Montreal

Are Montreal's historic churches safe from fire?

The fire that toppled the spire at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris should serve as a wake-up call to Montreal officials that the city's historic churches require protecting, a leading heritage expert says.

'Fire prevention is really the key to heritage being preserved,' says heritage advocate

Tourists gather in front of the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. The Montreal basilica is inspired by the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Four decades ago, Montreal had its own tragic fire in a historic and treasured church. The chapel in the city's Notre-Dame Basilica went up in flames on Dec. 7, 1978.

It took nearly five years of careful planning and work involving cabinet makers, sculptors and carpenters to restore the building, whose interior was originally completed in 1880.

The fire also led officials to take steps to ensure the basilica itself, regarded as a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture, was better protected.

"The consequence was that the Notre-Dame Basilica became one of the best protected buildings in Canada for fire protection, because they've invested a lot of effort," said Dinu Bumbaru, the policy director at Heritage Montreal, an architecture conservation advocacy group.

Bumbaru added that the changes were made discreetly, "so as not to destroy the jewel you are trying to save."

"You don't see fire hoses everywhere," he said.

It survived wars, revolutions, and invasions... but the Notre Dame de Paris is smouldering this morning after a devastating fire engulfed the 800-year old cathedral yesterday. On this side of the Atlantic, the Basilica Notre Dame in Old Montreal rang its bells in honour of the Parisian cathedral. But how safe is that church -- and all of our churches from a similar disaster? We speak with Dinu Bumbaru, the policy director for Heritage Montreal. 7:15

Bumbaru said the fire that broke out Monday at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris should serve as a wake-up call to Montreal officials that the city's other historic churches also require protecting.

Both the spire and roof of Paris' medieval cathedral were destroyed. Fundraising efforts are already underway to rebuild the iconic structure.

The chapel of Montreal's Notre-Dame Basilica was damaged in a fire in 1978. (Notre-Dame Basilica)

Churches and other heritage landmarks should be subject to an annual inspection by the Montreal fire and heritage departments, Bumbaru said.

"Fire prevention is really the key to heritage being preserved," he said.

"It's something that we have to look after properly."

Quebec Premier François Legault said Tuesday his government would look at ways to ensure heritage churches are better protected.

In its first budget, tabled last month, Legault's government committed $100 million over five years toward preserving the province's churches.

A special mass was held Tuesday at the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal for the cathedral in Paris. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Alain Faubert, the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Montreal, said the money was welcome but amounted to a "drop in an ocean of needs."

He said parishes have been working to ensure sprinkler systems and wiring are properly installed but the bigger issue is maintaining the buildings.

"The challenges are enormous," he said. "Of course, it's not only up to the government to act. We must act together ... to preserve our sacred spaces."

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler covers politics, immigration and social issues for CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

With files from Sarah Leavitt and Daybreak

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