Published in the Montreal Gazette on February 2, 2008
An acquaintance recently told me that when he was a child growing up in a tenement at the foot of the Jacques Cartier Bridge, he witnessed the accidental unearthing by road workers of a coffin just south of Malo Street.
The astonished labourers, having completely extracted the casket, called the authorities, who rapidly arrived to remove this unexpected legacy from Montreal’s past.
While many people (especially those on the scene) were amazed at this seemingly macabre discovery, Montreal historians were not. They knew that much of the area had at one time served as a large burial ground for both the British military garrison and ordinary residents of the city.
In fact, from 1797 until the mid-19th century, more than 1,000 soldiers and their families were interred in what became known as the Old Military Burial Ground, located on the then-Victoria Road, now Papineau Avenue, north of de Maisonneuve Boulevard, today the site of Parc des Vétérans.
By 1944, when the remains of British soldiers were exhumed and relocated, the site was dilapidated, having weathered several years of neglect and vandalism.
In June 1912, one Montreal newspaper reported that the “boneyard had become the resort of idle men and boys, stray dogs and cattle”. It eventually became necessary to station police officers on the burial grounds 24 hours a day to protect the site from further desecration.
It is believed that the remains of each and every one of the British military personnel buried there were exhumed and successfully transported to the Field of Honour in Pointe Claire, where an imposing dedication ceremony was later held.
My friend’s childhood memory should remind us, however, that there was never any systematic attempt to unearth the bodies of ordinary Montrealers who were laid to rest in what was, at that time, a very beautiful and secluded area beyond the walls of the old city.
While the weatherworn tombstones of St. Mary’s Cemetery were ultimately removed, their earthly remains were left behind. From there, every now and then, they remind us of their presence.
Below, the Papineau Road Military Cemetery, with the tower of Taylor Presbyterian Church (1893) in the background