Saint-Sauveur Needs a Saviour

Sauvons l’église Saint-Sauveur!” I wrote three years ago on Spacing Montreal. And for three years, it seemed vaguely possible that the 145-year-old church on lower Saint-Denis Street wouldn’t be demolished. The huge hospital for which it was supposed to make way, the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montreal (CHUM), has been stalled for years, and for awhile it would have been reasonable to guess that it would eventually crawl into the back room where tired, abandoned Montreal megaprojects go to die.

Alas, that wasn’t the case. Kristian Gravenor broke the news in yesterday’s Gazette that Montreal’s city council has issued a demolition permit for the church, which has sat empty and abandoned for years. It isn’t in the best shape — its prized stained glass windows, designed by the renowned Guido Nincheri, were stolen in 2006 — but its bones are strong. More importantly, it remains a testament to the city’s history.

Saint-Sauveur was built thirteen years after a fire swept through the Faubourg Saint-Laurent in 1852, its greystone façade, neo-Gothic architecture and tin steeple a testament to the fashion of the era. In the beginning, it was actually an Anglican church named Holy Trinity. It didn’t become Catholic until the 1920s, when Holy Trinity moved west to NDG and the church was sold to a Syrian congregation.

According to Gravenor, the only trace of the church that will remain after its demolition will be “a representation of its original steeple,” which burned down in the 1920s. Four adjacent greystone houses will be destroyed along with the church. And for what? A bloated super-hospital that will concentrate services that should really be spread around the city.

“The new hospital building will probably have a space about the size of the church where they’ll want people to congregate,” said Dinu Bumbaru, the policy director of Heritage Montreal. “It will have drywall and dropped ceilings and art in the corner rather than use this great Gothic cathedral — that’s how they will dehumanize this space.”

The sad thing is, it didn’t have to be this way. Though the collapse of religious observance has left Montreal with many empty churches, it has been generally good at keeping its oldest temples of faith alive, even if it means converting them into condos. The Université du Québec à Montréal’s 1960s-era campus, located just up the road from Saint-Sauveur, incorporated the magnificent steeple and woodwork of the Église Saint-Jacques, built in 1857.

Last July, more than two years after I first wrote about the church on Spacing, somebody named Tony posted a comment: “My partner and I made a bid for this church in 1999. We came close to a deal, but it fell apart. We were going to transform it into a place for small, intimate concerts, the acoustics were top notch and the stained glass windows were phenomenal. It would have been quite the venue.”

If only.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday November 24 2010at 09:11 am , filed under Architecture, Canada, Heritage and Preservation, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

5 Responses to “Saint-Sauveur Needs a Saviour”

  • D. says:

    Just passed by, they started the demolition works…

  • Patrick Donovan says:

    I used to live next to this church. I remember about 7-8 years ago someone was interested in turning it into a steakhouse/nightclub with a grille in place of the altar. There was an uproar, with many people (including Dinu Bumbaru) calling it sacrilege. A bland hospital building seems like even greater sacrilege.

    That whole part of town is a disaster, with Place Viger as a fear-inducing urban vacuum in the centre of it all.

  • Hindsight is always perfect, I guess. I doubt that anyone thought the alternative to it being turned into a tacky restaurant would be for it to be wiped off the map entirely.

    I find it baffling that CHUM’s planners would opt to demolish St-Sauveur when there’s so many examples of religious buildings being adapted for other uses. Think of the Mile End Library, all of the synagogues that became community centres or schools, or even the churches that were turned into apartment buildings, which strikes me as a far better fate than complete destruction.

    Wasn’t Viger Square supposed to be renovated à la Victoria Square? What happened to that plan?

  • C. Szabla says:

    I’m surprised religious sensitivities were still so strong in Montreal.

    New York famously had a church-cum-nightclub, “Limelight”, that was popular in the 70s. There was more outrage about the “desecration” of that space when the old club space was converted into a mall earlier this decade. Maybe the fact that the church served as a drug rehab center just after it was deconsecrated helped ease the transition.

  • Andrea says:

    People are usually surprised when I take them along one of my favourite walks in the city: looking at the Churches along St-Catherine Street. They are all amazing fragments to the city’s history and there is something about seeing neo-gothic facade wedged between a sex-shop and a strip club that strikes me as totally “Montreal”.
    The fact that the demolition has started saddens me especially since I’m sure there was a way to integrate the church into the building’s plans.