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The Resilient Parish Buildings of Quebec

Church properties survive secularization by finding new ways to serve their neighborhoods.

By many counts, the Roman Catholic Church is the largest non-government landowner on the globe. Among its lands are monastery gardens and university campuses, episcopal palaces and parish halls—and a class of properties that should be of particular interest to a New Urbanist, the ubiquitous parish church. If you’re in North America and find yourself surrounded by three-story brick buildings without much space between them, look around: chances are you’ll soon come across a steepled church of the same early 20th century vintage.

Now magnets for breweries and coworking spaces, those historic urban pockets of residential density—Montreal’s triplexes, Chicago’s rowhouses, Minneapolis’s walk-ups, punctuated by neighborhood commerce and small-scale factories—were originally streetcar suburbs, often first inhabited by new immigrants. As they arrived, the Italian, the Irish, the Polish, the Portuguese, all built themselves churches named after familiar saints adorned in their preferred styles.

A century later, the factories have closed and the workers and their churchgoing families are long gone, graduated to more distant suburbs. The lingering parishioners are aging and parish communities are consolidating. Waves of new immigrants with new tastes in worship have taken up residence, jostling for space with agnostic creatives looking for places with character. The destiny of aging church buildings in prime real estate areas has become a pressing concern to parish administration and to the communities in which these institutions historically played a structuring role.

In several high-profile cases, vacated church buildings have been sold for conversion to private uses, to mixed reactions from community stakeholders. In many more cases, parishes stay afloat by operating as more or less formal landlords to community organizations renting space in their rectories and basements and start-up charter schools leasing their closed parish school buildings. The result is an organic social real estate economy quietly playing a significant role in a city’s non-profit sector.

Successful partnerships between parishes and community organizations deserve attention as much for their social impact and capacity to fund architectural maintenance as for their power to sustain engagement with a religious heritage that is not reducible to nationalist identity politics or nostalgia. The cohabitation of secular community organizations on church property is a potentially rich spiritual encounter.

Forged by a union of church and state unknown in much of the United States and possessing a remarkable endowment of architecturally significant parish churches, the Canadian city of Montreal offers a uniquely illuminating example of the spiritual dynamics at play in such encounters. The seemingly natural affinity between churches and social services is obscured in Quebec by painful political histories. Stagnation and abuses in church-run social services motivated a revolutionary overhaul of Quebec’s social infrastructure in the 1960s. Charity became the official purview of the state, and religion was relegated to the private sphere, where it rapidly dwindled.

Yet the fact that progressive, adamantly non-sectarian community organizations have roosted in the rafters of traditional Catholic Quebec by renting parish spaces today is more than an economic fluke. In a place where they seem most anomalous, space-sharing agreements in Montreal parishes in fact exhibit the deep logic of Quebec’s social and solidarity economy, itself a legacy of Catholic activism in the province. A closer look at this history unearths principles that can guide ecclesial and civic actors as they navigate the church’s urban presence in the 21st century.

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The dominant discourse of religious heritage in Quebec posits a sharp opposition between the private interests of the church and the interests of the public, safeguarded by a secular state. Since fulfilling a 1994 commission from Quebec City to inventory and classify its places of worship, researchers Luc Noppen and Lucie K. Morisset have consolidated a role as academic gatekeepers of the conversation. The pair’s basic conviction is that the Quebecois “collectivity” produced the province’s churches; therefore, their future is a project for that collectivity to manage—through the apparatus of the secular State.

Arguing for public custodianship of church properties, Morisset claims that in Quebec’s history, even “church attendance, like church construction and maintenance, arose above all from the cultural practices of civil society.” To “have folded churches back into the private domain of worship” by granting dwindling parish communities continued control of their church real estate is to have lost the thread of this history.

Since, in Noppen and Morisset’s judgment, the historical significance of these buildings as places of worship has ceased to reflect the sensibilities of “our new, secularized, globalized society,” the province’s churches now represent a “heritage” for contemporary Quebec to “reinvent.”  Having in 1997 (and again eight years later) proffered 20 years as the period in which one could expect an active Catholic presence to withdraw completely from the province’s churches, Noppen and Morisset stake the future of Quebec’s churches on their designation as heritage, with the progressive secularization this implies.

Noppen goes so far as to cast heritage designation in sacred terms, as if replacing one religious practice with another:

If, on a symbolic and utilitarian level, the best fate of a church is to keep a place of worship, sacralization should above all be founded on the public, civil, inviolable, and inalienable character that we attribute, no longer to sacred objects, but to heritage, as a manifestation of our collective desire to project ourselves into the future.

While religious and economic motives were mixed throughout the continent, the first European settlers of Montreal were notably evangelistic. The members of the Société de Notre-Dame de Montréal consecrated themselves for the Christianization of New France at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris before they embarked and founded Ville-Marie, the innermost borough of contemporary Montreal, with the basilica of Notre-Dame de Montréal at its heart. The members of the Société were succeeded in their administration of the settlement by Sulpician fathers, who became the feudal lords (seigneurs) of the island’s territories.

From the distinctive oblong shape of the province’s subdivisions to the stone-and-copper architecture of its schools and hospitals, the physical, social, and legal infrastructure established by these 17th century religious figures is inextricable from Quebecois civilization. The Sulpician seigneuries were for Montreal what the surveyor’s 36-square-mile township would become for the United States. The hospital established by Jeanne Mance in 1645 remained in operation until 2017. Education and health care were directly administered by the Church until the 1960s, the period known as the Quiet Revolution.

Quebec’s Quiet Revolution is commonly imagined as a unilateral move by secular authorities to loosen the hold of the Catholic Church on social life, the very essence of the period’s effect of “modernizing” Quebec. However, the relationship of contemporary, progressive Quebec to its traditionalist Catholic past is much more complex than one of simple emancipation.

Canadian historian Michael Gauvreau notes that the modernization of Quebec incorporated a strong collectivist element rather than straightforwardly following the market-driven, individualistic currents of liberalism. For this, he credits an oft-overlooked Catholic influence:

The ideological modernization of Quebec was…neither the creation of a few dedicated secular intellectuals, nor was it imposed after World War II by the constraints of a restructuring of the Canadian federation. Its roots lay, rather, in the efforts of the Catholic Church to devise a socio-political solution to the economic catastrophe of the 1930s.

These efforts took the form of an efflorescence of Catholic lay associations—trade unions, youth organizations, academic collectives. These Depression-era movements were heirs to an already existing tradition of so-called Catholic Action that had emerged in Quebec at the end of the 19th century. The legacies of this movement include the credit union (caisse populaire) model pioneered by one Alphonse Desjardins, an active Catholic directly influenced by Catholic social teaching, and championed by Quebec bishops and parish clergy. These credit unions were often based in church basements and were eventually enshrined in Quebec law.

A fascinating set of characters—including Emile Bouvier, a priest and professor of industrial relations at the Université de Montréal, and Claude Ryan, editor of Le Devoir, Canada’s longstanding francophone newspaper of record—were the protagonists of Catholic Action’s effort to recalibrate the church’s presence in society to adjust to changing social conditions. As Quebec urbanized and joined the global economy, its Catholicism would express itself culturally in the creation of a humane social infrastructure and simultaneously reinvent itself religiously. The Catholic faith would no longer be professed as received tradition, but instead as a voluntary affiliation vindicated in the new pluralistic marketplace of ideas.

The secularization of Quebec’s social infrastructure thus was not simply an expulsion of the Catholic Church into the private realm. What the Church left behind as it withdrew was not just an emancipated demos and a secular state but rather a collectivist ethos profoundly influenced by Catholic social teaching and a thicket of intermediate bodies standing between the individual and the State. Incarnations of what Gauvreau calls the “postwar vision of Catholic social democracy,” these intermediate bodies included “families, municipalities, parishes, trade unions, professional associations, and political, charitable, and religious bodies, each charged with upholding a well-defined aspect of the common good and each constituting a part of a well-functioning political society.” Contemporary Quebec’s lively third sector, unique in North America, is a legacy of this.

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Whether detaching Catholic belief and practice from a popular, largely rural tradition to suit it for the emerging individualistic urban palate ultimately helped or harmed the cause of the Kingdom in Quebec remains a mystery. The road significantly narrowed, and those who found it were fewer. But if the liberalization of Quebecois Catholicism inadvertently entailed a severing of the practicing body from the believing mind, the crisis of the urban parish offers an opportunity for a renewed integration.

As we have seen, urbanists like Noppen and Morriset could stand to be more sensitive to the spiritual dimensions of the church buildings they study. By the same token, Christian custodians of parish properties would benefit from deeper awareness of their urbanistic dimensions. Such an awareness is vital if church decision-makers are to steward the immense human value and spiritual potential of their urban presences. Tracing out the implications of sacramental life in the built environment may help parishes to envision renewed expressions of their apostolic mission in the contemporary city, rather than a slow surrender to de-Christianization.

While those who live according to different cosmic narratives may seem to inhabit different worlds, shared physical space provides a humanly meaningful substratum of lived commonality. It is on these grounds of encounter that the Church can live out her apostolic mission, becoming more fully herself. Non-religious civic actors are invited to take into account the lingering power of religious imagery and memory in a neighborhood, and parishioners and clergy to imagine the layered and complex experience an a-religious neighbor may have of a sacred structure. Each becomes real for the other.

The reversal of some suburbanizing trends, or the gentrification of streetcar suburbs, puts historic parish churches in a newly dynamic position. Having weathered the post-war exodus of the old working class, the parish has remained with those who remained and received those who moved in next, trading its parish hall for a soup kitchen, its bingo nights for a weekend flea market. As higher income residents are drawn to the neighborhood by changing urban tastes, the parish church stands at a crossroads: on the one hand, she embodies the integration and sense of meaning the gentrifiers come in search of; on the other, she enacts the justice and charity that are immediate imperatives of the Good News she carries.

As church decision-makers navigate the apostolic opportunities and financial pressures of the ever-evolving cities around them, they should gather strength from the power of the urban parish to be a place of encounter: between secular and sacred, between strangers and neighbors, between rich and poor, between old and new, renewed by the one encounter between God and man made present daily on her altars.

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.



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