April 13th, 2008

An Echo of the Hagia Sophia

Posted in Architecture, Canada by Kate McDonnell


Over the years I’ve heard people surmise it to be a temple, a mosque, an Orthodox church, even a synagogue. Familiar sight though it is in central Montreal, the first thing the huge domed building at Saint-Urbain and Saint-Viateur brings to mind is not the Roman Catholic church.

At the turn of the last century there was something of a migration of Irish-Canadian working people from their overcrowded Point St. Charles and Griffintown haunts north into Mile End. In 1902, the Catholic archbishop of Montreal, Mgr. Paul Bruchési, gave his approval for a new parish to be created. The first mass was said upstairs of a fire hall at Laurier and Saint-Denis that no longer exists. Their first small church building was on rue Boucher near there; it no longer exists either.

By 1914 the growing parish decided it needed something bigger and grander. In July of that year excavations began. Work stopped briefly when war broke out that autumn, but resumed in April 1915, and the church was ready to use by that December. The price tag was $232,000 and the church could hold 1400 people.

p1080234.jpgThis information comes from a booklet published in 1927 when the parish was already 25 years old. The text describes, and images show, that the dome and the cap on the tower were both decorated with patterns, and the massive façade with the words Deo dicatum in honorem St. Michaeli and a smaller motto on a banner over the doors. Those flourishes are gone, but carved shamrocks are still part of the façade, a nod to the time when the parish was pretty well a monoculture, with priests called McGinnis, Fahey, McCrory, Walsh, O’Brien, Cooney and O’Conor and church wardens Keegan, Gorman, Dillon, McGee and Flood.

Also, unusually, there’s no mention of bells, and no evidence that the tower ever contained any: unlike most church towers it’s closed all the way to the top.

But why a Byzantine-style building? Pius X, pope from 1903 to 1914, was a fan. He was a cultural conservative who barred women from singing in church choirs, deprecated the use of baroque and classical music in favour of a return to Gregorian chant, and encouraged a parallel adoption of early styles of church architecture. The booklet rises to poetic fancy now and then, describing the church as a “superb temple which flings its mosque-like dome to the skies” but, even then, why that particular style fired those particular priests and wardens is anyone’s guess. Clearly it was a break with typical Montreal Catholic church architecture, which till then had stuck predictably to variations on Romanesque and Gothic. But they found their architect in Aristide Beaugrand-Champagne, responsible for the design of several other churches around Montreal – all more conventional than St. Michael’s – as well as for the lookout chalet on Mount Royal, and he gave them a building which stands out alone among the hundreds of church buildings in this city.

p1050207.jpgThe parish also made an inspired choice when they picked Guido Nincheri to paint the depiction of St. Michael watching the fallen angels in their descent. As the anonymous writer of the 1927 booklet (my guess is it was Luke Callaghan, the parish’s second pastor) puts it: “The dreadful Fall of the Angels is cleverly portrayed: from the four corners of the dome they are being hurled through the starry space, shorn of their pristine beauty, stripped of their spiritual charm, their drapery, rent in the awful cataclysm, disclosing the animal concealed beneath. They are enveloped in flames which creep around the cornices of the arches and the vertical bands supporting the dome.”

(Habitués of Mile End will recall that the school around the corner on Clark – originally simply St. Michael’s School – was renamed for Luke Callaghan at some point, although now it’s no longer serving its original purpose.)

p1050194.jpgNincheri, born and trained in Italy, came to Canada in 1914 and developed his own neo-Renaissance style that graces several Montreal churches (including the beautiful, if notorious, Madonna Della Difesa fresco that depicts Benito Mussolini among a large crowd adoring the Madonna – he’s the one on horseback). Nincheri’s work for St. Michael’s is equally stunning, although apparently it’s not clear whether he also designed the church’s stained glass, which is officially unattributed; in style it doesn’t much resemble the example of Nincheri’s glasswork shown in this article or in this example found in another Montreal church.

In 1914 it would have taken an extremely acute social critic to anticipate the tipping point that was reached 50 years later when most of Quebec’s Catholics suddenly stopped attending Mass. Social factors that led to the dispersal of much of Montreal’s Irish Catholic community were also years away. In 1964, Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger arranged for St. Anthony of Padua’s Polish Mission (located until then in the chapel at Hôtel-Dieu) to share the church, and in 1969 the parish was renamed St. Michael’s and St. Anthony’s Catholic Community, still its official name.

circa-_1935.jpgThe story as I’ve heard it is that in recent years, the building in visible decline, some Russians asked the diocese if they could buy the building for an Orthodox parish. Its Polish stewards, appalled by this possibility, got organized, raised funds and applied for government grants, had the massive dome re-coppered in recent years and are still deep in the process of renovating and repairing other parts of the building. Last century’s priests never thought what a major financial burden they were leaving to posterity: many times the original $232,000 have been poured into the building since then to keep it from deteriorating.

It’s a safe guess that, 50 years hence, St. Michael’s will not have been turned into condos. It will remain what it is, a grand architectural folly with artistic embellishments, memorial to a time when working people felt it a good use of their hard-earned funds to help build a temple to their deity.

(Thanks to Kevin Cohalan of Mile End for clues needed to write this entry.)

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  1. Mary Soderstrom says:

    Sherry Simon wrote an interesting essay on Mile End and St. Michael’s, called Hybridité culturelle published in 1995 by Ile de la Tortue press.

    Some of the original parishioners of the church still live in the neighborhood: we attended the funeral of one last summer, who went to mass there regularly until sortly before her death at 96. Her older sister has recently moved back to the neighhborhood: she’s 102 and lives in the family house on Durocher with her daughter who is what Gil Courtemanche call “dans la belle soixantaine.”

    Quite a church.


    April 14th, 2008 at 12:13 pm

  2. Patrick Donovan says:

    I wrote a 60-page paper in French about that church for my Masters degree, so if you need more information…

    A fascinating building indeed. The inspiration may have been London’s Westminster Cathedral, built in the neo-byzantine style for Irish Catholics in the imperial capital a few years before. It is probably the first armed-concrete church in Montreal. And the restaurant next door has the best & the cheapest pierogies in town.

    I witnessed a Sunday car-blessing ceremony next to the church a few years ago, where the parish priest was spraying holy water on a new car purchased by a parishioner. I wonder if he’d bless my bike.

    April 14th, 2008 at 4:21 pm

  3. Kate M. says:

    Mary: I see the Bibliothèque nationale has that book, so I’ll go have a look sometime. My dad was also a parishioner for a few years when he lived on Waverly, but he died ten years ago.

    Patrick: I might be interested to see that paper. I wonder whether Irish priests would’ve allowed themselves to be directly inspired by an English building around that time.

    Are you sure the priest was blessing the car, and not just running a quick fund-raising car wash?

    April 14th, 2008 at 8:59 pm

  4. Patrick Donovan says:

    I think Westminster Cathedral is first and foremost a Catholic building rather than an English building. Even though it was in London, I imagine most parishioners would have been Irish and reformed English tractarians sympathetic to the Irish. The Imperial mystique was pretty strong at the turn of the 20th century, but I’m not sure how the Mile End Irish would have felt toward it–most being second-generation middle class…

    April 14th, 2008 at 11:17 pm

  5. Olga Schlyter says:

    What a lovely building. Thanks for an interesting post.

    May 9th, 2008 at 3:13 pm

  6. Stephen Morrissey says:

    Thank you for this very interesting article. Fr. Luke Callaghan is my great great uncle, and I have written extensively on all three of the three Callaghan brothers who all became priests: Father Martin at St. Patrick’s, Father Luke at St. Michael’s, and Father James also at St. Patrick’s. I have often thought that the design of St. Michael’s was a bit of a folly on Fr. Luke’s part… However, Luke was also influential in the building of St. Mary’s Hospital. All three brothers were original thinkers and visionary in their own way; they rose up from their working class backgrounds to make a lasting and positive difference on the lives of many people.

    January 17th, 2009 at 3:58 pm

  7. ED PLOCKI says:

    I am in the process of designing a web site for our church: St Michael & St Anthony. I am a member of the church committee.

    Do you mind if I can use the work you did and paste it on one of one of its pages / history ? Today is Oct 15/10…

    I hope within Feb 2011, it will be up and running. It definitely would be a wonderfull add-on.

    Awaiting your reply….Promise to pay-back …with something….we can talk…

    October 16th, 2010 at 10:39 pm

  8. » Cultural Synthesis Kondiaronk says:

    […] is particular for its generally Byzantine-style architecture, undoubtedly an homage of sorts to the Hagia Sophia, with a large copper-clad dome and a minaret. However, upon closer inspection you’ll notice […]

    November 22nd, 2010 at 5:54 pm

  9. Kate M. says:

    Mr. Plocki, I don’t know whether you will ever come back to see this, but if so – yes, please do. Just give me a credit and I’ll be happy with it.

    July 10th, 2011 at 11:20 pm

  10. Boguslaw Wysocki says:

    Eddy – wonderful work you are doing with the web site – congrats – ex-Montrealer

    July 28th, 2011 at 5:59 pm

  11. Jean-Michel Blais says:

    hi thanks for all those interesting informations, but indeed i chose that church because it looked simply amazing to me for a LAC (Liberal Arts College) I have to produce on a worship place. Can anyone give me some clues where or how I could find one more information about that marvelous building? Could I visit? A bit of history, some plans, maybe the relation between the original architecture, also modified one, in relation with the socioeconomic-theological context of its construction. Thanks. JM.

    November 21st, 2011 at 9:55 pm

  12. Harold says:

    Went to Saint Michael;s on Saint-Urbain and Saint-Viateur back in 1965. So it was said to be renamed in 1969 its wrong it was Saint Michael’s back then. This is left here on June 12 ,2012

    June 12th, 2012 at 8:20 pm