The Marian Congress

18 June 1947

The Most Rev. Alexandre Vachon, the Archbishop of Ottawa, did not think small. With the approach of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the diocese of Bytown (Ottawa) in 1847 by Bishop Joseph-Bruno Guigues, he wanted to celebrate the centenary in style. He also wanted the occasion to serve as a national, indeed international, opportunity to pray for lasting world peace. While World War II was over, global tensions were once again on the rise with the Cold War between the western Allies and the Soviet Union. The advent of atomic weapons and the ability of humankind to obliterate the world lent an additional degree of urgency to the plea for peace.

Archbishop Vachon with a model of the Repository constructed at Lansdowne Park for the Marian Congress. The Repository was torn down immediately after the Congress ended, Ottawa Citizen, 17 June 1947.

Devoted to Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, the archbishop also wanted the ceremonies to be directed especially to the Blessed Virgin, asking her to intercede with God for the achievement of world peace and justice. With this in mind, Vachon travelled to Rome to get the support of Pope Pius XII. He probably didn’t need to do much convincing. The Pope was also a strong supporter of the veneration of the Virgin Mary. Three years later, he invoked papal infallibility to define as Church dogma the belief that Mary did not die but was rather taken body and soul into heaven—the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. The three other dogmas related to Marianism (the veneration of Mary) are that Mary is the Mother of God, that she was born without original sin (the Immaculate Conception), and that she was a perpetual virgin, i.e., she was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Christ.

The archbishop also toured European sites devoted to Mary to get a better understanding of how the Blessed Virgin was venerated at places such as Lourdes. He returned to Ottawa in February 1947, and immediately set to work organizing a Marian Congress, appointing two senior organizers—Monsignor Maxime Tessier and Monsignor John O’Neill—to put on the event. At the same time, Vachon announced the Congress to the world in a pastoral letter.

The Pope named James Cardinal McGuigan, the Archbishop of Toronto, legate a latere, the highest rank of papal representation, to the Congress. In other words, for the event, Cardinal McGuigan was the highest ranking Roman Catholic clergyman other than the Pope himself. In a message published in Ottawa newspapers, Cardinal McGuigan said that the Congress was the fulfillment of St. Luke’s prophesy regarding Mary being blessed among woman. According to the Cardinal, Mary “rescued woman from the contempt and degradation which it was her sad lot to experience under paganism.”  Cardinal McGuigan was assisted in his duties by a Papal Mission that came to Ottawa for the Congress.

Postcard: The Float of the Holy Virgin, Marian Congress, 1947, Ottawa

Six weeks prior to the official inauguration of the Marian Congress, a statue of Notre Dame du Cap (Our Lady of the Cape), was brought in stages from her sanctuary in Trois Rivières, Quebec, across 350 Catholic parishes in Quebec and Ontario to the Congress headquarters in Ottawa.

The shrine of Notre Dame du Cap marks the spot of two miracles attributed to Mary. The first was the miraculous building of an ice bridge in 1879 across the St. Lawrence River which enabled the transportation of stone across the river to build the church. The second occurred in 1888 when the statue of the Virgin in the church reportedly opened its eyes for ten minutes.

On arriving in Ottawa the evening before the official opening of the Congress, the statue was paraded through the streets of Lowertown led by the band of Lasalle Academy, followed by cadets of Notre Dame College. The Garde Champlain of Ottawa provided a guard of honour. A loudspeaker directed people in hymns and prayers. After passing through Lowertown, the parade made its way down the Driveway to Lansdowne Park. Along its path, thousands of people joined in. By the time the parade reached the Exhibition Grounds, the crowd had swollen to 40,000 people—too many to fit in the Coliseum for the official welcome. At the last moment, people were directed to the open-air stadium. As officials and police were unprepared for the huge crowd, there were some tense moments. At one point, a temporary steel scaffold was almost pushed over by the press of the crowd. The lights also temporarily went off when a cable became disconnected. Panic was averted when the reassuring voice of Archbishop Vachon calmed the crowd.

The main venue for the Marian Congress was Lansdowne Park. At the stadium, a Repository, (a place to hold the Blessed Sacrament) painted in blue and white—the colours of the Blessed Virgin—was constructed, 550 feet wide and 155 feet tall at the tower which was topped by a 27-foot statue of the Virgin Mary standing on a globe. The Repository had four stories with 30 confessionals on the ground floor and arcades higher up on which four fifteen-foot statutes of angels sounding bugles were positioned. On the top railing, written in three-foot letters, were the Latin words Ad Jesum Per Mariam, To Jesus through Mary—the theme of the Congress.  Illuminated at night, the Repository could be seen for miles.

Inside the structure was an altar 155 feet wide, an oratory, vestries for officiating clergy, bathrooms, a room for the carillonneur, and accommodations for thirty-two workmen who lived on site, ready to get to work at a moment’s notice. There was also a large stage for theatrical performances. Behind the Repository were huts and tents for contractors, repair shops and storage for the thousands of props, including stacks of battle-axes and angel wings, to be used in the theatrical productions.

In front of the Repository was a massive open-air sanctuary with circular rows of seats, divided into sections, with a combined length of 5,300 feet. Each section was furnished with its own communion stand. Three rows of seats were reserved for the many cardinals and archbishops who were in attendance. Additional rows were reserved for members of the diplomatic corps, other Church dignitaries, and important lay guests and VIPs. During the masses held throughout the Congress, 500 priests aided by 500 altar boys provided the Holy Eucharist to the faithful that numbered as many as 75,000 at one time. Two thousand Boy Scouts directed people to their places.

For the Congress, the Exhibition Hall was converted into a Chapel of Peace where Notre Dame du Cap was installed. 30,000 votive candles burned on either side of the altar. Five other buildings at Lansdowne Park were filled with religious exhibits that displayed the many works of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world. The display of Ottawa’s Grey Nuns of the Cross depicted the work they were doing among Canada’s Innuit peoples. The Horticultural Building housed the Congress communications—telegraph, radio and cable. Reportedly, press coverage of the Congress included 122 reporters and 94 photographers.

The Congress officially began at 2:30pm on 18 June 1947 when Cardinal McGuigan was driven from the residence of the Apostolic Delegation at 520, the Driveway, to the Basilica for the liturgical reception. Thousands of spectators lined the route. Many knelt in the street to pray and to receive the Cardinal’s blessing. After the formal reading of the Pontifical brief in both French and English, Archbishop Vachon gave a personal welcome address. Among the visiting cardinals were Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York and Cardinal Frings of Cologne, his home cathedral still in ruins from the Allied fire bombing of his city less than three years earlier. After the Pontifical High Mass, an address by the Pope was broadcast. 140 bishops knelt to receive the papal blessing; the largest number ever gathered in a Canadian church.

That evening, there was an official reception given by Archbishop Vachon and the Government of Canada in honour of Cardinal McGuigan, the Papal Legate. Prime Minister King, who was not Roman Catholic, emphasized the need to affirm “the fundamental principles of Christianity,” and that a new age had began with the release of atomic energy, one that could lead to “unprecedented progress or unparalleled destruction.” He contended that which route humanity took would depend on “whether the affairs of nations are to be based on a Christian or a pagan philosophy.”

Later that night, notwithstanding frequent rain showers, a lavish tribute to the Virgin Mary written by Rev. Gustave Lamarche, entitled “Our Lady of the Crown,” was performed in French in front of an audience of more than 50,000. In the play, Mary is saddened by the selfishness of mankind. At one point, on a large screen, the world could be seen spinning in space amidst a barrage of bursting shells and soldiers charging with fixed bayonets, with the devil hovering over all. Finally, the world is obliterated by atomic bombs. Three ballets were also performed. In the Ballet of Flowers, florescent petals showered down, illuminated by ultraviolet lights. A shepherd offers a real lamb to Mary. During the Dove Ballet, in which dancers were costumed as white doves, hundreds of pigeons were released into the air. In the Ballet of Stars, the moon was brought down from the heavens as a gift for Mary. Finally, a troubadour entered on horseback and mounted the steps to Mary’s throne through an archway of crossed halberds carried by a bodyguard. The troubadour offered the Blessed Virgin the gift of the arts.

Through the Congress period, other performances were held, both in English and French, both at the Repository and elsewhere. At the Capitol Theatre, it was standing room only for repeated performances of “Our Lady of Fair Love.” This was a passion play telling the story of Christ’s last hours from his betrayal by Judas, to his crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. Among the lighting effects used in the show, a tableau of the Last Supper as painted by Leonardo da Vinci was created.

Two parades were also held through the city. Thirty floats depicting the life of the Virgin Mary were drawn through Ottawa. Starting at Wellington and Lyon Streets, the floats, along with the RCMP band and troops of Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, wended their way to Confederation Square, then along the Driveway to Lansdowne Park. Later, a similar parade was held at night by candlelight. At this one, McGuigan, the Cardinal Legate, carried the Blessed Sacrament. He was accompanied by bands, battalions of parochial guards and Papal Zouaves in full costume, floats, and 600 maids of honour dressed in costumes. Church officials, members of Parliament, judges and other civil officials also marched in the parade down the Driveway to the Repository.

But the big spectacle was a pageant called “Our Lady of the Bread” held at the Repository. On a two-level stage, two thousand Ottawa-area performers backed by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and two choirs put on a show that was unlikely to be forgotten by any in attendance. The show had seven scenes, opening with angels and priests begging Mary to distribute the Bread of Life. This was followed by an appearance of the Blessed Virgin in front of a giant, 50-foot stained-glass window. Scene three had Mary giving the Bread of Life to the seraphines, while in scene four Mary accepts the invitation of the Church to distribute the Bread to the faithful. Messengers are then requested to invite the faithful to the banquet; priests are first to accept. Scene six is the response of humanity to this invitation, while the closing scene paid a final tribute to Mary as Queen of the Sacred Bread with her showing the world the Host of Salvation amidst an orchestral and choir crescendo. Tickets for the performances ranged from fifty cents to three dollars.

The Dionne Quintuplets arriving at the Marian Congress with their older sisters, National Film Board of Canada, Library and Archives Canada, 3192104.

The climax of the Congress came on the last day overseen by Cardinal McGuigan. At the celebratory mass, there were four Cardinals, scores of bishops, monsignori and canons, and thousands of priests, wearing their formal garb which, for the cardinals, meant lengthy red trains carried by pages. But the splendour of the Roman Catholic Church was almost upstaged by the arrival of the Dionne quintuplets: Cécile, Annette, Yvonne, Marie and Émilie. Dressed identically in white dresses with little white hats, the girls, who had just turned thirteen, arrived at the Repository in a motorcade to sing Laudate Maria. To the disappointment of the crowd, after their performance, the girls were whisked away in the middle of a sermon given by Cardinal Gerlier of France. The cardinal couldn’t have been too pleased as six cars and motorcycle policemen roared in front of him as he spoke to pick up the quints and other members of their family.

That night, a massive, fireworks display lasting more than 40 minutes lit up the sky above the Exhibition Grounds. The piece de resistance was a blazing outline of the Virgin Mary ascending into Heaven.

The Marian Congress was a huge success, attracting more than 250,000 pilgrims. For five days, Ottawa was the centre of the Roman Catholic Church in North America. The city, bedecked with flags, was chock-a-block full. Hotels were full to bursting as were private homes. Even the parks were clogged with campers. To fill hungry tummies, eight hundred servers working for the Morrison-Lamothe bakery at the Exhibition Grounds, served 500,000 people over the five-day period, selling 15 tons of hot dogs, 3 tons of ham, 1 ton of cheese, 1 ton of coffee, ½ ton of tea, 100,000 chocolate bars, 200,000 ice creams, 125,000 doughnuts, and 1 million soft drinks.

To get a better sense of the scale and grandeur of the Marian Congress, here is a link to a short video of the event: The Marian Congress, Ottawa June 1947.


Ottawa Citizen, 1947. “Archbishop’s Pastoral Letter Announces Marian Congress,” 3 February.

——————, 1947. “Cardinal McGuigan Papal Legate At Marian Congress,” 17 June.

——————, 1947. “Papal Legate’s Marian Congress Message,” 17 June.

——————, 1947. “Giant Repository Is Rallying Point Of Ottawa Marian Congress,” 17 June.

——————, 1947. “Dionne Quints Making Ottawa Singing Debut,” 17 June.

——————, 1947. “Gigantic Fireworks Display,” 17 June.

——————, 1947. “Papal Legate To Be Guest At Dinner,” 17 June.

——————, 1947. “40,000 Worshippers Pack Lansdowne Park,” 17 June.

——————, 1947. “Planned Project Year Ago,” 17 June.

——————, 1947. “The Welcome Mat Is Out,” 18 June.

——————, 1947. “Counting Greatly On Canada, Says Pope,” 18 June.

——————, 1947. “Papal Legate Accorded Rousing Ovation at Official Reception,” 19 June.

——————, 1947. “Busy Unseen World Exists Behind Repository Façade,” 20 June.

——————, 1947. “80,000 Persons Throng In Lansdowne Park For Religious Drama,” 21 June.

——————, 1947. “Congress Parade In City Today,” 21 June.

——————, 1947. “Congress Procession To Be Brilliant Event,” 21 June.

——————, 1947. “Dionne Quintuplets Make First Public Appearance In Ottawa,” 21 June.

——————, 1947. “Adventure In Faith For Ottawa Is Ended,” 23 June.

Ottawa Journal, 1947. “Crowd of 25,000 Participate in Mass in Lower Town During Statue Tour,” 16 June.

——————-, 1947. “Large Audience Applauds Impressive Congress Pageant,” 19 June.

——————-, 1947. “The Marian Congress,” 19 June.

——————-, 1947. “Brilliant Pageantry Marks Opening Night of Congress,” 19 June.

——————-, 1947. “60,000 See Religious Drama at Lansdowne and Repository,” 19 June.

——————-, 1947. “Passion Play for Congress Draws Turnouts of 9,500,” 19 June.

——————-, 1947. “500,000 Served at Congress, Suppliers Ran Out at 3 am,” 23 June.

——————-, 1947. “Dionne Quintuplets Soloists At Marian Congress Concert,” 23 June.

Windsor Star, 1947. “140 Bishops Kneel to Get Papal Blessing,” 19 June.

The Canadian Historical Dinner Service

18 June 1898

When John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon, the 7th Earl of Aberdeen (later 1st Marquis of Aberdeen and Temair) was appointed Governor General of Canada in May 1893, few Canadians would have known that they were effectively getting two governors general rather than one. Lord Aberdeen’s wife, Ishbel, the Countess of Aberdeen, was not the traditional, self-effacing Victorian wife, content to live in the shadow of her illustrious spouse. While she fulfilled her expected roles of mother and hostess, her real passion in life was improving the lot of the poor, at home in Scotland, or wherever her husband was posted.

Lord and Lady Aberdeen LAC
Lord and Lady Aberdeen with (left to right) Dudley, Marjorie, George, and Archibald, Topley Studio-Library and Archives Canada, PA-027852.

Both she and her husband were progressive socially and politically, with links to the Liberal Party. Back in Scotland, she had founded charitable organizations aimed at improving the education and health of working-class women. When her husband was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland during the mid-1880s (and again prior to World War I), it was hard to tell who worked harder. Sensitive to growing Irish nationalism, Lord Aberdeen favoured Home Rule while his Countess worked tirelessly for Irish economic development, and better health care and housing for Irish poor. A Sinn Féin (Irish Nationalist) newspaper called her “the real governor-general of Ireland.”

In Canada, Lady Aberdeen continued her social crusading ways.  Immediately upon her arrival in the country, she launched the National Council of Women and was elected its first president, a position she accepted on the proviso she be considered an honorary Canadian. This was not some sinecure. She took the lead in making the Council a reality. She had already been elected President of the International Council of Women at the Chicago World Fair, a position she was to hold for more than thirty years. In 1897, she started the Victorian Order of Nurses in honour of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, criss-crossing the country to drum up support and donations. She and other leading Ottawa ladies also worked hard to establish a public library in Ottawa, though this campaign didn’t bear fruit until some years after she and her husband had left Canada.

Charming, persuasive and an excellent orator, Lady Aberdeen’s effectiveness was also due to her willingness to use her high social position and contacts to her advantage. Needless to say, she irritated men who thought the role of the wife of a governor general should be limited to official hostess. Some saw her as bossy, sticking her aristocratic nose into things that weren’t her concern. One Halifax newspaper fumed that “we expect our Governors General to so govern their own families as to keep them out of mischief.” A New York newspaper said she was “too clever and too advanced for Canadians” and that she was “too much interested in movements.”

During Lord Aberdeen’s five-year appointment, the couple tirelessly crossed the country meeting and greeting Canadians of all types. They had a particularly strong connection with British Columbia where they had a large ranch. The Aberdeens are credited with launching the Okanagan fruit industry on a commercial scale. Lord Aberdeen, already extremely popular among Canadians of Scottish and Irish extraction, endeared himself to French Canadians by speaking French, and promoting French culture and heritage. It was he who started the practice of speaking in both official languages at public gatherings in Quebec. He also spoke Gaelic when he visited Nova Scotia. (There were so many Gaelic speakers that there was an attempt in the mid-1890s to make Gaelic Canada’s third official language.)

Aberdeen dinner plate
Dinner plate, Parliament Buildings and Ottawa River by Martha Logan (1863-1937), Canadian Museum of History, Wikipedia.

In 1898, Lord and Lady Aberdeen took leave of Canada. His last speech in the Senate was on 13 June 1898 when he prorogued Parliament. It was an emotional affair for all concerned. After the Governor General had concluded his valedictorian speech, people adjourned to the drawing room of the Senate’s speaker. There, Lady Aberdeen was given a farewell present, the gift of senators and members of parliament. The Honourable George William Allan of the Senate and Mr. Frank Frost, the Liberal MP of Leeds North and Grenville North made the formal presentation of a 204-piece formal dinner service. Speaking on behalf of everyone, Senator Allan said that the dinner service was a “memorial to their esteem and affection in recognition of the signal devotion of Her Excellency [Lady Aberdeen] to the promotion of all good works in Canada and [her] invariable kindness to the members of the Dominion Parliament.” He noted that the painted plates were the work of the Women’s Art Association of Canada and was hence “most suitable for presentation, both because it is purely Canadian and because it is the result of efforts of Canadian women, in whom Your Excellency has always shown the deepest interest.”

Aberdeen Fish
Fish plate, Cytherea gibbia, Halymenia ligulata by Lily Osman Adams (1865-1945), Canadian Museum of History, Wikipedia

Lady Aberdeen was surprised and genuinely touched by the magnificent gesture. She responded without notes, saying that she was “overwhelmed” by the splendid gift. She added that the parliamentarians “could not possibly have chosen anything that [she and her husband] could have valued more,” and that it held “a special value to [her], being handiwork of those Canadian women workers with whom [she had] so many cherished associations of affectionate sympathy and co-operation for common aims and common works.” She concluded by saying that during every festive event, the plates would remind them of their stay in Canada.

The dinner service had its origins in an idea championed two years earlier by Mary Ella Dignam, the founder and president of the Women’s Art Association of Canada (WAAC) as a way of celebrating the 400th anniversary of the John Cabot’s journey of discovery to North America in 1497.  Sixteen Canadian women artists were jury-selected to paint images of Canadian places of historic importance as well as examples of Canadian flora and fauna on the 204-piece, ceramic dinner service.[1] Dignam hoped that the Dominion Government would buy the service, which was called the Cabot Commemorative State Service, for use at Government House (Rideau Hall) for state banquets. The selling price was $1,000 (roughly $30,000 in today’s prices).

Aberdeen soup
Soup plate, Entrance to Fort Lennox, by Clara Elizabeth Galbraith (1864-1941), Canadian Museum of History, Wikipedia

In an interview that appeared in The Globe newspaper in 1897, Dignam credited a Mr. Howland (most likely Oliver Aiken Howland, an Ontario politician and future mayor of Toronto) as coming up with the idea of commemorating the event with a historical work, and a Mr. Thompson with the suggestion that the work take the form of a state dinner service. However, Dignam was the person who brought the idea to fruition. In addition to honouring Cabot and equipping Rideau Hall with a distinctively Canadian dinner service for state events, Dignam hoped that the work would help establish ceramic art as a “permanent industry” in Canada.

The inspiration for a Canadian state dinner service appears to have come from south of the border. In 1879, the wife of then U.S. president Rutherford Hayes commissioned a state dinner service for the White House featuring American flora and fauna. The plates were designed by the American artist Theodore R. Davis and were produced by a company in Limoges, France. While this American service may have provided the model for the Canadian dinner service, Dignam was adamant that there was no resemblance between the two services except for their intended use. The American plates were designed by one man and decorated in one factory, whereas the Canadian plates were the designed by many female artists and were made across the country.

Aberdeen dessert
Dessert plate, Redcurrants by Alice M. Judd (18?-1843), Canadian Museum of History, Wikipedia

After being selected through a competition, the sixteen artists bought commercially-produced, plain white, ceramic “blanks” produced by Doulton China of England for $6.60 a dozen. Dignam promised the artists at least $60 less ten percent for twelve pieces of original ceramic art, on the assumption that the service would be sold for $1,000. The rest of the funds raised would go to cover other expenses such as postage. If the service didn’t sell, the artists were on the hook to find buyers for their creations.

Each place setting consisted of a soup plate, fish plate, dinner plate, game plate, salad plate, cheese plate, dessert plate and a coffee cup and saucer. Each plate and cup had its own unique design. A ceramics committee of the WAAC provided a collection of pictures and sketches of Canadian historic sites, Canadian game animals, fish, shells and ferns for the inspiration of the artists. Artists were assigned plates to design, paint and fire. For example, Mrs Egan of Halifax and Miss Whitney of Montreal were assigned the game plates, with the former painting large game birds and the latter small game birds. On the rim of the game plates were painted the food favoured by the species shown in the centre. On the back of every plate was a special red logo of the shield of the WAAC surmounted by rendering of Cabot’s ship, the Matthew, with the dates 1497-1897 underneath.

Aberdeen saucer
Saucer, Jewel weed by Anna Lucy Kelly (1849-1920), Canadian Museum of History, Wikipedia

The artists had only four months to complete their designs and fire the plates. Working in isolation from each other, the full dinner service was only seen in its entirety when the ceramics committee assembled it for inspection. The Cabot Commemorative State Dinner Service went on public display at the Pantecnetheca (116 Yonge Street) in Toronto in July 1897. It was subsequently displayed during the British Association meeting held in Toronto the following month, and at the headquarters of the WAAC where Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Prime Minister, and Lady Laurier inspected the pieces. The dinner service then travelled to other cities for public viewing.

While the dinner service was highly praised, Mary Dignam was unable to persuade the Dominion Government to part with the $1,000 needed to cover the costs of production. So, Dignam approached Lady Edgar, the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, who put her in touch with a number of senators and members of Parliament. More than 150 senators and MPs put up the required $1,000 in a private subscription to purchase the dinner service to honour the Canadian achievements of Lady Aberdeen.

The dinner service, now called the Canadian Historical Dinner Service, went home with Lord and Lady Aberdeen and took up residence in their home, Haddo House, where it was stored in a specially-built cabinet. The dinner service, which is now owned by the National Trust of Scotland, resides there to this day. In 1997, part of the service was exhibited at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, now known as the Canadian Museum of History, for the 500th anniversary of John Cabot’s journey to North America.


Duncan, March 2015, “An Irishman’s Diary on Lady Aberdeen,” The Irish Times, 3 March.

Elwood Marie, 2018. “The Cabot Commemorative State Service for Canada, 1897 – A History,” Canadian Museum of History,

—————–, 1977. “The State Dinner Service of Canada, 1898, Material Culture Review, Vol. 3, Spring,

Globe (The), 1897. “Chit Chat,” 15 April.

—————, 1897. “The State Dinner Set,” 23 July.

—————, 1897. “Chit Chat,” 8 October.

—————, 1897. “Ceramic Art,” 4 December.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1997, “Exhibits celebrate unusual art objects,” 8 September.

Ottawa Evening Citizen (The), 1898. “A Farewell to the Aberdeens,” 14 June.

[1] Lily Osman Adams, Jane Bertram, M. Louise Couen, Alice M. Egan, Clara Elizabeth Galbraith, Justina A. Harrison, Juliet Howson, Margaret Irvine, Alice Lucy Kelley, Margaret McClung, Hattie Proctor, M. Roberts, Phoebe Amelia Watson and Elizabeth Whitney.