Capturing the beauty of scenic cemeteries with Unearth Our Past

Students from Quebec High School learn more about the stories behind the names on century-old grave markers at Mount Hermon Cemetery for a literary project backed by the Blue Metropolis festival.

Photographer shares her passion with high school students as part of Blue Met educational project

Students from Quebec High School snapped pictures of the grave markers in the Mount Hermon Cemetery as part of their project for the Blue Met Literary Festival. (Quebec High School students/Unearth Our Past)

On a blustery winter morning, two-dozen high school students pour out of a big yellow school bus and pass through the gates of the Mount Hermon Cemetery.

They’re not here to pay their respects by laying flowers on graves. They’re here to learn about some of the people interred here in the 160 years since the cemetery’s inauguration.

It’s the first step for students from Quebec High School as they gear up to participate in Blue Metropolis’ educational project, Unearth our Past.

Photographer Monique Dykstra came up with the idea for Unearth Our Past, after being inspired by the Mount Royal cemetery in her hometown of Montreal. She's encouraging students in Quebec City to learn more about their local history while taking photos.

Waiting for the students is the recently-retired Brian Treggett.

Following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, he acted as the cemetery’s caretaker for half a century.

 “It’s always interesting to work with young people…You learn as much from them as they learn from you,” he says.

Many pillars of the Quebec City community are buried here, from long-serving city mayors and former premiers, to important shipbuilders and business magnates.

They include: 

  • Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière, Quebec's fourth premier (1829-1908).
  • John Munn, shipbuilder, judge and politician (1788-1859).
  • John Simons, founder of la Maison Simons (1823-1906).
  • George Richard Renfrew (1831-1897) and John Henderson Holt (1850-1915), co-founders of Holt Renfrew and Company.
Fourth-generation cemetery caretaker Brian Treggett (centre) with the Secondary 5 social studies class from Quebec High School at Mount Hermon Cemetery. (Monique Dykstra/StudioIris)

Snapping photographs of the students, the scenery and Treggett is Montreal-based photographer Monique Dykstra. 

Like Treggett, Dykstra has a passion for working with young people. This project was her idea.

“You have the living on that side, and the living on that side and the dead in the middle and they’re all kind of in here together,” she says.

“They’re part of the community and it’s almost like they’re saying, ‘Don’t forget us!’ You can’t forget them, because they’re right there.”

Students from Quebec High School toured the Mount Hermon Cemetery on an icy winter morning to take photographs and find characters for their piece. (Julia Caron/CBC)

Dykstra strides alongside the budding shutterbugs from Quebec High School as they crouch in the snow to get just the right angle for shots of tombstones, monuments and crosses.

Some students, like Amy Dagenais, sidle up to her for pointers. “How do I get rid of the foggy effect?”

It’s the wet and the cold, there’s nothing to do about it,” Dykstra tells her. Unfortunately, weather can often override artistic choices.

Blue Metropolis' Unearth our Past project showcases the stories that can be found in some of Quebec's scenic cemeteries. Our Julia Caron met with students from Quebec High School as they visited Mount Hermon Cemetery in Sillery.

Capturing the perfect shot

The focus today is on photography, but they have many steps ahead of them in the coming weeks.

They’ll gather research and information today along with their photographs and spend part of the winter writing a play inspired by the details they’ve gathered.

Students will perform the final result in late April as part of the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival.

After trudging through the ice and snow for nearly an hour, the students are happy to clamour back up the hill and into what was once the Treggett family home.

There, Dykstra gives one-on-one feedback to the students as they scroll through the images they’ve taken.

Mount Hermon is the final resting place for many notable Quebecers including long-serving city mayors, a former premier and well-known business magnates. (Quebec High School/Unearth Our Past)

She patiently weighs in: great angle, nice framing, fantastic use of colour, not the best execution on that one.

The students, in turn, boast of having laid on their bellies in the snow to get just the right shot.

“You’ve got some gems in there. Now delete 15,” she instructs them.

The students painfully begin to whittle down their photography selection, reading inscriptions and names to one another.

They will soon have to redirect some of that excitement on the the next step in their project: playwriting.


Julia Caron

Host of Quebec AM

Julia Caron is a journalist, radio-maker and art lover based in Quebec City. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Julia has lived in over a dozen military towns growing up. She has called Quebec City home since 2008, and proudly calls herself a franglophone (yes, it's a thing).