Ask any Montrealer to tell you about one or more of this city’s infamous riots. Chances are that you will be told about the 1955 Maurice Richard Riot, or the 1968 tumult at the St. Jean Baptiste Parade, or, more recently, the violence and vandalism associated with two Stanley Cup victories, one in 1986 and the other in 1993. Again, chances are no one will mention the Gavazzi Riot of 1853. Maybe it was just too long ago, but as we approach the 150th anniversary of this terrible tragedy, it is perhaps worth remembering that in terms of loss of human life, it was by far and away the most serious civil disturbance ever to occur in our city.

Alessandro Gavazzi

Montreal, June 9, 1853

It was with bated breath that Montrealers awaited the arrival in this city of the controversial preacher and Italian nationalist, Alessandro Gavazzi, who was to reach Montreal from Québec the morning of June 9, 1853. Admittedly the town’s anxiety was heightened by the fact that, only a few nights earlier, a riot had broken out in Quebec as a result of a stirring address by the Bologna-born apostate, an expelled Barnabite monk.

His arrival in Canada East could not have come at a more inopportune time as the provincial parliament was involved in a heated debate over the ever thorny question of separate schools for the Roman Catholics of Canada West. Protestant cries of “papist domination” and “Roman enslavement” could be heard throughout the Canadian colony and events would later show that the municipal authorities had reason to be apprehensive about the imminent visit of such a notorious and outspoken anti-Catholic prelate.

So it was in this context that Alessandro Gavazzi, still bearing the physical scars of the brawl in the “Vieille Capitale”, arrived in Montreal on the steamer “Québec” early in the morning of June 9. With him was his badly injured personal secretary, Paoli, who was carried on a stretcher from the ship. Gavazzi and his “delegation” of about fifty Orangemen (most of whom were carrying concealed arms) were quickly escorted under the protection of Police Superintendent Lt.-Col. William Ermatinger to the recently opened St. Lawrence Hall on Great St. James Street. Paoli was so badly injured that the Italian prelate signed the hotel register for both of them, “Father Gavazzi and secretary”. The former was assigned Room 12 and the latter Room 18.

Later that day, while Gavazzi toured the city in the company of the zealous Reverend Alexander Digby Campbell, Mayor Charles Wilson was busily overseeing plans for the maintenance of public order in the event that trouble should break out. Later that same month, the Montreal Transcript reported that government authorities had cautioned Superintendent Ermatinger to “make every arrangement for the preservation of the peace”. Those who had sponsored the Italian priest’s visit to Montreal had originally been granted the city’s concert hall in Bonsecours Market for the three public meetings which they had envisioned. However, after some intense lobbying by the Irish Roman Catholic community against the idea, the mayor reneged, forcing the Protestants to look elsewhere. They eventually came up with Zion Congregational Church on Beaver Hall Hill (today where stands the “Banque Nationale” building).

During the course of the day, Mayor Wilson met once again with the Police Superintendent and his brother, the Chief of Police, Charles Oakes Ermatinger. The mayor wanted a minimum of fifty constables standing outside the Congregational Church, a figure which was later increased to eighty men with the inclusion of a number of constables from the Water Police. Nevertheless, the municipal authorities were still apprehensive to the point where Wilson and Lt.-Col. Ermatinger personally visited the Quebec Gate Barracks (foot of St. Hubert Street) to request the availability of troops from the garrison for later that day.

Although the calendar indicated that it was still spring, the temperature was that of a hot, very hot, July or August day. In fact, it seemed that that year Montreal had passed directly from the dead of winter to the oppressive humidity of a moist continental summer, a phenomenon not totally unheard of in this city. Hand bills and word-of-mouth spread throughout the city the news that Alessandro Gavazzi had arrived from Quebec and was to speak that evening at Zion Church. The night promised to be hot in more ways than one.

The walk from St. Lawrence Hall to Beaver Hall Hill was all of five minutes for Gavazzi, an imposing and powerful man. Yet surely he could not have helped but wonder (in the light of the events in Quebec) about the intentions of those beginning to gather around the church at the foot of the hill. His presence in Montreal was especially irking to the Irish Catholic population, most of whom lived in nearby Griffintown.

Montreal, Haymarket Square, June 9, 1853 (today, Victoria Square).

As Gavazzi entered the stifling church building, a picquet of 100 men from the newly-arrived 26th Cameronians was discreetly hidden in a small engine house at the foot of Haymarket Square (today Victoria Square). The regiment had just arrived in Montreal that very morning from a three year stint in Gibraltar. Not knowing the city, they had to be led from their barracks to the square by Mayor Wilson himself. Historian Elinor Kyte Senior wrote: “When they reached the engine house, the Cameronians were within a stone’s throw of the spot where British troops had marched into the city for the first time less than a hundred years earlier. A little to the south were the ruins of the Parliament House, a silent reminder of what an angry Montreal crowd could do.” To complicate matters even further, most of the officers were at that very moment at the wharf saluting the departure of the previous garrison, the 20th Regiment of Foot, who had just completed their three-year tour of duty in this city.

By all accounts, Gavazzi’s lecture was startling, to say the least. Sir James Alexander, aide-de-camp to the commander of the forces Lt.-Gen. William Rowan, was present in the church at the time. He arrived there from the ceremonies at the wharf just after seven. Outside the church, Alexander noted the presence of about forty policemen armed only with their blue batons. In the square itself, he could clearly see bands of “rough-looking” men.

Describing the event some four years later, Alexander wrote: “Father Gavazzi was addressing the audience in Zion Church from the front of a temporary platform. On three sides, behind him, were seated about a dozen and a-half gentlemen, among whom were some clergymen. Gavazzi was conspicuous by his commanding figure, long hair, and black gown, with large crosses on the breast and left shoulder, as he is usually seen in pictures. He spoke in English, and it was not easy to follow him at first. He was discursive, and his accent was of course peculiar. He was calm, energetic, and violent by turns”. Earlier in his memoir, Alexander presented the Italian clergyman as “one of the most remarkable men of the nineteenth century”.

Within the church, the mood was electric. The windows on the south side of the building had been boarded up in anticipation of problems from the Griffintown slums below the hill, although the Catholic Institute had advised the faithful to ignore Gavazzi’s invective.


Keep the peace, and let Gavazzi say what he will; do not disgrace yourselves by creating a disturbance for the sake of a worthless fellow; keep quiet, and take no notice of what he says. Your Protestant fellow-citizens will be ashamed of their renegade friar yet.

By order of the Catholic Institute. S. O’Grady, Secretary (Signed)

Montreal, June 9, 1853”

Nevertheless, for nearly an hour, the firebrand orator railed on about the “errors of Popery”, “the threat posed by Roman Catholic education”, and the “blessings of British rule”. He had in no way toned down his presentation in light of the events a few days earlier in Quebec. The tension grew but his captive Protestant audience maintained a stony and stoic silence throughout most of his discourse. Alexander later wrote that the “whole scene and appearance of the lecturer must have been startling to those with weak nerves…..I also wondered at the boldness of the man, and how little he seemed to regard his own life, or the peril he then was in, and of the dangers he had already so frequently passed”.

Suddenly, the inevitable happened: a violent commotion due to the possible presence of a Catholic within the church itself spilled over into the streets where more than three hundred angry individuals had gathered. About twenty or thirty men left the building armed with clubs, hand pistols, fowling pieces, and even one double-barrelled shotgun to confront them. Shots from both sides were fired and a quick retreat was made to the relatively-safe confines of Zion Congregational Church, with one individual, a Mr. Broomer, severely wounded in the head. For a brief moment, Gavazzi stopped speaking only to continue his virulent diatribe minutes later. Only a few seconds passed when the church was attacked by the infuriated mob. This time, Alexander left the building for good.

The situation outside was even more chaotic. The badly out-numbered police had been beaten off by the rioters leaving both Ermatinger brothers injured and bleeding profusely from the head. For all intents and purposes, only the church party was left to defend the besieged building. Nevertheless, the rioters were eventually repelled to the bottom of the square where they were seen to be defiantly reorganizing. It was at this moment that Alexander noted that he first saw the troops emerge from the nearby tiny engine house where they had been hidden away for a couple of very unpleasant hours. With their heavy military wool garments, they were perceived to be somewhat dazed and confused but above all, suffocatingly hot.

In due time, after some initial military manoeuvering, two lines of fifty soldiers each were drawn up in such a way that they were back to back with each facing one of the two disputing religious parties. The two lines were about fifty yards apart. Generally speaking, the Catholics were at the bottom of the hill while the Protestants were to the north, clustered in and around the church. Many, in fact, were just emerging from the torrid edifice in question. It was dusk, nearly 8:00 P.M., there being no Daylight Savings Time in 1853. Gavazzi and most of his party were still safely within Zion Congregational Church and, therefore, totally unaware of what was about to happen in Hay Market Square.

Suddenly, almost unbelievably, shots were fired in the direction of the soldiers, several missing the mark but by little. Many rioters, unaware that the soldiers had already loaded their muskets before arriving on the scene, then rushed towards the beleaguered troops. Mayor Wilson, who was present on the square throughout the sweltering evening, quickly and inaudibly read the infamous Riot Act. “Our Sovereign Lady the Queen chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the Act made in the first year of King George the First, to prevent tumults and riotous assemblies, God Save the Queen.” No sooner had he finished when someone called out “Fire! Fire! Fire!” Many believe that it was the much agitated mayor himself who gave the order but to this day, no one is certain.

The lower division fired first and was immediately reprimanded by Lieutenant Robert Quartley. However, no sooner had he done so the upper division also opened with a volley and, at that point, the bugle sounded loudly to cease fire. The whole totally unexpected affair lasted no more than half a minute.

Sir James Alexander observed the incident first-hand and noted that “some of those about me laughed, and thought that the troops had fired blank cartridge”. Sadly, nothing could have been further from the truth as nearby a young boy of ten, the son of Mr. William Hutchinson, fell over, his leg being struck by a bullet. Amputation was performed the next day with death taking the young lad shortly thereafter.

With a sudden eerie silence settling in, people regained their composure and looked about. All around them was to be seen human carnage. About a dozen individuals were killed outright. Another forty or so were injured with many of those eventually succumbing to their wounds in those pre-antiseptic days of medicine. Alexander wrote that “persons from ten years of age to sixty suffered, including gentlemen and workpeople, with English, Scotch (sic), and Irish names, two ladies were wounded, and some good people, though apparently not dangerously wounded at the time, died afterwards with much suffering”. One of the more fortunate individuals to survive his injuries was Hugh Mackay who later in life helped found Montreal’s Mackay Centre “for deaf mutes”. He was shot in the leg outside Zion Congregation Church and carried the scar and, by all accounts, the memory with him until his death in 1889.

Alessandro Gavazzi was still in the the basement of the church during the fusillade. He was discussing with the friends the latest incidents while all- along removing his religious wearing apparel. Suddenly the shots were heard. Gavazzi’s first reaction was to attempt to head outside to see what had happened and if he could be of assistance (he had, after all, been chaplain to Garibaldi’s army in 1848!). However, his Montreal acquaintances, sensing that his life would be in peril, blocked his path. He was eventually hustled from the building under an armed escort of fifty soldiers back to St. Lawrence Hall where an all-night watch was put around the hotel. According to information found later in Gavazzi’s autobiography, the thirty year old valise containing his very colourful soutane and coat was, in the midst of the chaos, handed to someone who promised to forward them to the Italian prelate’s hotel. Neither were ever seen again! Meanwhile, the much humiliated Mayor Wilson was also whisked away from the bloody scene to his home by the same picquet of soldiers and a guard was then placed around it as well.

Throughout the night, a palpable tension could be felt everywhere within the shocked city. Not suprisingly, there was a great deal of irony found in the tragedy that many found very difficult to overlook. The newly arrived Cameronians -a regiment which was two thirds Protestant and one third Catholic, and all under Presbyterian command – had killed and wounded, for all intents and purposes, only Protestants. Not to be forgotten of course was the fact the mayor, who was strongly suspected of having given the order to fire, was a Roman Catholic. In short, neither the incident nor the regiment was to be forgotten or forgiven quickly by this city’s Protestant community. Indeed, in the July 15, 1853 edition Montreal Witness, a reporter still felt angry enough to write that on June 9 in Haymarket Square “defenceless Protestants had been massacrated (sic) by a rabid Popish Mayor”.

The following day, Friday, June 10 Alessandro Gavazzi remained sequestered in Henry Hogan’s hotel on Great St. James Street. There was still the question of the other two lectures (as mentioned previously three had been planned) upon which to decide. Delegation after delegation came to attempt to sway the flamboyant Italian nationalist to their point of view. In the end, after much equivocation, Gavazzi thought it best to return to Montreal another day (he never did) and to leave for New York as soon as possible. This the ex-Barnabite did the following morning when on June 11 at 5:00 under heavy military protection he left the St. Lawrence Hall by a side door, again carrying his still-injured secretary in his arms. A closed cab took both of them to the dock where they caught the steamer-ferry “Iron Duke” for Laprairie. They arrived by train in New York City that very evening.

Not surprisingly, a Coroner’s Inquest was held, although the authorities hesitated in convoking it for fear of re-opening sectarian wounds. Nevertheless, it sat for some twenty-five days, ending its deliberations on July 11. It was, by all accounts, impartially chaired by Messrs. Jones and Coursolle, the two coroners for the city. It heard from some 106 witnesses and in the end could not supersede its own religious divisions (nineteen jurors: ten Catholic and nine Protestants). Evidence seemed to point to the notion that the division facing the Protestants (north) who were still in the process of leaving the church intentionally fired high in order to prevent injury. However, the scene of the tragedy was a hill -Beaver Hall Hill- and this fact weighed heavily against the other. Autopsies also revealed that some people on both sides of the religious divide were killed by small arms fire and not by larger military “balls”.

The question which always came back to haunt the inquest, however, was who exactly gave the order to fire upon the crowd. Protestants steadfastly believed that it was the “papist” mayor while Roman Catholics had their own theory which was articulated by a recent arrival to Montreal, a widowed school teacher from Canada West by the name of Margaret Brown Parker. According to her testimony before the Coroner’s Inquest in early July, she was standing between the two divisions to one side of the crowd in Haymarket Square. Mrs. Parker continued by saying that an unidentified man in the crowd gave the order to fire as well as any commander could have. She described him as “a common Irishman …..who wore a blue coat, made in the real old Irish fashion, corduroy moleskin pantaloons that came to his boots, and a home made straw hat”. When she later reproached him for causing trouble, he responded with a smile” “It’s nineteen years since I took the lousy shilling (enlisted),but all that time I had not the satisfaction I have this night”. A few moments later, she saw him again, this time with two or three others, one of whom said: “It was not him gave the word, it was the Holy Virgin”.

The issue and tension associated with that unfortunate day’s events in this city’s history remained present for several years to come. According to historian Robert Sylvain’s 1962 biography of Alessandro Gavazzi, one of the injured parties, a Mr. Stevenson, who was severely injured in the shoulder at the time, even under took legal action in 1857 -four years later- against the then former Mayor Wilson. His suit was in the due course dropped for lack of evidence. The issue then as to who gave the order to fire was never really resolved.

As for Gavazzi, he never came back to Montreal. He did, however, return to his beloved Italy, defiantly establishing a small Christian Church directly across the Tiber from St. Peter’s in Rome. His church still stands today. He died in the Eternal City in January of 1889 and is buried in that city’s Protestant Cemetery.

Alessandro Gavazzi’s Signature in register of St. Lawrence Hall Hotel, Montreal, June 1853 (courtesy of the National Archives of Canada).