First published in the Westmount Examiner in May 2008.
Virtually every day, since stepping down from the working world, I walk extensively through the Montreal city centre. I’m told that it’s good for my health and, moreover, I enjoy it. I always choose the same trajectory: a four kilometre amble along celebrated and historic St. Catherine Street. Each venture along this magnificent thoroughfare deepens my attachment to this city and its unique heritage, an inheritance in which my family has shared for well-over a century.
My jaunt always starts at the same location – the old Montreal Forum in the west end of the town. As I approach the now-recycled building, my mind is a cascade of personal memories and thoughts about this grand amphitheatre of Montreal and Canadian history. I retain to this day the vivid recollection of long ago queueing up in the winter cold near the tiny outdoor guichet which dispensed last minute standing room fare for dyed-in-the-wool Hab supporters. Feeling important, my fourteen year-old friends and I always took our $1.25 tickets to the St. Catherine Street entrance, hoping to gain admittance to the stadium through that prestigious portal. “Programmes, get your lucky number programmes,” the youthful magazine hawkers would call out lustily.
Leaving my teenage reminiscences momentarily behind, I initiate my stroll eastward at an unhurried pace. I don’t get very far, however, when I come face to face with the now forlorn facade of the old Seville Theatre, one of the great movie houses of an erstwhile St. Catherine Street. I pause for an instant in front of the dismal ruin, contemplating an aunt’s anecdote that, from the tramway, she had once seen Harry Belafonte enter the building many years ago when the grand palace also served for live stage productions. In deep reflection, I turn my back on the abandoned shell of this once majestic theatre and resume amiably my daily walk along la rue Ste – Catherine. (italicised)
Within a short distance, I halt yet again, this time at the Ogilvy Building, ensconced at the corner of Mountain Street for well-nigh a century. I gape like a child at the corner of the edifice where the fabled Christmas theme window is normally mounted during the wintry holiday season. How many times in my childhood had my parents taken me to see that fantasy mock-up – surely a child’s longing!
I continue my promenade breaking my stride but for a moment outside the premises near Stanley Street in which my father laboured as a very young delivery boy during the Great Depression. Taken out of school at an early age, he conveyed pharmaceutical products by bicycle to the well – to – do on the steep avenues above Sherbrooke Street. His meagre earnings helped his parents make ends meet during a very difficult time.
I cross Peel Street at that urban carrefour that is Montreal and within a block or two I find myself in front of the old Eaton’s building where I myself had toiled during three consecutive and memorable summers of my adolescence. How much that Toronto-based emporium contributed to this city, not the least of which was its annual Santa Claus parade along that very same time-worn St. Catherine Street. To this day, I still hold a robust impression of standing in the late autumn dampness while all along tightly clutching my father’s hand. As yesterday!
I resume my walk. Block after block of remembrances and emotion absorb me, each intersection summoning its own yesterday from within my soul. One moment there’s the beautiful Christ Church Cathedral where my English-born grandfather continued to attend Anglican Evensong virtually on the quiet after having had converted to Catholicism in order to marry my grandmother; then the elegant department store edifice that was known for decades as Morgan’s (today The Bay); now the recently-revealed and stunning facade of St. James United Church, the largest Methodist cathedral in the world at the time of its 1887 construction. Each and every one is a jewel in the crown that is Montreal’s St. Catherine Street.
I continue leisurely my march eastward. Bleury, St. Lawrence Main, St. Denis, St. Hubert, Amherst – one after another I wistfully pass them as my daily stroll leads me deep into the town’s east end and into the face of yet another St. Catherine Street – equally appealing in its distinctiveness and vitality from the rest. Now, rapidly reaching the end of my daily trek, I can see in the distance the contours of the mighty Jacques Cartier Bridge poised over the otherwise discreet thoroughfare.
So that’s my St. Catherine Street – a hodgepodge of shops and churches, of banks and pubs, of well-dressed professionals and blue collar workers, of the urbane and the not so urbane; in short, a town trail upon which the engaging story of Montreal has been played out to its fullest over the years. From summer concerts to winter festivals, colourful parades to hockey rows, la rue Ste – Catherine (italicised) has pretty much seen it all in the course of its two hundred year existence. As such, it will almost certainly remain my preferred path upon which to saunter happily and serenely through the heart of Montreal.