In 1823, reconstruction of Montreal’s Notre-Dame began. This building dominates the oldest precinct of Montreal; it was the first sacred space I visited when I arrived in the city this June. Approaching it on a Bixi bike (which was the perfect way to get around the city, from Buckminster Fuller’s biosphere for Expo 67 to the Five Roses flour mill), the two towers signalled a transformation in the urban landscape from sprawling business and industry into preserved settings firmly associated with the French settlement’s earliest history. The church’s seventeenth-century foundation building proved too small for the city’s growing population in the early nineteenth century, and the new structure was to be a grand statement of Roman Catholic power wrought in fashionable Neo-Gothic forms. The architect was an unusual choice: James O’Donnell, a New York Irish Protestant. He converted to Catholicism during the building process. The church was inaugurated in 1829, months before his death. The towers rose slowly through the 1840s, and the interior is a mixture of blaring high-contrast jewel-toned polychromy, late nineteenth-century flowing tracery toplighting, and a series of sturdy stained glass windows from the 1920s. The interior was inspired by Ste Chapelle in Paris, but the building couldn’t be anything other than nineteenth century in its detail, materials, and deployment of Gothic features. East of the sanctuary, the Chapel of the Sacred Heart was designed by Perreault and Mesnard in the 1880s. A fire in 1979 destroyed this section of Notre Dame and it was rebuilt in an uneasy (and very, very brown) mixture of postmodern elements, combining Gothic Revival arcades and side chapels with a vast bronze altarpiece by Charles Daudelin. Neither fully embracing the modern possibilities of 1970s architecture nor offering a renewed and innovative historicist view on modern Gothic, the chapel’s stylistic awkwardness suggests anxiety regarding past, present, and future in relation to revivalism and Catholic identity towards the close of the twentieth century.
A week after my visit to Notre Dame, I went to Mile End for three things: brunch at Nouveau Palais, comparative bagel shopping at the city’s two prime locations for their bulk production (they bake them on long wooden boards, and both shops are stripped to essentials: counter, fridge full of cream cheese, infinite bags of flour, massive roaring open oven. C’est tout.), and a church I spotted while walking over the flyover from the nearest Metro station. This was the last sacred space I visited in Montreal, a few hours before I caught a flight back to London. In 1902, the parish of St Michael the Archangel was founded for the region’s Irish Catholic population. The church, completed by 1915, boasted the largest dome in Montreal until St Joseph’s Oratory surpassed its hefty scale. The Byzantine style was suggested by Aristide Beaugrande-Champagne, the building’s local architect. He was a vocal advocate for reinforced concrete, an archaeologist, and a founding member of the Groupe des Dix. The interior of the church combines searing orange and green floral motifs in stained glass panels with a complex scheme of figural and patterned painting alongside rhythmic structural polychromy. The lighting made it nearly impossible to photograph; the dome’s interior features an aggressive Archangel Michael casting rebel angels from heaven. The rogue divine creatures tumble into the pendentives, falling towards the nave in graceful billowing drapery, surrounded by staunchly upright trees representing fruits of a lost paradise. The artist was Guido Nincheri, whose murals and stained glass are a key element of Quebec’s sacred sites, including the Trois-Rivieres cathedral and Set Madeleine d’Outremont. I’ve been researching twentieth-century murals and religion lately, and am delighted to have been introduced to Nincheri’s work before heading home. London’s C20 churches could have been enhanced by a rogue angel or two, perhaps.