Skip to main content

What does the future hold for Montreal's unused church buildings?

As church attendance dwindles, heritage buildings sit empty — some falling into disrepair.

A woman looks up at an abandoned church.

This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.

Mark Twain, visiting Montreal in 1888

Those churches still stand today — but more windows are broken.

St. Clément opened to parishoners in the late 19th century. Now, it sits unused.
A window pane is missing from one of St. Clément's doors.
Holes in a glass window.
Mass is no longer held at St. Clément church.
Parts of St. Clément are fenced off and the grass is overgrown as the local parish responsible for the church gathers at another building.
images expandIn Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, the old St. Clément church building sits unused.

The St. Clément church has stood for more than a century in Montreal’s eastern Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district, but it has been years since the building was open to the public.

The grass is now overgrown and some windows are broken. Doors are fenced off.

Marc-André Robertson lives about a block away from the church. And like many people in the area, he has a personal connection to the building.

His father’s funeral was held there 40 years ago.

“We met a lot of people who told us how they were involved in church baptisms, weddings and choir practice,” he says. “My story is one story, but afterwards it is a community story.”

As the local Catholic parish gathers at another building in the neighbourhood, St. Clément sits unused.

But Robertson and his fellow neighbours are hoping to give the building a new life.

A man stands in front of an abandoned church.
Marc-André Robertson is part of a group working to transform the old St. Clément church building into a community space. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

According to the most recent numbers available from Quebec’s Culture and Communications Ministry, 242 churches are owned by Christian denominations in Montreal.

And with attendance dwindling for decades, many parishes are struggling to preserve the imposing, stone buildings where church service is no longer held.

Julia Gersovitz, an architect at EVOQ Architecture and professor at McGill University, has worked on a number of church restoration projects.

“When dealing with historical buildings, they are incredibly well built. They will sustain blow after blow and wound after wound,” she says.

“But at a certain point, if the roof has been leaking long enough the walls will be wet with that water, and that rain and that snow. And what’s going to happen is that the walls are going to start to fail.”

A religious statue is seen against a blue sky.
The St. Clément church on an early spring afternoon. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

Gersovitz says many of those responsible for these unused church buildings know that major repairs are needed. They just don’t have the funds to pay for them.

“It’s a big challenge right now in Quebec and Canada to make sure [churches] are able to operate and pay for the building maintenance and the restoration — that costs a lot of money,” says Christian Bolduc, who works to raise money for Montreal parishes.

And he says rising prices in the construction sector are making that even more difficult.

More than a place of worship

A man inside a church
Graham Singh is the pastor at St Jax Montreal and the chief executive for the Trinity Centres Foundation, a non-profit that works to transform church buildings into community hubs. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

In the heart of downtown, Pastor Graham Singh has transformed St Jax Montreal.

While still offering spiritual services, the Anglican church also offers a space for performances, and for community groups beyond their congregation to gather.

It’s been almost 20 years that I’ve been a priest or pastor in the Anglican church. And it’s always haunted me.… What are we going to do with these places?

Pastor Graham SinghSt Jax Montreal

It took him years to realize that the solution comes from working with local community groups.

“It needed to be secular or non-religious, because we needed to connect with other actors like municipalities, granting foundations … other charities and non-profits who are non-religious.”

Singh says churches are often in the perfect location: close to public transit, homes, universities, libraries and other resources.

He says community groups are best suited to answer the needs of the neighbourhood and know what might be missing.

In Montreal, at least 33 former churches have been transformed: operating as community centres, libraries or sports centres, to name a few.

A space to share a meal

A woman stands in a large dining room
Jeannelle Bouffard has been with the Chic Resto Pop since its inception. In 2004, they moved from a basement location to the former church where they now operate.
A church is converted into a dining room
Some people enjoy a meal at the Chic Resto Pop, a non-profit that offers affordable food in Hochelaga–Maisonneuve.
A buffet with people ready to serve
An affordable cafeteria-style meal is available at the Chic Resto Pop.
The exterior of a glass building
In 2004, the group moved into the former Église Saint-Mathias-Apôtre.
images expandAt Chic Resto Pop, anyone can show up for an affordable meal.

In Hochelaga–Maisonneuve, the church formerly known as L’Église Saint-Mathias-Apôtre has been transformed into a non-profit, called Chic Resto Pop.

The organization offers affordable meals, employment training programs and other services to help break isolation.

“We saw that the population had great and growing needs,” says Jeanelle Bouffard, head of administration at Chic Resto Pop, of the group’s decision to move into the former church in 2004.

A modern venue

A woman stands in an old converted church.
Danielle Bitton runs the event space Le Salon Richmond 1861. She says her team wanted to preserve as much of the old building's authentic beauty as possible. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Almost everywhere you look, there are reminders of Le Salon Richmond 1861’s past life as a place of worship.

In Montreal’s southwestern Little Burgundy neighbourhood, the building that was once named l’Église St. Joseph predates confederation.

But since 2015, it has been operating as an event space.

“When I saw the space the first time, I said I was impressed by the height, the colouring and the work that was done,” says Danielle Bitton, who runs Le Salon Richmond 1861.

A church converted into an event space.
A bar and tables now sit where there were once pews.
Lighting rigs on a church balcony
Lighting rigs are fastened to the building's balcony.
An old wooden fixture.
The building's owners have worked to preserve its wooden fixtures.
A confessional booth with a table and chairs set up in front.
The space is now used to for wedding receptions and other events.
images expandIn Little Burgundy, a more than 150-year-old church has been transformed into a venue while preserving its wooden interior.

She says her team wanted to keep the church’s authenticity, down to the original wood, while making needed updates needed for a modern venue.

“The challenges were big,” she says. “This is an old lady and we had to take good care of [her]. We went with a lot of precaution.”

Open to partnerships

A priest stands in a church.
Christian Lépine, the Archbishop of Montreal, says the diocese is open to partnering with community groups and homeless shelters. (Chloë Ranaldi/CBC)

As the times change, the Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal says it’s open to adapting, too.

Christian Lépine, the Archbishop of Montreal, says that could mean partnerships between churches or with community groups and other organizations that serve people experiencing homelessness.

And he said that selling the old buildings could be a possibility in circumstances where the local community is still being served.

“It depends on the borough,” he says. “Let’s say if you have four churches in a borough you can sell one, let’s say to another church or community project. But if you have one church in a borough the spiritual needs are there.”

‘We have a big problem’

The cost of necessary repairs for many churches can reach millions of dollars.

In Quebec, there are two financial assistance programs available: one for restoring cultural heritage sites of a religious nature, and the other to repurpose surplus heritage places of worship.

Over the last four years, the province has provided about $80 million in funding through those two programs, and Premier François Legault made a campaign promise this fall to dedicate another $40 million over four years to preserve and transform Quebec’s churches.

Gersovitz says that’s a step in the right direction, but more money is likely needed.

“So $40 million sounds like a lot of money … but the money is spread across Quebec. We have a big problem,” she says.

She says it’s important to look at the characteristics of each building — if it has high ceilings and large windows, for example — and assess the needs of a community to see what would be the best solution.

A woman stands in front of a church.
Émilie Therrien co-founded the group HocheLab to come up with a plan for the old St. Clément church building. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

Back in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Robertson and Émilie Therrien, a lawyer who lives in the area, have formed the group Hochelab to transform St. Clément.

In June, the group received funding to diagnose the health of the building. Their goal is to open a community space with a gym, food market, event space and some kind of spiritual component.

“Hochelaga has always struggled with specific problems of poverty, education et cetera. We just want to improve our neighbourhood,” Therrien says.

A 10-minute walk down Adam Street is Saint-Nom-de-Jésus, another century-old church that is still in use.

Its parish is also responsible for St. Clément. A spokesperson says it approves of Hochelab’s plan for the old building, saying it could meet many needs of the neighbourhood — if it secures the funding.

CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices | About CBC News
Corrections and clarifications | Submit a news tip
About the Author