A Montreal landmark returns to the care of Montrealers

After more than 350 years, the Religious Hospitallers in Montreal enter a new phase of care: sharing with Montrealers as guardians of their site by Hôtel-Dieu, the Cité-des-Hospitalières.

Home of the Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph will be opened up as shared public space

A new chapter for a Montreal landmark

2 years ago
Duration 4:23
After more than 350 years, the Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph in Montreal enter a new phase of providing care: sharing with Montrealers the guardianship of their site by Hôtel-Dieu hospital, the Cité-des-Hospitalières.

On the flank of Mount Royal and along a busy stretch of road, stands a walled property most people would instantly recognize, but few have explored themselves.

Inside those walls there are gardens, greenery and all the outbuildings that surround Montreal's oldest hospital.

It's a landmark in a city of landmarks and it's one that's about to become open to all Montrealers. 

The city bought the site in 2017. In partnership with the social economy enterprise Entremise, it's transitioning the site into a shared public space, the Cité-des-Hospitalières.

"We want to spring up a community of occupants that will take over as custodians of this incredible heritage site," said Philémon Gravel, director and co-founder of Entremise.

Until the mid-20th century, the Religious Hospitallers were responsible for the pharmacy at Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal. (Archives des Hospitalières de Saint-Joseph de Montréal)

In 1659, the first three Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph arrived from La Flèche, France to help Jeanne Mance run Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal (de Ville-Marie at the time), the hospital she had founded and the city's first.

Over the next three centuries — until 1973 — members of the congregation would continue to run Hôtel-Dieu.

The Hospitallers founded nursing schools. They studied medication. They ran the hospital's pharmacy and were among the first pharmacists, known as apothicairesses in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

The Hospitallers' garden, circa 1950. The garden is located between Des Pins Avenue and Duluth Avenue. (Archives des Hospitalières de Saint-Joseph de Montréal)

"They were omnipresent at the heart of Montreal," said Sister Nicole Gaudet, Religious Hospitaller of Saint-Joseph. "They were women of faith: brave women, heroic women, women who gave of themselves absolutely."

In 1861, the Hospitallers and Hôtel-Dieu moved to their current location on Des Pins avenue.

Sister Nicole Gaudet, Religious Hospitaller of Saint-Joseph, was the last Hospitaller to work as a nurse at Montreal's Hôtel-Dieu hospital. (Charles Contant/CBC)

"This is a sacred place," said Sister Gaudet. "This place became sacred because it's where we reached out, where we welcomed. It was the place where nuns could come to revitalize, to better welcome the sick, the poor."

The idea behind the redeveloped site is to bring in social entrepreneurs, artists, students, community organizers, and to find new uses for the different spaces in the Cité.

The dozens of Hospitallers still living there will keep their private living quarters and an enclave of the garden.

The Cité-des-Hospitalières transitional use project is a heritage protection strategy, says Entremise's director and co-founder Philémon Gravel. (Entremise)

The chapel, some of the old bedrooms, the greenhouse, workspaces, and the communal room will find new vocations.

The first phase of the project begins this summer with an open call for proposals to care for the site through artistic practice or community gatherings and symposiums.

"It's a spirit that remains, so we want that spirit of giving of oneself, of openness, to remain," said Sister Gaudet.

"Our space, the garden, will return to Montrealers ... It's as if we were founded for Montreal, and it will return to Montrealers."