones set into a lump of concrete that forms the base of the statue. Many of these stones have words carved into each, such as ‘Prayer’, ‘Patience’, ‘Faith’, etc in a mix of fonts, most resembling Comic Sans. To the left of the statue there is an upright stone slab with fractured edges, engraved onto which are the words ‘In Memory of’ followed by a long list of names of various origins – Alfonso, Beaudoin, Connoly, Korezyn… etc. There is no space between the last name and the ground which makes it appear as if the list continues down into the soil. To the left of the statue a rosary constucted of sea shells hangs from a hanging planter frame. Someone has also placed solar powered walkway lamps in amongst the plantings. The statue itself is identical to the Miraculous Medal pose located outside St-Patrick’s Basilica on Kent Street. I would not be surprised if they were cast from the same mold. The whole installation has a cedar hedge and some nice big birch trees as a backdrop with the Greenbelt extending beyond.
St Bonaventure Catholic Church – 1359 Chatelain Ave (added Nov 2020)
This Miraculous Medal version of Mary is set into a freestanding niche, historically a way of placing sculptures of saints within the walls of churches and cathedrals. One may also associate this treatment, albeit in a minimalist abstract form, to the Our Lady of Lourdes apparition Bernadette Soubirous had of Mary standing in a grotto. This relatively common form of presenting Mary statues is often confused with old converted cast iron bathtubs. In this instance the flat front facing provides a smooth surface on which to mount a protective clear plexiglass. A planter holder is attached to the front in which offerings of flowers or other items can be placed. On either side are concrete plaques, the one on the right reads ‘LES PAROISSIENS(NES) DE ST. BONAVENTURE ET LEUR CURE’, and the one on the right,’ ANNEE MARIALE 1987-1988′. A Marian Year (or Année Marial) is one the Catholic church deems important that Mary be revered and celebrated. Pope John Paul II chose 1987 to be an international Marian Year so the concrete plaques seems to suggest this congregation took up his call and erected this statue.
St Joseph’s Church and St Joe’s Mission– (added December 2020)
Here we have not one but TWO identical mini-Miraculous Medal statues. The first is at the corner of St Joseph’s Church, nestled under a sign at Wilbrod and Cumberland. The second statue is just half a block south on Cumberland, set in a bit from the street. The statues and inverted concrete planters on which they stand are exactly the same, probably cast from the same molds. They also have metal cables looped around them. The one on Cumberland is locked to something sticking out of the ground but the one by the sign isn’t secured to anything. Some unexplained history going on there…..maybe a few previous Mary’s went disappearing? Who knows.
The story of St Joseph’s church dates way back to when the the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate showed up to deal with a rough & tough Bytown as Ottawa was known then. A history of the church is described by Terry Byrne, in his book Where the Spirit Lives.
Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Parish 1153 Wellington Street (added December 2020)
There are two Mary’s at this location as well.
The first Mary is nestled in a niche above the entrance of what used to be called St George’s Home, once a holding house for immigrant orphaned children. There is a plaque outside that describes its history. Gilles Duceppe, past leader of the Bloc Quebecois, discovered that his grandfather, John James Rowley, was a resident of St George’s Home.
Here Mary is gazing heavenward with hands clasped together in prayer. There are red roses strewn at her feet. She is in a pretty sad state of abandon along with the whole facade on this side of the building.
The second Mary on this site strikes the familiar Miracle Medal pose. Here she is more down to earth, framed by a sign announcing the name of the church and directing worshipers to the public entrance on Grant street. The wreaths at her feet are temporary, however she is flanked by two planted rose bushes. Roses seem to be the linking theme for these two sculptures. The side of the building facing Grant Street is in much better shape.
The abundance of Mary statues located thoughout the National Capital Region may seem bewildering, however one must take into consideration the overwhelming historical presence the Catholic church had in the lives of devotees. For example, in June 1947 Ottawa hosted a huge Marian Congress that included a parade of numerous floats winding past parliament Hill each depicting Mary in different contexts. There was also an enormous stage set built in Lansdowne Park with a colossal statue of Mary soaring above. A documentary film depicting the enormity of this celebration can be seen here.