As Catholic Church balked at paying residential school settlement, Quebec nuns sold nearly $25M in real estate

Three orders of nuns who once staffed residential schools got millions for real estate as they downsized their operations.

3 orders of nuns who once staffed residential schools got millions for properties as they downsized

The Grey Nuns worked at several residential schools in Western Canada, including the Holy Angels Indian Residential School in Fort Chipewyan, Alta. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation / Deschatelets-NDC Archives)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Three Quebec-based religious orders that staffed residential schools in the rest of Canada have earned millions of dollars from property sales in recent years, even as the Catholic Church said it couldn't raise enough money to pay its share of a settlement meant for survivors.

In a class-action settlement with Indigenous survivors of the schools reached in 2006, Catholic entities involved in residential schools pledged, among other things, to use their "best efforts" to raise an additional $25 million to help fund healing and reconciliation programs.

Nine years later, after raising less than $4 million, the church entities said they had done all they could and a court absolved them of having to pay the rest.

But with evidence emerging of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, Indigenous leaders are calling on the church to fulfil its original commitment.

"Acts of genocide occurred at the hands of Catholic Church clergy men and women," the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, said in a statement last weekend.

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"Our children that never made it home are now speaking to us; they're crying 'they found us' and we will not stop until they receive the justice they have been waiting decades for."

Some key figures involved in the 2006 settlement have questioned whether the entities devoted sufficient energy to the fundraising effort, and have pointed out the church has significant financial resources at its disposal.

The Grey Nuns of Montreal made $18 million from the sale of their motherhouse in downtown Montreal two years before the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was signed. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

The real estate deals

In Quebec, three religious orders that staffed residential schools raised at least $25 million between 2011 and 2021 by selling off real estate holdings, according to an analysis by CBC News.

The Grey Nuns of Montreal sold a sprawling island property to the city of Chateauguay, on Montreal's South Shore, for $5 million in 2011.

The same year, they sold two properties in the city of Nicolet, Que., near Trois-Rivières, for $1.8 million.

The Grey Nuns worked at several residential schools in Western Canada, including the Holy Angels Indian Residential School in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., where at least 89 children died, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg.

The nuns were among several religious orders that signed the settlement agreement in 2006, which included the promise to help raise $25 million across the country.

The Sisters of Providence sold their motherhouse in Montreal's east end for $7.5 million in 2011 to a non-profit group that converted it into seniors housing. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

The order did not respond to a CBC email asking how much it raised as part of that effort, but said it did give $2.5 million to the initial $29 million payment the Catholic entities were required to contribute in the class-action settlement.

The Grey Nuns say the money raised from the sale of its properties are in its accounts.

Quebec nuns worked at Sask. residential school

The Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Hyacinthe, who also signed the settlement agreement, sold their mother house in Saint-Hyacinthe, about 60 kilometres from Montreal, for $4.2 million in 2014.

The religious order sold another property in the same city to a real estate company for $1.5 million earlier this year.

Nuns from the St. Hyacinthe, Que., order worked at the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, where preliminary findings have uncovered 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the institution, which is now on the territory of the Cowessess First Nation.

In a statement to CBC News, the Sisters of St. Joseph expressed "immense sadness" at the discovery of the graves.

"The Congregation hopes with all its heart that the truth emerges about these events so that paths open toward reconciliation based on reciprocal respect and trust, in the context of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada," Sister Pauline Vertefeuille said in the statement.

In 1890, the Sisters of Providence opened the St. Eugene's Mission School, in Cranbrook, B.C., where 182 unmarked graves were recently discovered by the Lower Kootenay Band. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation / Deschatelets-NDC Archives)

She did not respond to a follow-up question from CBC asking how much her order had raised as part of the 2006 settlement agreement, but did say the nuns had contributed an undisclosed amount to the subsequent fundraising campaign.

The Montreal-headquartered Sisters of Providence, founded in 1843 by Émilie Gamelin, also made millions from at least two recent real estate transactions: one in 2016 to the City of Montreal for $4.7 million, and another to a non-profit that manages seniors' and social housing for $7.5 million.

WATCH | 182 graves found near former residential school near Cranbrook, B.C.:

182 graves found near former residential school near Cranbrook, B.C.

3 months ago
Pressure for a papal apology for the Catholic Church's role in residential schools is growing with the discovery of other unmarked grave sites near the location of a former residential school — this time near Cranbrook B.C. It's unclear who was buried in the shallow graves, or how and when they died. 2:00

In 1890, the Sisters of Providence opened the St. Eugene's Mission School, in Cranbrook, B.C., where 182 unmarked graves were recently discovered by the Lower Kootenay Band.

Following the nuns' withdrawal in 1929, an Indian Agent reported that "conditions were such that it was doubtful if it could be kept running," and that "practically all pupils were tubercular."

The Edmonton branch of the Sisters of Providence signed the 2006 settlement agreement. A spokesperson for the order in Montreal did not respond to questions about how much money had been raised in the context of the $25-million pledge.

'Keep your promise'

A growing number of Catholic orders in Quebec have been seeking to divest themselves of their property over the past 20 years.

As their numbers dwindle, and their members age, it is no longer financially feasible for them to manage the large buildings they constructed when the church dominated social life in the province.

In selling the buildings, many religious orders negotiate terms that are aimed at providing for their remaining members.

"One theme which regularly comes up is the need to provide dedicated long-term care facilities to aging congregation members," said Dinu Bumbaru, policy director for Heritage Montreal, an architectural conservation group.

"Another type of project we hear of … is to fund legacy projects, museums, publications or even sainthood procedures for their founders."

Religious orders also often seek to ensure their buildings are used for non-profit goals, and sometimes accept below-market prices toward that end.

A woman is consoled during a gathering to honour Indigenous children, denounce genocide and demand justice for residential school victims in Montreal on July 1. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The Grey Nuns' former mother house in Montreal, for instance, now belongs to Concordia University. A building in the Montreal borough of Ahuntsic-Cartierville, once owned by the Sisters of Providence, is being transformed into a community centre.

For Indigenous leaders dealing with the legacy of the cultural genocide committed at residential schools, the church still has an unpaid debt that is both moral and financial.

In Saskatchewan, the failure of the church to meet the fundraising target set out in the 2006 settlement agreement is seen as a broken promise.

"You can't just say, 'Oh we tried. That's too bad,'" Michael Starr, chief of the Star Blanket Cree Nation in southern Saskatchewan, told CBC Saskatoon recently.

"There is a lot of hate, a lot of anger out there. The church has to work with us. It has to be tangible. Keep your promise."

How to get help

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and for those triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


Simon Nakonechny is a videojournalist at CBC News Montreal.

With files from Jonathan Montpetit and Jason Warick in Saskatoon