Sacred Third Spaces and the Social Third Sector
An urbanist American visitor to Montreal may be struck by a number of things: the chasm between Old and New World, spanned by its 17th-century port and North American downtown; the pleasantness of the city’s dense neighborhoods of spiral-staired triplexes; or the uneasy balance struck in its streets, between European-style public transit and American-style auto-centrism.
But in the course of a Saturday night stroll through one of the city’s livelier quarters, a visitor might also be struck by a seeming paradox: the prevalence both of Bacchanalian revels and enormous, elaborate churches. As in the French motherland, Quebec’s deeply religious past and officially secular present clash in the built environment. As Mark Twain remarked on an 1881 visit, “This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.”
The island of Montreal boasts more than 200 Catholic churches—a ratio of 1 church for every 10,000 residents. Since the province’s conspicuous divorce with the Catholic Church in the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, however, rates of observance have dropped so precipitously that the ratio of churches to weekend worshipers is now more like 1 to 40. This mismatch has left just handfuls of aging worshipers with the burden of maintaining hundreds of architecturally and culturally significant church buildings.
The public debate surrounding the preservation of religious heritage buildings in Quebec illustrates for us the dangers of collapsing conversations about the built environment into a strict binary between public and private—and the rich possibilities that emerge from the spaces of free association lying in between.
As in many “post-Christian” societies, church buildings in Montreal have sometimes been sold for conversion to private use, such as housing, event venues, or schools. However, sale is not the only strategy pursued by shrinking parish communities seeking to make the most of their real estate. In many cases, parishes in Montreal have stayed afloat by operating as landlords to nonprofit and community organizations renting space in their rectories and basements. The result is an organic social real estate economy quietly playing a significant structuring role in the city’s voluntary or third sector.
The solidarity economy playing out in Catholic parish life and in the activities of secular parish tenants holds out the promise of much more than successful roof replacements. Third-sector space-sharing agreements as seen in Montreal are effective instruments not only for funding architectural maintenance, but also for sustaining engagement with a religious heritage that is not reducible to nationalist identity politics or publicly funded nostalgia.
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In a 2019 study conducted on behalf of the Archdiocese of Montreal, students at the McGill School of Urban Planning discovered dozens of nonprofits renting space from three subject parishes in one neighborhood of the city. An independent follow-up study conducted by the author in 2020 discovered dozens more in four additional parishes. Tenants included a Polish library, a private PR firm serving government agencies and non-profits, a suicide prevention hotline, a low-cost psychiatric care provider, a collective of African-owned businesses, a daytime drop-in center, an online auction warehouse, a Catholic media agency, a daycare, a music teachers’ cooperative, a legal aid clinic, and a Tai Chi school. While no comprehensive inventory exists, renting out excess spaces appears to be a pervasive strategy employed by parishes both to offset maintenance costs and to perpetuate their social mission in new forms.
The prevailing discourse nonetheless employs a stark public-private framework to settle accounts between Church and State in the midst of growing secularism. As congregations dwindle, the fate of their culturally and architecturally precious buildings becomes a matter of public concern. To some, this concern is equivalent to a legal interest—even literal ownership. Parishioners were taxed to construct these buildings, the argument runs, and because at the time of their construction “parishioner” was practically equivalent with “resident,” today’s (secularized) citizen is the heir to yesterday’s church-going Catholic. As parishes reach the critical point of consolidating congregations and selling buildings, control of their property ought to revert to this new public rather than being liquidated by the Christian community and reinvested elsewhere—to construct parking lots at new suburban parishes, for instance.
A 2005 commission of the National Assembly rejected this legal argument without resolving the cultural tension: It upheld parishes’ ownership rights while recognizing a legitimate public interest in the fate of church buildings. But it’s possible to see this situation as more than a balance of competing interests. Urbanist Louis Jolin points out that the spaces churches occupy between public and private is not just an ambiguous void, but a meaningful space of collectivity, the space of free association.
As distinct from the “capitalist economy,” which exists “for profit, for the benefit of shareholders,” and the “public economy arising from the State, from public powers,” Jolin argues, Quebec has a lively “social and solidarity economy” populated by voluntary associations whose activities are neither profit-focused endeavors whose fruits accrue to a tightly limited group nor social programs whose universal inclusivity is enforced by police powers. Churches fall squarely into this middle space.
Perhaps more precisely, churches created this space in the first place. Quebec’s modernization after World War II is often imagined as the traditionally rural province throwing off the bonds of the Church and belatedly embracing urbanization, secularism, and capitalism. But post-war modernization in Quebec took a markedly collectivist tack in contrast to the New Deal liberalism and aggressive corporate expansion unfurling south of the border in the same period. Historian Michael Gavreau attributes this distinctive development, and the central role that voluntary associations and mutual aid societies play in contemporary Quebec society, to the historic influence of the Catholic Church in its civic and social fabric.
The decades preceding the Quiet Revolution were in fact marked by an efflorescence of lay Catholic associations seeking to respond to the devastation of the Great Depression. These trade unions, youth leagues, and education programs were heirs to an already-existing tradition of Catholic social action that had emerged in Quebec at the end of the 19th century—a movement whose legacies include the credit union model, pioneered (from a church basement) by one Alphonse Desjardins and championed by Quebec bishops and parish clergy. Desjardins remains the largest federation of credit unions in North America.
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In the light of this history, it’s clear that the harmonious cohabitation of Catholic communities with third-sector organizations on parish property today is more than an oddity. Instead, it contains a simple but profound revelation about Church, State, and society, as inscribed in the built environment. Community organizations rent space from churches because it is cheap. Space in churches is cheap because their land is not taxed, and because churches seek only the rents necessary to offset their maintenance costs, and they give preference to organizations that exist for a communal or cultural purpose. The parish land marbling the island of Montreal is almost literally “free space” in both an economic and a political sense.
The kinship between Quebec’s lingering faithful and the social activists their buildings harbor is more than pragmatic. Instead, these socially minded organizations are finding shelter in a space of free association—a communal space between market and State traditionally safe-guarded by the Church. While modernity tends to relegate spirituality to the private sphere, religious historian Philip Sheldrake points out, religious practices are actually quintessentially social, with worship services, baptisms, weddings, and holidays drawing families out of their homes and into a space at the heart of their local community.
It is their enduring power to lend coherence and integration to lived urban space that urbanist Gérard Beaudet calls, precisely, “the urbanity of churches.” In contrast, Sheldrake describes Modernist single-use zoning as “a kind of de-sacralisation of Western culture. There is no longer a centred, let alone a spiritually centred, meaning for the city,” he laments. “It becomes a commodity parceled into multiple activities and ways of organizing time, matched by multiple identities for the inhabitants.” Suburbanization, mass production and consumption, and rational planning practices have conspired to unravel what critic Tania Martin has called “the parochial nucleus.”
The withering of an integrated urban way of life meant that the Church’s postwar withdrawal into the sacred was from a public sphere increasingly divided between the market and the State. Efforts to redeem that fragmented public sphere from this alienating polarity—for instance, those of the community organizations now renting out church basements—very naturally find themselves drawn to spaces whose spiritual orientation has preserved within the city’s built form the traces of a more human life.
Madeline Johnson works as a research analyst for a commercial real estate firm in Minneapolis. She holds a Master of Urban Planning degree from McGill University. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.