What’s happening to Montreal’s churches? Quebec finding new ways to preserve its heritage in a secular age

MONTREAL — Weight machines fill the space where once there were pews, and visitors sip nutritional green smoothies, not communion wine. But despite its dramatic transformation into a private gym and spa, the onetime Dominican St. Jude’s Shrine on Montreal’s St. Denis Street remains a temple of sorts.

“It becomes almost a religion for some people,” Sonya Audrey Bonin, general manager of the Saint-Jude Espace Tonus gym, said this week. “I see it with yoga, with taking care of yourself, being careful about what you eat, having a healthy lifestyle.” And in a secular age when people are more likely to hit the gym than attend mass on a Sunday morning, the upscale facility is being hailed as a model for preserving the religious buildings that constitute an important part of Quebec’s architectural heritage.

Quebec’s Religious Heritage Council was created in 1995 with provincial funds and a mission to repair the province’s crumbling churches. Dwindling congregations meant that parishes were having a hard time paying for repairs, so the council identified the buildings with the greatest heritage value and subsidized their maintenance.

But after 18 years and $371-million invested by the government, the council recognized that it makes little sense to repair buildings simply to keep them standing. They need to be occupied, and churches are having a harder time doing that. “The issue has changed,” said Denis Boucher, a project manager with the heritage council. “Today, we speak a lot more about finding uses for churches.” In the past, the council’s grants were reserved for churches still used as places of worship. Last year that was changed, and now the council can help non-profit organizations, municipalities and even private owners seeking to transform former churches.

When the council did an inventory in 2003, it identified 2,751 places of worship in the province, the vast majority of them Catholic churches. Since then, about 400 have closed, and Mr. Boucher said the rhythm is accelerating. “A church closes every week. It is a huge phenomenon,” he said. “Everyone needs to make a compromise so the buildings find a useful life in society and continue to convey their historical significance.”

A new publication by the heritage council highlights examples in Montreal of “useful lives” found for former churches, including the St-Jude gym, which is praised for “original architectural solutions that created a place in conversation with the site’s past, not split from it.” The architects preserved the church’s outer shell and most of the arched windows, making it impossible to forget the building’s former function. In Montreal’s Rosemont neighbourhood, the former Église Saint-Eugène is now a community centre for new subsidized housing units built around the church for senior citizens. “The church continues to play its role as meeting place,” the heritage council wrote.

Another successful transformation was the Théatre Paradoxe in southwestern Montreal, which took over the nearly 100-year-old Église Notre-Dame-du-Perpétuel-Secours after it closed in 2009. At a cost of $2.7-million, the project maintained the church’s exterior and much of its interior, right down to wood from the confessionals that was used to make the bar. But now the nave is the scene of concerts and conferences, while an organization helping dropouts find work uses part of the building to train them as video and stage technicians. Even though disco shows have replaced Sunday hymns, Gérald St-Georges, the theatre’s general manager, said there is continuity in the building’s new purpose. “Former parishioners feel a sense of pride, that the place of worship has remained a gathering place,” he said. “It’s in direct connection to what happened before.”

The push to preserve churches by giving them a new mission hit an obstacle with the arrival of Christian Lépine as the Roman Catholic archbishop of Montreal in 2012. Soon after his appointment, he declared a moratorium on the sale of churches, worried that worshippers would lose their neighbourhood church. Projects to install daycare facilities and community centres in closed churches were suddenly on hold.

Alain Walhin, assistant to the vicar general at the archdiocese of Montreal, said that two years into the moratorium, there is no indication when it will be lifted. First the archdiocese wants to identify the needs of its parishioners and assess the state of its roughly 200 buildings, he said. “If it takes three years, four years, that’s how long it will take,” he said.

He also suggested people have been too hasty in declaring the Catholic Church a spent force in Quebec. “Of course there are a lot of churches for the number of people who go to church, but that’s not a reason to close everything,” he said. “Yes, people don’t go, but that doesn’t mean they will never go. There are ups and downs. It isn’t always going to go down.” He pointed to the example of a former French-Canadian church in Montreal that last year was handed over to a Catholic congregation of African origin and renamed Notre-Dame d’Afrique.

Lyne Bernier, a researcher associated with the Canada research chair on urban heritage at Université du Québec à Montréal, said churches of all denominations are vital landmarks in Quebec. A 2011 research paper she wrote identified 160 churches in the province that suffered “the tragic fate” of demolition since the beginning of the 20th century. She expects more will fall, and with each one a piece of history is lost. “Churches are important because they are intimately tied to the identity of Quebecers,” she said. She is in favour of conversions that give the space back to the public in some form. “When a church is privatized, it’s as if former parishioners who contributed to its construction are dispossessed. They are losing their own heritage,” she said.

Resisting change in the hope that pews will one day fill up again is a recipe for further deterioration of the buildings, she argued. “It just pushes back the problem. [Msgr. Lépine] thinks that Quebecers are going to return to church, which is completely out of the question,” she said. “There may be sporadic returns by certain small groups, but the loss of interest is widespread and it’s irreversible. It’s not just limited to Quebec; it’s in Europe and in all western countries in general.”

At Le Saint-Jude, Ms. Bonin, 40, embodies that change in Quebec society. Raised in a small town in the Lanaudière region, north of Montreal, she attended church every Sunday morning with her father and as a girl sang in the choir. But when she left home, she stopped going to church and now she does not practise any formal religion. When her devout father learned she was involved in a project to turn a church into a gym, he was at first horrified, but he came around, she said. “In the end, he was very proud that we were recovering the site to keep it alive,” she said.

Where once Dominican brothers prayed and welcomed the faithful, the Saint-Jude aims to build a new kind of community — with membership fees of $200-a-month — around a lifestyle that values exercise, healthy eating and stress management. “We really want to offer a way of life, and I think the church gives us this possibility in terms of the space and in terms of a place that already had this community spirit,” Ms. Bonin said.

Marie-Claire Mayeres, an art gallery owner in her 60s, said joining Saint-Jude has been a godsend. “Before, I went to mass on Sunday morning. Now I come to the Saint-Jude,” she said. She used to go to mass in the shrine occasionally, and her daughter played the organ there. But she feels no sadness that it is gone.

“People don’t go to church any more,” she said. “We have to find something to do with our heritage, or else they will all be demolished.”