Quebec's converted churches
A left behind heritage
a report of Nora Legrand
In their Vision du Patrimoine 2027, Quebec city and the Catholic dioceses chose eight churches to be protected as “exceptional heritage value” : the basilica-cathedral Notre-Dame de Québec, cathedral of Holy Trinity, La Nativité de Notre-Dame church, Saint-Charles-Borromée church, Saint-Jean-Baptiste church, Saint-Roch church, Saint-Sauveur church and Saint-Charles-de-Limoilou church. $15 millions was invested over 10 years to preserve these buildings.
According to Laurier Turgeon, a professor in the department of historical sciences at Laval University, religious heritage is one of the oldest and most valuable heritage in Quebec. Yet, apart from the eight protected churches, there is no guarantee that the urban landscape of Quebec city will be the same in a few years. Increasingly, religious buildings are collapsing to give way to condominiums or seniors residences. In 2020, the Très-Saint-Sacrement church and Saint-François d’Assise church are already next on the list of converted churches in Quebec.
A tendency in Quebec
Since the 1950s, the amount of converted churches has been steadily increasing throughout Quebec. In 2010, the diocese of Quebec decided to divest itself of a certain amount of churches deemed too dangerous and too costly to continue to maintain. Three categories were created to determine each church's priority : 1. High heritage value 2. Significant heritage value 3. Community heritage value. Today, the few that are still standing have been closed for several years.
The Limoilou’s district council can certainly confirm this : “We in different districts such issues arise, there’s a major concern around them,” explains Raymond Poirier, president of the council. “We’ve been working since last March with the historical society of Limoilou to try and draw up an inventory of the heritage places for which priority should be given to implementing actions to promote their preservation."
The Saint-François d’Assise church in the Vieux-Limoilou district, deconsecrated since 2012, has only recently found a new vocation:
« The council of Limoilou is an advisory body. Initially, the process begins with the diocese and the real estate broker and we make an agreement on the sale of the land. Then, the broker and the diocese offered the deal to the city, the broker submitted a project to replace the building to the urban planning commission of Quebec city, which validated the hypothetical plan that was put forward. Eventually, during the process, the plan ended up in the hands of the council of Limoilou. In fact, in the case of the Saint-François d’Assise church, there was a particular dynamic where the project came twice to us : the first time initiated by the broker himself and the second time as part of the city's regular consultation process.” Raymond Poirier, director of the district of Limoilou council.
photo credits : monquartier.quebec
Benoît Raymond, property developer for ACERO Properties Group.
credits : linkedin
After analyzing and visualizing the city’s data about the current state of every church, we see that in most cases, condominiums were erected to replace the churches that were destroyed. That raises a question : are real estate brokers on the lookout for dilapidated churches for their profit?
“We were offered by the city of Quebec the opportunity to acquire some churches that had been determined by the city and the diocese that they could not be preserved in their current state,” answers Benoît Raymond of the ACERO Properties Group, who took its condominium project to the council of Limoilou in 2019. “We, originally, would never have bought the building if we had not had the city’s clear permission to demolish them. We got this long before we bought it.”
The plan was to build a 19-storey tower, which was badly received by the citizens : “Generally speaking, from my experience in Quebec, people in Quebec City are not used to the height of building. Historically, we can take as an exemple the Price building in the Vieux-Québec district, the citizens were against such a thing. Today, it’s en emblem. It’s kind of a moral thing here.” That plan was tabled during the first informal meeting with the district of Limoilou council. It was a way for the property developer to read the pulse of the citizens. The latter -they were about 130, according to Raymond Poirier- were able to express their opinion before the second official meeting.
A new plan meeting the citizens’ expectations was presented by the real estate group ACERO : “People understood that this church was abandoned by the diocese since 2012. They knew very well that this church had become a kind of cancer for the neighborhood. Others will never understand, but that's okay, I understand their opinion… The city and government’s current vision isn’t to preserve 100% of the religious heritage. It’s utopian to think we can save them all. To prioritize the churches is a choice that society has made, not real estate brokers.” Indeed, several reasons contribute to the accelerated deterioration of the churches, such as the climate and the contamination with lead and asbestos: “The Très-Saint-Sacrement church for exemple, I would have been given several thousand dollars to buy it. The costs to decontaminate it are skyrocketing. ». It's not just a matter of renovating the churches; they must also be maintained throughout Quebec winters.
At the end of the day, we come to wonder if buying a church really is profitable for a real estate developer. If the costs of renovation and maintenance of the religious building are higher than the income that the result will generate, there is no profit: there is a loss. “These are extremely difficult projects that take a lot of time, patience and a lot of money. Not many brokers raise their hand. In fact, the church of Saint-Francois d’Assise project dampened many developers’ enthusiasm.
Yet, Benoît Raymond went for the project. “The only asset is that the the site is always in the center of the neighborhoods. They always have a very enviable location.” Indeed, the city’s tramway project makes the district of Limoilou interesting for the real estate brokers. “It all depends on the building structure's capacity. The building code has become so severe in Canada that today that the seismic requirements have quadrupled in the last 15 years. Even if the building good quality, it might not even be worth it because of its seismic capacity. It’s very complex.”
If the health of religious buildings in Quebec is questionable, the sentimental value remains undeniable : many citizens were baptized and married in these churches before having to mourn them. The director of the council of Limoilou regrets it : “These are complex and heart-breaking issues in many ways. Everyone experienced it in their own way by taking out old pictures and memories or walking past it while taking a walk to say goodbye. It hasn't been easy for everyone, that’s for sure.”
The historical origins of the phenomenon
Laurier Turgeon, professor in the department of historical sciences at Université Laval, is an expert of religious heritage in the region of Quebec. He wrote L’inventaire du patrimoine immatériel religieux du Québec : bilan et perspectives published in the Rabaska journal in 2015.
*Translation in English down below.
Laurier Turgeon, religious heritage expert.
Courtesy of Université Laval
« The parish priests and bishops built the churches with the people's money of course. We had a very significant francophone bourgeoisie because we were a colony. At that time during the French colonial era, the bourgeoisie was French and during the English colonial era, it was English. Here in Quebec, we never had castles or very few of them, at the very least we had mansions that belonged most of the time to the anglophones. Therefore our churches are our castles in a way. There was a great tangible, financial and affective investment.
There was an important change in the religious practice during the last five decades, since the sixties, where the Quebeckers, francophones as well as anglophones in fact, left behind rather rashly the religious practice. And with the downfall of the practice, there was also the downfall of the incomes for the churches. And also, the religious congregations played an important social and economic role because they carried out two important functions of society, namely education and health care. It all went into the hands of the state in the sixties. That's when the religious communities lost their social function and their incomes. Churches started to become less popular and are often empty today. The parishes no longer have the money to heat them and to maintain them. Often, there is no action taken to give them another purpose, they’re just abandoned. Eventually, bishoprics sell them to the real estate developers.
When we did an inventory of Quebec’s religious heritage, we inventoried about 3,000 worship places. There are 500 that were either destroyed or converted. Today there are 1500 or maybe 1400 left, but we estimated that in the next few years 1000 churches will have a doubtful future. That’s almost half of it. For a while, the State had created a grant program with the council of religious heritage to preserve these churches. That allowed them to extend their living for some time. But since 2014, the State of Quebec, and through it the council of religious heritage, has changed its policy because until 2013, 2014 - the council of religious heritage was created in 1995 - they gave money. Eventually, they have decided it wasn’t a very good long-term policy because it just keeps the building standing without giving it a purpose. So, now they lend money to people who will offer projects for requalification. There have been experiments done but it hasn’t been very conclusive because it’s very expensive and it’s not always easy to find people who want to buy a condo in a church. It kind of shocks people, they’re not used to it.
What I understand is that, indeed, Quebeckers are sensitive to their religious heritage. It’s surprising because even if they aren’t believers anymore, they are still attached, sometimes very attached because they feel that it’s something that is part of their history, to which they can identify. Religion in terms of heritage and culture is important.
However, here in Quebec the buildings deteriorate much faster because of our climate. So a church that is not maintained during 15 or 20 years deteriorates very quickly. To avoid that, they have to heat them up to 14 or 15 degrees, which is very expensive. For a large church, it costs 200 to 300 thousand dollars to heat it through a single winter. The problem is that it ends up being an important expense that could be invested elsewhere, because it’s like 75 to 80% of the budget of all the heritage restoration of Quebec.
Legally, the churches belong to the bishoprics. There is a little dispute between them and the religious people because according to the latter, these churches were built with the donations of the parishioners, it belongs to them too and they have a say. It’s not just up to the bishop to decide everything. That shows that citizens often come forward to be heard. Often, the municipalities were proactive, they wanted to take over their churches before the developers did.
There is currently a demand for condos and the margins to the beneficiary are significant, that means we can sell churches and make money by building condos, whereas if they build offices it’s often more difficult. It’s impossible to keep a church just as a building, as a historical monument to be visited by residents and tourists because it’s too expensive. Also, these last few years we haven’t had ministers of culture who were very influential and who defended our heritage very well, I must say. I find that there is not —this is a gap we have in Quebec right now—a lot of organizations that defend heritage. Most of these are publicly funded, I mean, they’re not going to protest or challenge the decisions of the State. There should be a national organization that could crystallize the efforts of the associations of citizens who will try to defend the heritage at a community level. But often they are not enough, they don’t have the financial means and they don’t have any legal advice to help them. Because Mayor Régis Labeaume is not very sensitive to heritage either, as we have always known. But I think it’s shows in Quebec that policy-makers don’t often realize the importance of these historic buildings. This is really what distinguishes Quebec, which gives it its identity. If we destroy everything and build towers as we can find in all the major American cities, then will we be able to say that it’s ours ? Will we be proud to say that we have something different from the others? No, we won't. If we have tourism in Quebec City, it’s because they come to see our heritage.
I think it’s should be on a case-by-case basis to try and find local solutions for each church. It all depends on the mobilization of the local population, their willingness to preserve the building, their creativity to give them a new purpose, the will of the municipality as well and the needs of the region… I am resigned to the idea that in some cases, destroying a church may be the best solution. In some cases it has to be destroyed and turned into something else because otherwise it’s just going to collapse and then that’s it. The Vieux-Québec district will have to be restored, it hasn’t undergone great restoration for a long time. The pandemic also created new needs, so for exemple, they could house health workers and make new homes for seniors as the Prime Minister says...
It's all over Canada. For example, in the West part of Canada, there were Ukrainians who built Greek Orthodox churches and they too have problems with the preservation of these. It’s the case for the catholics in western Canada, but also in states like Massachusetts, where there were a lot of Irish who settled in Boston, for example, they have the same problem. It’s all across Canada and I would say North America. Then again, maybe there are fewer cases in western Canada because many of these francophones have been assimilated, lost a part of their origins through assimilation, but it’s roughly the same problem is everywhere. »
What are the consequences ?
The cultural heritage act adopted in 2012 does not contain the terms «church» and «religious». Which means that the responsibility for churches rests with the dioceses of Quebec, not the State. Since then, the amount of closed churches have increased significantly. According to historian Patrice Groulx, this is a trend that dates back to the years of the Quiet Revolution.
courtesy of université Laval
*Translation in English down below.
« The churches are private property, they belong to the parochial factories and the dioceses dispose of them as they wish. What is protected is the churches or the property within the churches that are recognized as under the cultural heritage act. Churches are not considered heritage. If there is no official heritage recognition, to protect a church is essentially a matter of arbitrary choice. The cultural heritage act identifies a number of properties that will be protected under the law. They can’t be destroyed, protection of this or that... Sometimes it’s the building itself, sometimes it’s architectural elements inside the building like a tabernacle, an organ… The level of protection depends on a number of criteria that were established according to the terms of protection of the heritage, therefore the age of the building, the intrinsic quality and so on.
I can tell you, having had the experience of working with the cultural property commission, the church has always been reluctant to have the State involved in the preservation of its heritage because it is its own property. But the church itself is not “heritage-centered”. There was a program about 20 years ago to protect -it was under Minister Louise Beaudoin- the churches, for many of them were struggling because of the decreasing number of believers. But due to the lack of financial, many churches couldn’t pay for even basic structural repairs. Only then, money was given to protect these buildings considered as architecturally interesting. At that time, it forced the religious in general to make their own inventory of their property and to evaluate what degree of protection was necessary. What were the architectural assets, for example, that made these buildings a priority. Today, that protection is determined under the cultural heritage act. Obviously, the protection of a religious building also depends on the believers.
Indeed, there’s always a discourse in society that says old things should be gotten rid of. But that’s not typical of religious heritage per se, it’s a relationship to heritage buildings at large. We’re in a new country here. We’re 400 years old, but still, it’s a new country. The relationship to the past is not of the same nature as with a much older relationship than one can have elsewhere and where there is not the same type of sacralisation as one makes of old buildings or structures. That may explain a certain lack of interest in the churches. Also, a church is often built on the ruins of an older church that they wanted to expand. So every religious building has first of all a utilitarian function, that is to gather the believers. Only after that, it’s decorated, improved, made as interesting as possible but quite often it’s on the ruins of an old chapel that no longer offered the same assets that we ask a church today : not just to be beautiful, but to be big and welcoming. Obviously, a heritage expert like me will tell you that it’s also a lack of education on architectural qualities, that the general public is poorly educated, poorly informed, but these are issues that we find for all forms of buildings.
Today, we have entered an era where what we call «modern» architecture that appeared after the end of the Second World War, especially since the sixties, this modern architecture also becomes sacralized or patrimonialized and at that moment we have a new competition that is carried out. There can be a certain ambivalence, not only among non-believers, but among believers themselves, with regard to the religious heritage. That is to say, for people who are very religious, the fact that some buildings are religious doesn’t meant they should be kept. If these buildings don’t fulfill their main function, if they don’t match the financial means available, they can give up on them. It can cause a reaction among the parishioners, or say among the people who live in the neighborhood and no longer go to churches, no longer go to Mass, who are no longer believers but who, on the other hand, consider that the church is part of a whole, that it's an important landmark in the neighborhood that deserves to be preserved… And then, there may be an outcry and they may call upon the State. This is when they will go to the Ministry of Culture, put together a file and say “we would like this building to be protected by the law” and ask for it to be classified, which makes it impossible to destroy it. Therefore, the relationship to heritage is quite plural, it goes through various channels and the religious character is not necessarily the reason why they will want to preserve a building.
The fate of the churches was gradually cast. There may have been an acceleration in recent years because the renovation and maintenance costs are increasing, so it has brought particularly strong problems. Until the seventies or eighties, there were still enough resources coming from the church itself to be able to carry out this maintenance. But gradually, the religious communities have disappeared and today the church hardly recruits. Therefore, donations no longer exist. This phenomenon of selling church goods has existed for a very long time, since the sixties in fact. Because when the disaffection began, very often, parish priests or their parochial factories sold the movable goods of churches. There was a time, for example, when antique dealers used to have benches of churches, statues…
And then you have the modernist pitch, that is to say : “you can't stop progress”. These people or these practices will fuel a cynical discourse on the fact that the economy must not be blocked by ancient vestiges. This is nothing new.
In Quebec City, there is a fairly good concentration of these buildings, but there are also all the buildings or properties that belonged to religious communities in the Sillery district, in front of the Chemin Saint Louis which are huge grounds, that are extraordinary to build for people who want to have condos on the Saint Laurent river.
The Vieux-Québec district is protected. It’s more on the outskirts of The Vieux-Québec district, so in the central districts of Quebec City such as Montcalm and Limoilou, at the bottom of the city. That's where the demolitions are done now because there is a gentrification and a transformation of the social fabric. There is a whole heritage rhetoric that is surrounded by the phenomenon of the loss of religious elements, but it's a rhetoric that runs on empty sometimes because religious sentiment is no longer there. Therefore, in order to protect this heritage, it’s necessary to bring forward something else than just the religious quality of the building.
Religion doesn’t have a very good reputation these days. The scandals we see in the church but also the scandals we see in other churches and elsewhere, the lack of interest in the religious, its somewhat “magical” aspect… All of this makes the heritage built in the religious era become suspect or at least less interesting. There are some things that are really very worthwhile that deserve to be protected, but they’re going to fall through the cracks because there are some things that are less valuable that don’t deserve to be protected but that we’re trying to preserve at all costs.
It’s a reflection of our society, of the social forces that are upon us. What we must understand is that the cultural heritage act is an exception law. It’s a law that says : “you own something” and in Quebec private property is extremely important. It can have a higher value than in other countries. So the need for everyone to own their own plot of land or their own house is very important and anything that violates this absolute right of ownership is seen as a constraint. A homeowner who hears that his house is considered heritage by the state is fearful because it means that he cannot transform it as he wants, that he will have to adopt this or that material, so it's experienced very badly. It’s part of the mentality here.
The contradiction with all of this is that the tourist overpopulation of these areas empties them of their natural inhabitants, which diverts them on the commercial level. For example, grocery stores and convenience stores disappear. The apartments are sold to make Airbnb, so we create a hypothetical economy around these places. As long as it lasts, it can work, but if a catastrophic period such as the pandemic happens, it can weaken the entire economic ecosystem of these areas and it can put them in danger. So at that point, yes, there is a risk that a bad event could result in these areas not being as well protected. What still works is owning a building in the Vieux-Québec district, if you meet your obligations as a homeowner by protecting your building. But if you no longer have the means to do so, there is a danger.
Another popular belief is that a property protected by UNESCO is a property that is automatically protected by an international body : that is not the case at all. UNESCO is only an advisory body. There is a prestige attached to it, but there is no obligation on the part of the national State to protect it. This protection of UNESCO is no more valid than on the paper on which it’s written. It’s a whole symbolic system, but a symbolic system can at some point run on empty if there isn’t the strong economic structure to support it. That is what we must also look at for the future of our heritage. And I would say that there is absolutely nothing that really protects the Vieux-Québec district. Besides, you know, if there’s a good fire in there, it’s not going to protect it either. [chuckles] »
The citizens are mixed
The Saint-François d'Assise church is an exemplary model for the survey and the inclusion of the citizens in the decision-making process. What about the other churches?
Real estate broker Benoît Raymond mentioned the critical condition of the Très-Saint-Sacrement church : part of its facade collapsed in 2017, which accelerated the decision-making process regarding its destruction. However, the SOS Saint-Sacrement committee took advantage of the pandemic situation last February to launch a petition to try and save the church. Louis Bélanger, the founder of the committee, is septic about the figures put forward by the parish of Bienheureuse-Dina-Bélanger, which amount to $10 million, thus revealing the dangerousness of the building. According to him, the church is not so bad and can still be saved. “Has the diocese consulted the citizens? Absolutely not. They made a congregation of parishioners and it was quickly shuffled through. Parishioners are one thing, but they do not represent the whole community,” he explained. “One of our very active members in the group, the president of the recreation centre [of the Saint-Sacrement district], sees an opportunity in this issue. It’s a place that could be developed. Because we don't really have a neighborhood heart. The heart is the church. This may be an opportunity to renew the neighborhood.” It could be a conversion project that could fit into the list of the most beautiful church recycling of the Conseil du Patrimoine Religieux du Québec.
Annie Métivier-Hudon, a master’s degree student in urban geography and member of the committee, added that indeed, some citizens wouldn't protest against the demolition of the church. According to her, these citizens are also victims of misinformation because of the $10 million figure reported in the medias by the parish of Bienheureux-Dina-Bélanger : “Father Busque talked about $5 million in renovations. These are normal costs, not costs related to the dangerousness of the church.”
“We never talked about $10 million,” challenges Father Gérard Busque. “The 2017 health book of the church said $3 million, but it was roughly estimated. I am the spokesman for the council and I have never given any information to the medias, let alone to the diocese. If they have talked to someone else, they are not allowed to give figures or speak on behalf of the parochial factory.” Therefore, it would be a renovation amount closer to $5 million.
Father Busque is unequivocal: the health of the Très-Saint-Sacrement church is put at risk. “It’s with great sadness, but then again we are facing a reality. Quebec has evolved, it’s no longer 80% practicing Catholics. It’s barely 4% to 5% that we find in our churches. And we no longer need it! To keep a big church for 15, 20 people who are not able to finance it... It’s sad, but we have to make these decisions.”
The committee wants to convince the Minister of Culture to establish an investment notice that would block the sale to the real estate brokers in order to give them time to find a strong alternative offer. “Obviously, ministers work with the number of votes!” Bélanger lamented. So the petition was launched. To this date, they have collected almost 9,000 signatures.
Father Gérard Busque
photo credits: Le journal de Québec
Find here the latest inspection report of the architect Gilles Duchesneau and the engineer of the Saint-Sacrement church. The document dates back to 2017 and lists all the necessary renovations.
Steeples of the old Saint-Joseph church, abandoned on the destroyed church's site for the past seven years. (photo credits : Radio Canada)
An uncertain future
The two different situations of the Saint-François d’Assise church and the Très-Saint-Sacrement church show that we can't predict the future of Quebec’s religious buildings. However, the current situation suggests that churches that aren't part of the “eight” list will gradually be replaced by condominiums. Some of them may be saved for community projects.
Since a couple of years and against all odds, there seems to be a sudden interest in the religious heritage of Quebec. Pierre Fraser’s documentary Stratégie de l'inaction et patrimoine religieux, which will be gradually published on the web until August 2020, reflects this concern among the citizens. We can only hope for a miracle of citizen mobilization to save Quebec’s exceptionnal heritage.
We aimed to update the files of Données Québec by using a spreadsheet. Subsequently, the Flourish tool allowed us to make several graphs in order to help visualize the data.
access to sources
Both audio files are recorded phone calls. The sources were all the more available due to the pandemic lock down, which made the dialogue easier. This report showed the relevance of data journalism: ensuring that government information is accessible and updated, being able to work from home, analyzing and making data intelligible to the public through data visualization.
The report was easily made by using the information available on the web. The interviewees spontaneously made connections between our topic and the pandemic. However, we regret that we weren't able to film the inside of converted churches which is sometimes magnificent - such as the Claire Martin library - and that we were unable to provide a better sound and authentic photographs.
Data journalism also means transparency. The links to the documents we worked with are included in this report and we invite you to contact us if you notice any mistakes. Suggestions for visualization or informations are also welcome.