Sauvons l’église Saint-Sauveur!

The saviour is in need of saving. One of Montreal’s last-remaining mid-nineteenth century churches, the Église Saint-Sauveur at the corner of St. Denis and Viger, is threatened by demolition.

Saint-Sauveur was built in 1865, thirteen years after a fire swept through the Faubourg Saint-Laurent, reducing most of it to rubble. What emerged from the ashes of the old suburb was the new bourgeois neighbourhood of Montreal’s francophone elite. New greystone houses and imposing institutional structures rose near Viger Square. In 1895, a branch of Laval University (which would eventually become the Université de Montréal) was built on St. Denis, which cemented the neighbourhood’s role as the centre of francophone intellectual life in Montreal.

In 1922, Saint-Sauveur was sold to a Syrian Catholic congregation. More recently, it was abandoned, left to rot as its stained glass windows, designed by John Patrick O’Shea and Guido Nincheri (the latter responsible for the windows in a number of Montreal’s most iconic churches) were looted. Now the church risks being bulldozed to make way for the construction of the CHUM mega-hospital.

Some might wonder why, in a city with half-empty churches, Saint-Sauveur deserves to be saved. The simple answer is that this church is a testament to a unique period in Montreal’s history: the development of the Latin Quarter in the last half of the nineteenth century.

Much of this neighbourhood’s built heritage has already been destroyed. Viger Square was ransacked by the construction of the Ville Marie Expressway in the late 1960s; road widenings and speculative development also took their toll. Saint-Sauveur functions as a symbol, then: its mere presence is a temporal landmark that gives historical context to the surrounding neighbourhood.

A report commissioned by the CHUM project indicates that, although it would be possible to integrate Saint-Sauveur into the CHUM, such a feat would require at least $14.2 million in restoration and reconstruction costs. That’s a lot of money, but it’s small change compared to the overall cost of the CHUM, which is now pegged at more than $1.5 billion.

I’m sure it’s cliché to say that our heritage is priceless, but it’s true. If we lose the Église Saint-Sauveur, we lose more than just an abandoned church: we lose a tangible connection on our city’s past.

16 comments

  1. As far as I know, the windows weren’t looted but donated to a museum in Ville St-Laurent. I believe a classmate of mine was involved in the project; I will try to get in touch with her to find out where the windows have gone.

    I do agree that the church should be preserved, but Montreal architects and developers have a poor history of integrating existing buildings into new structures, especially in cases where the functions of the two buildings are different – take, for instance, the disjointed facade of the Royal George apartments on the side of the library building at Concordia, or the church integrated into UQAM’s campus. If a feasible use for the interior of the building could be found, then every effort should be made for Saint-Sauveur’s preservation; if not, the last thing this city needs is another poorly executed illusion of preservation.

  2. I completely agree that this church needs to be preserved.

    At 143 years old I think the cost of preservation in the grand scheme of a 1.5 Billion dollar project is minimal. Even though a lot of the building has been damaged or looted, the old stone structure in the midst of a modern mega hospital would be stunning.

    We pride ourselves in being a UNESCO City of Design. Don’t you think we could design a new hospital that doesn’t destroy more of a neighborhood that has already lost so much of it’s architectural heritage.

    What can be done do change the plans for the CHUM before it is too late?

  3. Tara, most of the windows were stolen in the summer of 2006. Here’s a Gazette article:

    Thieves, vandals target church
    Montreal Gazette
    Thursday, August 10, 2006
    Page: A1 / FRONT
    Section: News
    Byline: ALAN HUSTAK
    Source: The Gazette

    Panels from all but four of 19 stained-glass windows in an abandoned church on Viger Square have been stolen or broken in recent weeks – and no one seems to know who’s in charge of security at the site.

    Squatters have repeatedly broken into the former Syriac Catholic Cathedral of St. Sauveur, and the investors in Paris who own the building say they have been frustrated in their attempts to secure the site and protect the windows, said to be worth a total of $250,000.

    There are gaping holes where 52 coloured glass panels have been removed from their frames.

    One of the most valuable windows by Guido Nincheri, sometimes referred to as Montreal’s Michelangelo, depicts the Assumption of Mary; it has been vandalized beyond repair.

    The building, at St. Denis St. and Viger Ave., has been empty since it was sold to European developers six years ago.

    The Quebec government recently announced it will expropriate the site to build the mega-hospital for the Centre Hospitalier de l’Universite de Montreal.

    “The building has been under siege by the homeless every year for the last six years,” Michael Sniatowsky, a spokesperson for the owners, said in an email from Europe.

    “The recent damage is the work of organized thieves, not squatters or the homeless.

    “Some windows appear to be stolen, as thieves came with tools and were apparently diligent in their work.

    “I have repeatedly asked CHUM to help secure the premises, as they own and operate the neighbouring property and they do have a large security contingent adjacent to the property.”

    CHUM communications adviser Nathalie Forgue said responsibility for the building’s security remains with the owners until the building is sold.

    “CHUM doesn’t own it yet, so there is not much we can do,” she said. “We are still evaluating what our assets will be.”

    It is understood the CHUM had planned to return some of the windows to the Syriac community, which plans to build a new cathedral in the city’s north end.

    Others were destined for the Musee des maitres et artisans du Quebec in St. Laurent.

    The church was originally called Holy Trinity when it was built in 1865 for an Anglican congregation from the imperial garrison in Montreal. It was endowed by William Molson’s wife.

    After the First World War, it was sold to the Syriac Catholic congregation, an Eastern Rite sect that is in communion with Rome, but whose headquarters are in Beirut. There are an estimated 5,000 Syriac Catholics in the Montreal area.

    Rene Angelil, husband of singer Celine Dion, was baptized in the church.

    When developers bought the structure in 2000, there was talk of turning it into a live jazz supper club and spa. There were also rumours it would become a recording studio, a sushi bar and a rave palace.

    Despite its pedigree, the building, with its 52-metre spire, has never been declared a historic property. Its windows had been covered with plywood – which thieves apparently removed.

    Most of the chancel’s stained-glass windows, produced by the J.C. Spence glassworks of Montreal, are intact. They are dedicated to the memory of Rev. Mark Willoughby, an Anglican priest who died of typhus in 1847 tending to Irish immigrants.

    The two Nincheri windows – one of the Ascension of Jesus, the other of the Assumption – were added in 1923 after fire gutted the interior of the church.

    Both windows are something of a mystery: they are signed by the artist and dated 1913, but Nincheri, who excelled in sacred art, didn’t arrive in Montreal from his native Italy until the following year.

    Most of the windows in the building are by the celebrated Canadian stained-glass artist John Patrick O’Shea, and at least one is by the Hobbs Manufacturing Co., also of Montreal.

  4. That is horrible. A friend of mine, of Coptic Christian ancestry, had her funeral at that church. I worked at the CSN labour confederation for many years, when it was at 1001 St-Denis, opposite that beautiful church. It would really be a pity if it couldn’t be recycled. l

  5. you really want to save this Church. then contact montreal priest fr. gruner and ask him about the full Fatima secret it has not been fully made public when it does people will want these churches!!!! there is your answer, if you really want this church preserved! fr. nicolas gruner lives near niagra falls, canada editor of catholic family news

  6. Just visited the site on the weekend, as I am from out of Province. It is a shame that more was not done to preserve the historical aspects and the stained glass windows. I agree with other posters when you are talking a few million in a project that costs over a billion, you can preserve and be innovative. Many other buildings and churches have had their structure incorporated in a larger project, while keeping the architectural and religious aspects intact. However, much needs to be done in the neighbourhood. On that corner I witnessed a pair of very aggressive panhandlers pushing themselves on waiting motorists and pedestrians. Not a good thing.

  7. I’ve been a Delivery Driver in Montreal for two decades. One of the very few buildings in Montreal that continuously impressed me was this church. It has become my favorite church. And I regularly wil go out of my way to get a glipse of it. This past Spring I photograped it’s exrerior. It’s a bloody shame that building wasn’t better protected. But what troubles me is why it left to decay further. Doesn’t the city of montreal feel any disgrace for leaving it in its present condition. And how can the Catholic Church abandon such beautiful archetecture and what it means to a population that is now losing its identity to the masses of immigrants and their own religious beliefs. If the CHUM is ready to invest Billions in a project then it should and could invest thousands into the restoration of its own French Symbolism.

    The city of Montreal has been known as the “City of Steeples”. But I fear it will be called the “City of Forgotten Steeples” in the very near future. If i was mayor of this city I would create a Mandate to save our Churches.

    If there is a fund to save this church then I would be most interested in knowing.

  8. Salut

    Je suis étudiant en conservation du patrimoine et en architecture à l’université de Montréal. Pour mon projet final je cherche a entrer dans l’église. Comme je vois que tu y est arrivé, je me demandais si tu pouvais m’indiquer comment faire.

  9. I knew the owner of this church, and actually LIVED in it full time for about a year and a half. It was the most incredible experience ever. I had access to everything. Although I had to discover people breaking in on a regular basis since no one assumed someone was living there.

  10. this church should be preserved ,,,its up to us to do so,people have to get more involved,its not just a regular old building its a rich historical church ,each time i do pass next to this beautiful church my hart hurt,and i keep thinking about how sad it is that its abandoned
    ive always wanted to do something,how can we all help and keep this church ??

  11. L’Église Saint Sauveur should be saved and it is a sacrilege and hypocrisy not to do so with all the money badly used and spend in Montreal. It is part of our culture and history and destroying and not preserving stain glass windows and masterpieces which were done by a Master like Guido Nincheri who is a legend in Canada and in his native country Italy ( knighted by the Pope) is an heresy and a crime… Thank God the de Bothuri collection had works of art by Guido Nincheri, some Tiffany and Canadian Art glass windows and panels which were bought in the sixties and seventies at salvage places among them Tiffany windows from the Palestre Nationale and the Van Horne’s 52 room mansion which was shamelessly torn down by architect Azrieli at Sherbrooke st corner Stanley in the golden square mile under the mayorality of Jean Drapeau to built a modern building today Sofitel Hotel… Holy places should always be respected no matter the rite or religion…churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, since they are sanctuaries for humankind… and Mighty God
    Alexandre de Bothuri
    Art Historian and Collector
    Preservationist

  12. The days of anyone who touches this church will be counted.

  13. Have Eric contact me as I have photographed and interpreted the iconography of the windows just before they were completly vandalized. Secondly: Mr Bothuri I would appreciate if you contact me. I have photographed and catalogued 105 out of 221 churches that were decorated by my grandfather. I have also written extensively on the iconography of the windows and decorations. Roger Nincheri (nincheri@sympatico.ca)

  14. 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.

  15. I hope the works of John Patrick O’Shea can be preserved/restored. He was my Great, Great Uncle.

    Very proud of his contribution to Montreal, Quebec

    Kevin Francis O’Shea,
    Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada

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