Register Friday | October 22 | 2021

Not Just Steeples and Smokestacks

Why Montreal Should Protect Its Historic Religious and Industrial Sites

In 1881, Mark Twain visited Montreal and remarked that it was the first city he’d been to where you couldn’t throw a brick without hitting a church window. The same could have been said for smokestacks, because when Montrealers weren’t crossing themselves in their gorgeous churches, they were toiling away in Lachine Canal factories. Thanks to its role as the industrial heart of Canada and the 200-year dominance of the Catholic Church in Quebec, Montreal is blessed with some of the most striking religious and industrial architecture anywhere on the continent.

Over the past forty years, however, that heritage has become increasingly threatened. Quebec, once one of the most devout areas of North America, now has the lowest church attendance on the continent. (A Google search for “Quebec church attendance” reveals many an evangelical group plotting to send missionaries to re-convert the misguided Québécois.) Unable to pay their bills, dozens of churches close their doors each year. Meanwhile, as in most other cities, Montreal’s economy has deindustrialized, leaving a legacy of great big abandoned buildings scattered all around the city. What to do with all of these structures?

Dinu Bumbaru, director of Heritage Montreal, knows all to well that it’s much easier to tear big things down than it is to preserve them. Churches and industrial structures that have lost their vocation present a huge challenge that many politicians aren’t eager to deal with. “C’est la peur de l’énorme,” he says, quoting Concordia University professor Jean Bélisle. The fear of the enormous.

A city’s religious heritage is particularly important because, beyond its artistic and aesthetic value, a church is so obviously there. Designed to be the heart of a neighbourhood, it lords over the surrounding area, visible from miles around. Perhaps that’s why condominium developers are increasingly attracted to vacant churches. In Montreal, the most significant example of a church-gone-condo is St-Jean-de-la-Croix in Little Italy, a huge greystone building topped by two big copper belltowers. The trend only mirrors what has been going on for years in Boston; just this year, a 160-year old church that was the centre of South Boston’s Irish community was chopped up into thirty-six luxury condominiums.

Such developments worry Bumbaru. “It’s tragic,” he says of the St-Jean conversion. “It is not even good from an architectural point of view.” Churches are complex buildings and selling off bits and pieces of them to homeowners raises the question of who is responsible for the maintenance of the more architecturally sensitive parts of the building. In St-Jean’s case, who will take care of the bell towers, especially when they need extensive repairs a couple of decades from now?

What’s needed, argues Bumbaru, is a clear vision of how Quebec should deal with its religious heritage. Last year, Heritage Montreal issued a plea for a moratorium on the demolition or conversion of churches, but a big part of the challenge is figuring out exactly who is responsible for religious heritage. So far, there has been little action on the part of the city, the province or the church. Bumbaru points to England as a potent example of how to keep disused churches alive. In 1969, a special trust for redundant churches was established to preserve abandoned places of worship and so far over 330 churches are under the trust’s care.

Sometimes, to preserve a church, all that is needed is a little bit of help from the government to make an innovative deal go through. The Erskine and American Church on Montreal’s Sherbrooke Street, a downtown landmark, recently closed with no plans for reuse. The adjacent Montreal Museum of Fine Arts had wanted to buy it to house their collection of religious art, but a shortage of cash killed the offer. “This is a signal to the government that we’re all ready except for you,” says Bumbaru.

The Redpath Sugar Refinery, an industrial complex on the Lachine Canal dating back to the 1840s, found itself in similar straits when it was abandoned in the early 1980s. Originally, the complex was to be converted into cooperative housing. When that fell through, some suggested turning it into an interpretive centre for the canal’s industrial past, a plan backed by millions of dollars from the Quebec government. All that was needed was support from Ottawa, but, as Bumbaru says, “Sheila Copps was so allergic to industrial heritage and the Quebec government, she pulled the plug on that.” Now the former refinery has been rechristened as the Redpath Lofts and is home to several dozen luxury condos.

While the conversion of old industrial buildings into condominiums doesn’t worry Bumbaru as much as the fate of Montreal’s churches, he wonders if it’s a viable method of preservation. “There’s a finite number of condo owners,” he points out. Diverse and imaginative reuse of old industry would benefit cities more than an all-out orgy of condo conversions.. The Northern Electric building across the street from the Redpath, for instance, now houses a variety of offices and workshops, as well as two terraces with fantastic views of Mount Royal and the downtown skyline. The Distillery District in Toronto is a great example of what can be done with a city’s old industrial stock, incorporating art galleries, ateliers, housing and cafés into a once derelict area.

Back in Montreal, the fate of Silo No. 5 is something of a bellwether for the remnants of Montreal’s industrial past. The giant concrete structure, which sits at the mouth of the Lachine Canal, was abandoned in 1996 and remains as the last of its kind on the Montreal waterfront. Four years ago, a team of artists used the silo’s incredible reverb to start the Silophone project; people from around the world could broadcast various sounds inside the silo and listen to the results over the internet. Over the years, some have wanted to turn the silo into a sort of mixed-use complex, with room for the arts, condos and any number of other things. But Bumbaru fears that such ambitious proposals, doomed to fail, would ultimately become excuses for the silo’s demolition. For him, there’s a simpler solution: turn it into an observatory. The view from the top, he says, is fantastic. “It’s like you’re on the deck of an aircraft carrier,” he exclaims. “You can see the mountain, downtown... It should be declared a Montreal heritage view.”

There’s no reason to fear l’énorme. A little bit of imagination and some help from a higher power (the government, of course) is all that’s needed to save our religious and industrial heritage.