Zara Castagna takes a look at the fascinating history of Luxembourg City's Notre-Dame cathedral.
Luxembourg’s only cathedral is right in the centre of the capital. The impressive building can be found close to the Knuedler (Place Guillaume II) and is only a stone’s throw away from the Palais and the Chamber of Deputies. Keep reading to learn how a small church, first established in 1613, eventually became Luxembourg’s cathedral.
Origins: From Jesuit church to Cathedral
In 1603, the Jesuit brothers in Luxembourg built a school known as the ‘Collège des Jesuites’. The Jesuits are members of the Society of Jesus, an order of the Roman Catholic church founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1540. The Jesuits recognised the value of education and quickly acquired a reputation as scholars and educators, which explains why they also established a school in Luxembourg. The latter was a Jesuit school until 1773, after which several public schools used the building until it became the Athénée du Luxembourg in 1817. After the Athénée had to relocate to a larger location, the building housed Luxembourg’s National Library from 1973 to 2019.
The Jesuits are also at the origin of the devotion to Our Lady Consolatrix Afflictorum, who was chosen as the protectress of the city in 1666. The statue of Our Lady that was brought to the cathedral in 1794 and remains there today was made in 1624.
What would later become the cathedral first served as a church for the Jesuit school. The construction of the church lasted from 1613 to 1621, when it was consecrated. By 1778, the Jesuits had left the city, and their former church became the parish church of Luxembourg City. In 1848, the church received its current name of Notre Dame (Our Lady) as a tribute to the patron saint of Luxembourg. Prior to this, it was dedicated to Saint Peter. But it wasn’t until 1870, when Luxembourg was granted the title of bishopric (diocese), that Pope Pius IX elevated the former church to the status of cathedral.
The cathedral underwent several construction periods. Although primarily Gothic in its style - as reflected in its pointed arches - the cathedral also contains Renaissance and Baroque elements, particularly notable in various alabaster ornaments. The cathedral has two entrances, the original from 1621, situated on rue Notre Dame (Enneschtgaas), and a newer one on Boulevard Roosevelt.
From 1935 to 1938, the architect Hubert Clement oversaw the enlargement of the cathedral. During this expansion, the cathedral was also harmoniously integrated into the surrounding buildings, such as the former Jesuit school. At the entrance of the crypt, you can find sculptures by Auguste Trémont, the Luxembourgish sculptor who also created the lions outside of Luxembourg City’s Townhall on the Knuedler.
The cathedral has three towers, the original from the Jesuit church and two that were added in the 1930s when the cathedral was expanded. In total, the cathedral has 11 bells. During construction works in April 1985, the main tower caught fire during refurbishment works and was destroyed almost entirely. The three bells in the tower did not survive the fire. This was a particularly unfortunate time, as Pope John Paul II was about to visit the Grand Duchy. The reconstruction of the tower ended in October 1985, and new bells chimed in July 1986. You can see pictures of the incident in this article (in French).
The cathedral today
The cathedral is free to visit unless there is a service in progress. The cathedral’s crypt serves as burial site for former Grand Dukes, Grand Duchesses, as well as notable bishops, and also contains the remains of John the Blind.
A yearly key event at the cathedral is the Octave. During a two-week period in April and May, pilgrims visit the cathedral to pay tribute to the statue of the Virgin Mary. The cathedral is beautifully decorated for this occasion, and the Virgin Mary is dressed in festive garments. The ‘Märtchen’ (little market) is part of this tradition, and people can visit it for food and drink over the course of two weeks. During the Octave period, several special services are held in the cathedral, and on the last day (14 May in 2023), the statue of the Virgin Mary is carried through the streets of Luxembourg in a procession. This event is usually televised.
More information about events and services at the cathedral or other catholic churches in Luxembourg can be found here (in Luxembourgish and French).