Not that long ago, I had the opportunity to visit “Les Sulpiciens de Montréal.” This fascinating exposition took place in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ latest acquisition – the Erskine and American Church, which stands on Sherbrooke at the head of Crescent Street.
While the religious display in a former Protestant church of Roman Catholic artifacts was in itself noteworthy and perhaps somewhat ironic, I was, nevertheless, left with the overall impression that the beauty of the exhibition was somewhat secondary to the magnificent setting in which it was taking place. The Fine Arts Museum is to be congratulated on their obtention of the former church and their determination to save this late nineteenth century jewel of this city’s religious patrimony.
Unfortunately, the same praise cannot be extended to the City of Montreal with regard to another heritage edifice which seems doomed to face the wrecker’s ball in the not too distant future. I refer, of course, to the St. Sauveur Church building which has stood at the corner of St. Denis and Viger Streets since 1865, making it a pre-Confederation religious temple and nearly thirty years older than Erskine and American on Sherbrooke Street.
Originally established as Trinity Anglican Church, this historic sanctuary has certainly known better days. In its very first half-decade, it was frequented and supported by a number of red-coated officers of the British garrison which then protected Montreal from the threat of an American invasion. In fact, many of the officers married there.
However, almost immediately after the withdrawal of British troops from Montreal in 1871, the parish began to fall upon hard times and although Trinity did still experience brief periods of good fortune, it was finally decided to sell the building in the early 1920’s. The last Anglican service in the church was held on December 6, 1922, at which time the rector, Rev. J. M. Almond, revealed that it would have cost $100,000 to restore the facility, money the congregation simply didn’t have. Only a few days later, the ageing Christian shrine was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Montreal in order for it to become the spiritual home of the Syrian Catholic community of this city.
The refurbished ecclesiastical edifice was scheduled to celebrate its first service in its new liturgical rite on March 11, 1923, but only weeks earlier, on Valentine’s Day, the historic landmark was entirely gutted in a spectacular nine hour fire the likes of which this city had not seen in some time. It was on this tragic occasion that the beautiful Eastern Township slate roof with its clerestory windows and the upper part of the church steeple were destroyed. The organ, which the Anglicans were to have taken with them somewhat later, was also a complete loss. Fortunately, the font had already been removed to the new Trinity Memorial Church on Sherbrooke Street in Notre Dame-de-Grace. It was said that the regimental flags which hung in the old building were so tattered and fragile that they nearly fell to pieces in the process of the transfer from one church to the other.
Eventually, of course, the burnt out shell of Trinity was beautifully restored (albeit that the edifice’s’s second steeple is fifty feet shorter than the first) by the Syrian community under the leadership of Reverend Simeon Nasre. The church was then re-christened, taking the name St. Sauveur. Miraculously, down through the decades, it had survived constant threats of closure until it was finally abandoned and sold by that same congregation in the late 1990’s.
Today the old Trinity Church building is classified of “significant historical interest” by the City of Montreal, the same authority that seems intent on its demolition. In fact, a full block of imposing Montreal Victorian greystones will come down with it in order to make way for the new French language super hospital.
History has shown, however, that, with a little imagination and an equal amount of determination, new vocations for existing buildings can be found. One has only to think of the former Church of the Ascension on Park Avenue and the former St. Matthew’s Church in Quebec City, both of which are today a elegant municipal libraries. Moreover, there is now the example of Erskine and American.
Meanwhile, the ghosts of Trinity (the third oldest Anglican Church building surviving in this city today) continue to haunt its untended neighbourhood with memories of happier days in earlier times. Deeply rooted in the heritage of two religious communities and a silent witness to much of this city’s remarkable history, it’s time for concrete steps to be taken by the appropriate authorities to ensure the structure’s survival.