As fire continues to burn at historic Montreal monastery, worries mount about what is lost
'I'm grieving a lot right now,' says 1 of dozens of residents left without a home
As large plumes of smoke continued to rise from the Monastère du Bon-Pasteur in downtown Montreal Friday, the future of the nearly two-century-old building and all it held are shrouded in doubt.
Provincial and municipal officials met Friday morning at the site to assess damage to the historic monastery near the corner of Sherbrooke and de Bullion streets. No one has been seriously hurt in the fire that broke out at around 4:30 p.m. Thursday.
"You can see, behind us, it's still burning," Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said just before noon, at a news conference also attended by Quebec Culture Minister Mathieu Lacombe, the MNA for Sainte-Marie–Saint-Jacques and Québec Solidaire co-spokesperson Manon Massé, and Montreal fire department Chief Richard Liebmann.
"It's an incredible sadness. It's a magnificent space," Plante said.
Now a multi-service centre, the sprawling building included a seniors' residence, a housing co-operative, a daycare centre and condominiums, as well as cultural space. In less than 10 days, the monastery's 120-seat chapel was to be the venue for the Concours Prix d'Europe, a week-long singing competition.
Diane Bérubé has lived in an apartment on one of the upper floors for the past three years. On Thursday, she rushed outside with only her phone and wallet when she saw firefighters arrive outside the building. She is one of at least 39 people who are now without a home.
She loved being part of a residential community inside a building steeped in history.
"I was so comfortable there. I adored my apartment. I'm grieving a lot right now," Bérubé said. "Thankfully, the fire happened during the day because there are people inside who can't move around easily."
For Taïka Baillargeon, too, the heritage site is more than a symbol of the city's past.
It's been a success story, she says: a shining example of how to breathe new life into a historic institution and turn it into a vibrant gathering space for Montrealers.
"It was one of the first buildings that was revamped, restored, re-used with a vision of having private and public [usage]," said Baillargeon, the assistant policy director for Heritage Montreal, an organization that works to promote and preserve the city's cultural architectural heritage.
"It still stands as an example of what we should do in terms of re-using our historic buildings."
It's not yet clear how badly damaged the monastery is, but the fire department officials said they don't believe it will be a total loss.
Environment Canada issued a special air quality statement, warning of increased pollution in Montreal because of the smoke.
The monastery was built in 1846. The greystone building has a central body that is crossed by three perpendicular wings. A presbytery was added in 1896. It was designated a heritage building in 1979 and acquired in 1984 by the Société immobilière du patrimoine architectural de Montréal (SIMPA).
Heritage Montreal is housed in the monastery, and Baillargeon says the group's archives may have been lost.
Baillargeon described the fire as a "huge, huge disaster."
"These techniques, these materials, we cannot find them again. We cannot rebuild a Bon-Pasteur as is. That's the most terrible part of it," she said.
"These buildings confine in themselves so much knowledge, so many things, so much history, and we will not be able to have those back."
Lacombe, the province's culture minister, said he wants the building to be restored eventually.
Man found inside building well after fire started
Although no one was seriously injured, a man was found inside the building at around 9 p.m. Thursday, several hours after the fire broke out and after authorities had announced that the building was empty.
The man was in a part of the building that was not on fire and was suffering from hypothermia. Liebmann, the fire chief, said an investigation is underway to determine how the person ended up there.
"There is a lot of contradictory information," Liebmann said. "What I can tell you for sure is that primary and secondary searches were done in the entire building."
Nearly a full day after first arriving at the scene, firefighters are still trying to find ways to get to the monastery's roof, where the fire started.
Liebmann said the structure of the building, which has a sloped, metal-clad roof, makes getting closer to the heart of the fire a difficult task.
Liebmann said fire alarms were working properly when it started. He also said there's no risk of the fire spreading, but it's unclear how long it will take to extinguish it.
"We're doing what we can, but our first priority is to make sure nobody gets hurt trying to put this out," he said.
"Everybody's out. Everybody's safe. And we're doing what we can to preserve as much of the building as possible."
With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak and La Presse Canadienne