Beginning in the summer of 1889, the spiritual needs of the Kootenay region were fulfilled by Oblate missionaries. Rev. Julien-Augustin Bedard, OMI was the first to offer a Nelson area Mass. The cook’s table in the dining room at the Silver King Mine served as the altar. Later, when Rev. Nicolas Coccola, OMI visited the region he used a private home, but informed the Bishop that a church and school were required for the growing community.
By the fall of 1892 Fr. Bedard became Nelson’s first resident pastor and in October 1893 he blessed and opened a small church on the southwest corner of Silica and Josephine Streets. Prior to this, he said Mass in the dining rooms of the International and Tremont Hotels. Fr. Bedard was soon reassigned to Williams Lake and between 1894-1898, non-resident Oblate missionaries once again served the district. However, as the community’s population grew so did the need for a resident priest and one year after the city’s incorporation, Rev. Leo Wilfred Ferland was appointed Nelson’s second pastor in April 1898. In addition to Nelson, he was also responsible for the missions in Slocan City, Silverton, Sandon and Kaslo.
It was not long before the corner lot at Mill and Ward Streets in Nelson was purchased and construction began on the present facility designed by George Dillon Curtis. The hefty cornerstone for the Church of Mary Immaculate was blessed and inserted into the northwest corner of the foundation on 9 October 1898. However, work was not completed until a year later when Father N. Coccola formally dedicated the church on 22 October 1899.
Nelson’s third parish priest, Father John A. Althoff, arrived in 1902, found the parish deeply in financial arrears and used his own personal, inherited wealth to reduce the debt. One of his priorities was to beautify the church’s interior and by 1903 he had purchased a new altar “of his own design decorated with costly panels” that included the Last Supper. After Vatican II, alterations to the church’s interior décor included the incorporation of these decorative features into the relocated main and side altars.
The Church of Mary Immaculate was raised to Cathedral status in 1936 when Rev. Martin M. Johnson of Toronto was appointed the first Bishop to the Diocese of Nelson. The Cathedral of Mary Immaculate is the second oldest original church structure in the city of Nelson and has continuously served as a Roman Catholic facility since 1899. This building is a marvelous example of Roman Classicism modeled directly on La Madeleine in Paris. A portico and classical detailing dominate the exterior while the interior’s composite columns support a massive neo–Baroque tunnel vault. The structure gives the impression that it is constructed of solid masonry faced with marble; but, except for the foundation granite quarried on site, it is built almost entirely of wood. The Cathedral received Nelson’s Heritage Building of the Year award for 1985.
To celebrate British Columbia’s Heritage Week in 2005, a website page was designed to include interior panorama views of the entire cathedral as well as three other Sacred Spaces in Nelson.
R.J. (Ron) Welwood
Diocese of Nelson Archives