It would appear that the novelty has not yet worn off. It’s been nearly three years since the St. Catherine Street shops hiding the magnificent facade of St. James United Church were demolished, and still people stop to gaze at what is seemingly a divine unveiling. Indeed, it is not infrequent that Montrealers linger for five or ten minutes sharing with one another their thoughts about this stunning and relatively recent revelation. It is difficult to imagine that the better part of this grand cathedral had been hidden from public view since 1927. Over the years, I myself would occasionally walk behind the church in order to appreciate its full French gothic grandeur.
Constructed in 1887 as St. James Methodist Church, it was considered at the time to be the largest place of worship of that particular religious sect anywhere in the world. St. James, however, very quickly ran into financial difficulty such that it was later decided to rent out the valuable St. Catherine Street land in front of the ecclesiastic structure. Thus, there are very few Montrealers with us today who remember the majesty of the building before it was obscured from public view all those years ago.
The church, which replaced an earlier temple of the same name on St. Jacques Street, was the work of Canadian architect Alexander F. Dunlop. It seats a remarkable 2,000 people. St. James even had its own state of the art bowling alley in its basement, reflecting the general desire of the clergy of the day to keep its fold off the intemperate streets of the city (today the lanes are used for church storage).
Many people of importance have spoken within its walls, not the least of whom was Booker T. Washington the great black American educator. Little known even within the church circle itself, Booker T. Washington spoke in Montreal’s “cathedral of Methodism” on the afternoon of February 7, 1906. For for than an hour, the formidable and impressive Washington electrified the 2,000 individuals who crowded the nave of the church. The event was sponsored by McGill Unversity and nearly half the people present were students from that institution. That the illustrious Washington chose to speak there was not a surprise to most, as St. James Methodist Church was at the vanguard of the anti-slavery and suffragette movements in this city. The abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe also addressed the congregation on another occasion.
So the next time you walk by, take a gander at this marvel of Montreal architecture and social history. You might even pop inside to appreciate the surroundings in which Booker T. Washington spoke. Very little has changed.