Saturday, 26 May 2012

Putting Abandoned Quebec Churches to Good Use

Boarded-up Trinity Anglican Church
in Montreal.  It was ultimately demo-
lished February 17, 2011.

The Days When The Church Ruled

This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn't throw a brick without breaking a church window. Yet I was told that you were going to build one more. I said the scheme is good, but where are you going to find room? They said, we will build it on top of another church and use an elevator. This shows that the gift of lying is not yet dead in the land.
- Mark Twain (Montreal 1881) 

Mark Twain used this observation as a bit of levity in his speech at a banquet held in his honour at the Windsor Hotel here in Montreal (New York Times, December 10, 1881).  As usual he was very right.  Montreal has always been known as the City of Spires or the City of Saints.  

Montreal has an estimated 700 churches and convents ranging from tiny churches to full-scale cathedrals and basilicas.  Some of them are truly awe-inspiring in their beauty.  There is an estimated 2,000 religious buildings across the province.

The 1950s were the high-water mark for Catholicism in Quebec.  The Church was more or less completely in control of Quebec culture - they had all the French healthcare institutions and schools - they had control over the whole body and mind from cradle to grave.  In fact, Quebec was the stronghold of Catholicism in Canada and likely all of North America.  But then all of a sudden, nearly overnight,  Catholicism began to rapidly lose its grip on the hearts and minds of Quebec.  They lost control of the school board and healthcare in the early sixties and started a rapid fall from importance in the 1970s.

The Rise of Quebec Secularism and the Continuing Fall of the Catholic Church

The 2008 fundraiser poster for the Cath-
olic Diocese of Montreal.  I don't think it
has its intended effect on atheists like
me, but it would be a shame to lose all
this wonderful architecture - especially
after wasting it for so long for the glory
of a mythical being and his family.
Ever since the Quiet Revolution of the 1970s, Quebec has become increasingly secular and church attendance has plummeted.
However, today the number of practising Catholics in Quebec has dwindled to just five percent of the population, compared with 80 percent in 1960. The result? Too few parishioners to pay the roughly $200,000 a year it costs to maintain the average church. Those sorry numbers lead Professor Noppen to estimate that Montreal will have barely 10 parishes left by 2015.

Hundreds of churches across the provinces are becoming insolvent and are simply being abandoned, boarded-up and torn down. Also from the above article:
Until 1965, Quebec's parishes were legally entitled to impose dues on their multitude of parishioners for church construction and maintenance.
Don't misunderstand me.  The infrastructure was so vast that the physical presence of Catholicism is long from gone, but it is quickly being relegated to a kind of cultural Christianity in Quebec.  People are no longer seeking serious ethical advice from priests.  "Baptise my baby, marry us, bury my parents, but don't tell us how we should think or act."

From Ailing Quebec churches undergo secular transformation (March 4, 2010):
In the provincial capital Quebec City, whose historic district was declared a "world heritage jewel" by UNESCO, Mayor Regis Labeaume did not oppose recent moves by private and public developers to demolish two convents. 
Labeaume, who considers himself sensitive to architectural concerns, seemed overwhelmed by the "extremely complex" cases confronting the municipality concerning urban development. 
"What are we doing?" he asked rhetorically. "I don't know any more," he told AFP, stressing the city could not convert every unused church into a condo development. 
"The city would have to invest to preserve everything. And we simply don't have the money to do that," said Labeaume, who relies on experts to advise him on the thorny issues.
The front facade is all that's left from St
Vincent-de-Paul in Quebec City.  It was to 
be incorporated into a new condominium 
development, but even this project seems 
to have stalled.
The situation appears grave indeed.  Quebec film-maker Denys Arcand's academy award winning Les Invasions barbares (Barbarian Invasions)  makes a poignant nod to the situation.  I leave it to Mark Harris' excellent review on the book version at The Art of Subtitling - Denys Arcand:
As a matter of fact, Les Invasions barbares shows as much sympathy for religious people as it does disdain for official dogmas. This is perhaps most apparent in the poignant scene when the Archbishop’s representative unsuccessfully tries to sell stockpiled religious art to Gaëlle, Sébastien’s London-based French fiancée. In the midst of all these useless mementos, the priest sighs, “Vous savez, ici, autrefois, tout le monde était catholique, comme en Espagne ou en Irlande... Et à un moment très précis, en fait pendant l’année 1966, les églises se sont brusquement vidées, en quelques mois. Un phénomène très étrange que personne n’a jamais pu expliquer.”
"You know, here, at another time, everybody was Catholic, like in Spain or Ireland... And then at a very precise moment, 1966 infact, the churches were suddenly emptied, in just a few months.  It's a very strange phenomenon that nobody has ever been able to explain" 

The Future

No one wishes to destroy churches or church organizations. The only desire is that they shall accomplish substantial good for the world. ... 
... In this building should be the library of the town. It should be the clubhouse of the people, where they could find the principal newspapers and periodicals of the world. Its auditorium should be like a theater. Plays should be presented by home talent; an orchestra formed, music cultivated. The people should meet there at any time they desire. The women could carry their knitting and sewing; and connected with it should be rooms for the playing of games, billiards, cards, and chess. Everything should be made as agreeable as possible. The citizens should take pride in this building. They should adorn its niches with statues and its walls with pictures. It should be the intellectual center. They could employ a gentleman of ability, possibly of genius, to address them on Sundays, on subjects that would be of real interest, of real importance.
- Robert G. Ingersoll, How to Reform Mankind 

Our religious heritage, it's

sacred! I don't quite agree

with the wording but I do 
think some of the more 
beautiful buildings should
be saved by being put to 
good use.
With the fall of every powerful empire comes a period of rapid disintegration of the physical manifestations of once mighty institutions who have lost their support structures and have fallen into a state of no longer being relevant.  Beautiful collateral damage in the war of ideas.

When I studied the fall of Rome in university, I found it to be rather depressing and now that it looks like Rome is once again in a sort of free-fall I can't help but feel sadness at the loss of so much beautiful art and architecture.  It's a bitter sweet - I am glad to see the Church go, but I am sad to see the churches crumble and fall.

With the fall of pagan Greece and Rome, great structures like the Parthenon were recycled into Christian churches.  The Coliseum in Rome was taken apart block by block to construct new Churches.  Things got recycled.  Now it would appear the same process is taking place in Quebec, but in reverse.

So what's happening to these churches?  it turns out that within Montreal the vast majority are simply being sold to other up-and-coming religious groups - Sikh temples, Buddhist temples, mosques.  The most prevalent newcomer, though, seems to be evangelical Christian groups - something that concerns yours truly somewhat.

The Saint-Esprit church was acquired by the Quebec Circus School in 2001.
An excellent use for the space!
But most of the work is being done by a government initiative called conseil du patrimoine religieux du Québec (Quebec Religious Heritage Council).  Back in 2003 they started a massive inventory of all religious structures in the whole province.  It's available for the public here and it boasts thousands of pictures.  Every building is catalogued and all valuable art and artefacts are noted.

It would seem that the garish modern churches built in the 1960s and 1970s are most in risk for being ripped down because, frankly, nobody wants to buy them and they can't be easily converted to attractive condo developments.  Good riddance to these, I say!  But the conseil is dispensing funds to artisans, construction companies and renovation firms to preserve churches that were built before 1945.  This I agree with, to a point.  It's sad.  Quebec is not a rich province.  Hard decisions must be made.

"Mile End Library was the Church of the Ascension until 1992.
Visitors can admire the original wood ceilings, arches, capitaled columns
and stained glass windows installed in 1911, all of which have been preserved
in keeping with the building's architectural heritage value."

But it seems like much is being preserved and finally being put to pretty good use.  I think Robert Ingersoll would be happy.

Mile End Library was once a church. The conseil also seems to be responsible for a major project alongside the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to convert the Erskine and American Church (est. 1894) into a the  Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion that houses Canadian art and a breathtakingly beautiful 444-seat concert hall.
Church turned into a 444-seat concert hall.  Ingersoll would
have been proud.
From the MMFA's website:
The Museum's curators, led by Nathalie Bondil, have finished installing six hundred works distributed over the fourth pavilion's six floors, more than doubling the area devoted to Quebec and Canadian art. The Museum will soon be presenting a unique and coherent look at the history of Quebec and Canadian art. With admission and audioguides free of charge at all times, the new Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion gives thousands of visitors an opportunity to learn more about this heritage. The Bourgie Concert Hall will help spark a new dialogue between the visual arts and music.
Honestly, I nearly wept with joy when I saw the pictures. The official site is here: The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Unveils its New Pavilion of Quebec and Canadian Art and its New Concert Hall.   

The project is the cover story of the conseil's latest publication "Nos églises : un patrimoine à convertir" (PDF - French Only).
This project has set the standard for salvaging our churches.
— Jean-Claude Marsan, Professor Emeritus, School of Architecture, 
Université de Montréal

Well, I believe it.  And I hope it serves as a template for future work.


  1. Great article. My thoughts exactly throughout. I’ll be linking to this in my next Daily Blend. :)

    1. Thanks for the comment Joe! Sounds great! Thanks for adding it to your Blend!

  2. GodlessPoutine2 March 2013 at 23:36

    Sorry it took me awhile to get back to you Otilia. Here is a useful link: It's in French, but it gives you the status of ALL church buildings around Montreal and Quebec.


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