More visitors seek cathedrals, historic churches

Quebec City’s Cathedral of the Holy Trinity saw almost 100,000 more visitors in 2018 than five years previous. Photo: Luc-Antoine Couturier
Published February 5, 2020

In a time when attention has begun to focus increasingly on declining church attendance, some places of Anglican worship in both England and Canada—including English cathedrals—are seeing an increase in visitors.

Visitors to Church of England cathedrals numbered 10 million in 2018—an increase of more than 10% on the previous year, according to a November report published by the church.

There were also more than a million visitors to Westminster Abbey, the report states, and attendance at some major Christian festivals grew. Some 58,000 people attended cathedrals at Easter and 95,000 during Holy Week—the highest numbers recorded for a decade.

On the other hand, participation at Christmas services in cathedrals slipped to 133,000 in 2018, from 135,000 the previous year, and the number of people attending usual cathedral services every week also fell slightly to 36,700 from 37,000 in 2017.

Some of the more historic Anglican churches in Canada, also, have been seeing brisk attendance by visitors in recent years. Quebec City’s Cathedral of the Holy Trinity had 240,000 visitors in 2018—up from 149,000 five years previously, says Tommy Byrne, project manager at the cathedral. A 2013 marketing study showed that 96% of its visitors come for culture, heritage, music and other non-religious factors, he says—though this doesn’t suggest spirituality didn’t also play a role in some tourist visits.

A National Historic Site of Canada, Holy Trinity became the first Anglican cathedral built outside the British Isles when it was completed in 1804. Generating income through tourist visits is important to the cathedral, Byrne says, given its costs—including an estimated $4 million in repairs needed over the next decade.

Another National Historic Site, St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Halifax, has seen a gradually growing influx of tourist-visitors in recent years, says the Rev. Paul Friesen, rector. Visits to St. Paul’s—the oldest continuous Anglican place of worship in Canada, as well as Halifax’s oldest building—now total between 12,000 and 14,000 per year, Friesen says.

Tourist-visitors, Friesen says, are drawn to the 270-year-old church by an interest in history. Some also come to worship.

“A lot of the visitors come to liturgies at St. Paul’s, so you might look out in the middle of July and find half the congregation is from cruise ships or from vacation tours,” he says.

St. Anne’s Anglican Church, in Toronto, while younger than Holy Trinity and St. Paul’s, nevertheless attracts some tourists interested in heritage and the arts. Built in 1907, the church borrows its dome from the tradition of Byzantine architecture, exemplified by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. During the 1920s, ten artists, including three future members of the Group of Seven, painted the murals that grace the church’s interior—the Group’s only known religious works.

Recently the church has been more intentional about inviting these visitors, says Canon Gary van der Meer, incumbent at St. Anne’s. It offers a monthly tour, participation in which has grown over the last three or so years from two or three people to a dozen or more.

English cathedrals, van der Meer says, tend to attract visitors for a number of reasons: the appeal of choral evensong, the history of the buildings and the art in them.

“What they have as an advantage over us is the sheer age of those magnificent buildings,” he says. “And the English way of doing cathedrals is to be really carefully engaged stewards of art of all generations, so they’ll have exhibits that are art installations or paintings all through the cathedral that are episodic—they’re there and then they’re gone. And so they really take the role of the cathedral to another level of representation of Christ in civilization.”


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