While generally informative, Andy Riga’s recent Gazette article about the roadwork currently taking place on Peel Street between de La Gauchetière and René Lévesque contains one major omission. (“Peel St. 2.0: Wider sidewalks, bike paths, fewer cars,” June 1, 2019.)
In fact, concealed just below the surface of Dominion Square and its environs (including Peel Street) are the haunting vestiges of the old St. Antoine Cemetery, this city’s 19th century Roman Catholic graveyard before Notre Dame de Neiges.
For nearly a month now, with new fresh water pipes resting ominously on the surface of the lower part of the historic block, archeologists are painstakingly sifting through several sites of interest near the old Dorchester Boulevard.
On Friday, for a good half-hour, I observed two boneyard specialists going about their tasks. Prostrate, one, with fine dental-like tools and an always handy brush, scraped ever so gently and methodically upon some object not far below street level. The other, a young woman, was dutifully taking notes of his work, and assisting in other ways as well. There were several others rummaging about also.
Above, automobiles travel north on Peel on June 3, while archeological work continues.
Later, taking a short break from their punctilious undertaking, they both engaged with me in a pleasant conversation about what they were doing. Seems that the municipal authorities, always aware of the evocative, beneath-the-ground presence of those long gone, took wise precautions to avoid a repetition of unfortunate incidents that have occurred in the not-too-distant past.
In 1978, for instance, during excavation activities for the laying of the foundations of Complexe Guy Favreau a little farther east of the current dig, several macabre discoveries were made – including the accidental extraction of two fully-intact metal, windowed coffins. The area in question had, in point of fact, during the first half of the nineteenth century, been an expansive Protestant cemetery (St. Lawrence Burial Ground), which The Gazette described in June of 1833 as a virtual swamp. Decades later, the graveyard was remodelled into a public park known as Dufferin Square.
While the scattered bones were not identifiable, the two plated boxes were trackable. They contained the remains of 16-year-old Noah Payson Shaw, who died in 1836, and his younger brother, Edward, who left this life some eight years later. All the eerie remains were transferred and reinterred on December 6 of that same year in Mount Royal Cemetery.
Meanwhile, the two archeologists on Peel Street advised me that what they were examining was indeed a coffin, into which they could see via a tiny opening in its lid. Judging by the relatively small size of the surviving skull, the location was meant to be the last resting place of a child. That was not to be, however, for the two further informed me that almost certainly the remains, when fully extracted, would be removed by the city to Notre Dames des Neiges Cemetery, along with others they were investigating at the same time.
At the end of the workday on Friday, a piece of plywood was placed over their precious discovery, while a tent protected the overall site itself. Their authoritative activities, at what was once Montreal’s fourth Roman Catholic cemetery, would resume on Monday.
However, before our conversation terminated, I quickly asked them the all-important question: If, in fact, they felt pressure from city officials to complete the work as rapidly as possible so as not to obstruct motorized vehicles unduly. After a quick reference to similar situations in London and Rome, the young man responded that for the moment, no – that they were being afforded all the time they need to complete their analysis. They both seemed somewhat supportive when I asserted that that is the way it should be, that, after all, these, too, were Montrealers, albeit Montrealers of another era. They are, in a sense, our civic ancestors and their remains should be treated with respect, even if it should require considerably more time.
But, in the interim, those conduit pipes still sit inauspiciously not too far away from where this archeological dig is taking place.
Below, on June 11, the outline of human bones can begin to be seen near the archeologist’s (left) boot.