Published in the Montreal Gazette on March 26, 2011
The Montreal Star on July 11, 1908, reported that a 2,000-pound bell had been successfully removed from the belfry of St. Patrick’s Church on Dorchester Street. Nicknamed ‘La Charlotte’, it was originally cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London in 1774 and later placed in the tower of the previous Notre Dame Church on Place d’Armes.
The brief account of the removal of the one-ton object is accompanied by a vintage photo of the huge bell surrounded by nine men who were no doubt happy that they were able to bring down the monstrosity without incident. It was immediately sent off to England to be recast.
‘La Charlotte’ had a colourful history in the old Notre Dame Church. When the building was demolished in 1843 (it had been made redundant by the new Notre Dame, with which we are all familiar), it was decided to incorporate the celebrated bell into the proposed St. Patrick’s Church, then just under construction.
Erected in traditional greystone supplied from Montreal quarries, the magnificent gothic structure was completed in time for St. Patrick’s Day 1847. On that notable day, ’La Charlotte’ was proudly in place, as were 4,000 people who observed the edifice’s first pontifical mass.
As the years passed, the momentous bell was witness to many important spiritual events. For instance, in April of 1868, the funeral service of the assassinated Thomas D’Arcy McGee, father of Confederation, was held at St. Patrick’s, and a little over a decade later the renowned Canadian poet Emile Nelligan was baptized in that same Roman Catholic sanctuary.
With time ‘La Charlotte’ became damaged through constant use, necessitating its removal and its transport to London to be recast. As Montreal was hosting the Eucharistic Congress of 1910, with St. Patrick playing a major role in the sacred event, it was felt that the time had come to repair the famous bell.
When the restored ‘Charlotte’ was returned to Montreal from England in December 1908, a special dedication service was held at St. Patrick’s. At the same service, on Sunday, December 13, another bell (donated by the Holy Name Society of St. Patrick’s Church, and nicknamed ‘Holy Name’) was also installed. “These two,” reported The Star on December 5, 1908, “with a small bell which dates from 1769 will form the peal of St. Patrick’s.”
Montreal’s Irish community has deep roots in the city. In the early 19th century, the 40 or so Irish congregants met in the Bonsecours Church on St. Paul Street. There, their spiritual needs were attended to by Father Jackson (himself an American convert to Catholicism) who continued in that role until his own death in the “ship fever sheds” at Point St. Charles in 1847, the very year that St. Patrick’s was officially opened.
As the Irish population in Montreal grew quite rapidly, a new ecclesiastic accommodation had to be found. In 1831, the congregation moved to the old abandoned Church of the Récollets at Notre Dame and St. Helen Streets. The same parishioners who had lightheartedly tagged the Bonsecours Church “the Bosco” immediately assigned the name “Regilee” to their new religious home.
In the early 1840’s, the Irish population had grown to about 6,500. The Récollets Church had become totally inadequate for the expanding congregation, with many members unable to enter the packed building for Sunday mass.
So while the congregation was still at the old Récollets Church, the plans for St. Patrick’s were painstakingly drawn up. The principal inspiration for the initiative was Rev. Father Patrick Phelan who later, in 1843, became the bishop of Kingston, and, therefore, had left Montreal before seeing the realization of his dream. Nevertheless, the mammoth job went forward.
The land was purchased in 1843 from the DeRocheblave estate and the ground was broken in August of that same year. Sulpician documentation would seem to suggest that the architect of St. Patrick’s was P. L. Morin, who received some assistance from Father Felix Martin, founder of the Jesuit College of St. Mary’s on nearby Bleury Street.
This remarkable beautiful edifice, along with its ancient bell, ‘La Charlotte’, constitutes a major component in this city’s rich and diverse religious heritage.
Below, St. Patrick’s Church in 1857