St. Michael the Archangel Church

St. Michael’s Church, St. Viateur Street, Montreal, 1934-35. McCord Museum, VIEW-25605

St. Michael’s Church, St. Viateur Street, Montreal, 1934-35 (photo: Wm. Notman & Son). [McCord Museum, VIEW-25605]

Very few people associate Montreal’s Irish community with Mile End. All the same, one of its most imposing symbols was originally an Irish church. St. Michael the Archangel Church, built 1914-1915, renamed St. Michael’s and St. Anthony’s in 1969, is one of the most unusual churches in Montreal. Its Byzantine Revival architecture, its tower resembling a minaret (or an Irish round tower), its mysterious floral stained-glass windows, its frescoes painted by celebrated church decorator Guido Nincheri and its assortment of Irish, Polish and Italian saints make this house of worship a repository of stories of a neighbourhood where cultures overlap and intermingle.

At a quick glance, many people think that St. Michael’s and St. Anthony’s is an Orthodox church, or even a mosque. But an attentive observer can correctly guess the nature of this church and the origin of the community that built it. Many shamrocks – the symbol of Ireland – are used in its exterior and interior decorative details. Yet few associate Mile End with the Irish Catholic community; usually Griffintown and Pointe-Saint-Charles come to mind when thinking of the Montreal Irish. The Irish presence in Mile End has almost been forgotten. Luke Callaghan Memorial School (today leased by a childcare centre and taxi school) at 5611 Clark, is the neighbourhood’s only other remnant of this community. Originally named St. Michael’s School, it was renamed in honour of the priest responsible for building the church.

You have to make your way a bit further north, near Jean-Talon Market, to find other reminders of the early migration of the Irish northward from the waterfront. Shamrock Avenue owes its name to the Irish lacrosse team, the Shamrocks. In 1895, the team moved from Sainte-Catherine Street West to a stadium built where Jean-Talon Market now stands, in what was then a rural part of Saint-Louis du Mile End. The club’s exile to the outer reaches of the suburbs coincided with the early days of Saint-Louis du Mile End’s urbanization and the beginning of electric streetcar service. Starting in 1894, a first streetcar line connected the club grounds to central Montreal; a second began service in 1895.

The village of Saint-Louis du Mile End, which became Ville Saint-Louis in 1895 (and was annexed by Montreal in 1910), underwent rapid urbanization. The suburb had a split personality: west of Saint-Laurent Boulevard was an affluent neighbourhood, while to the east was an industrial, working-class district. But even for workers, moving to the area then known as The North End, with its new, more salubrious housing, was a sign of upward mobility. At the turn of the 20th century, the Irish were sufficiently numerous in Ville Saint-Louis to require the creation of a parish. Thus in 1902 a new English-language Catholic parish was founded: St. Michael’s, right after (French-language) Saint-Jean-de-la-Croix. Before the end of the 19th century, Ville Saint-Louis comprised only one Roman Catholic parish, that of Saint-Enfant-Jésus du Mile End.

Services for the Irish were initially held in a room above the fire station at the northwest corner of Saint-Denis and Laurier Avenue, in the building that had served as the town hall for the adjacent village of Côte-Saint-Louis, prior to its annexation to Montreal in 1893. The first church was constructed at the corner of Boucher and Drolet streets in 1904, followed by a school in 1907. All these buildings were later demolished, although the presbytery at 5294 Saint-Denis is still standing.

This easterly location was not very practical for the Irish. A sign of their social ascension was that they were increasingly moving to The Annex, i.e. the western portion of Ville Saint-Louis, and to Outremont. In addition, the number of parishioners soon outgrew this small church. Under the impetus of a new priest, the energetic Father Luke Callaghan, it was decided to construct a larger house of worship on a vacant property at the corner of Saint-Urbain and Saint-Viateur streets. The parish flourished between the world wars. In the 1920s, it was the largest English-language Catholic parish in all of Quebec. By the 1960s, like several other Mile End ethnic groups, the Irish community was leaving the sector for new suburbs. St. Michael’s parish declined. In 1964 it began to share the church building with the Saint Anthony of Padua Polish mission. In 1969 it became the St. Michael’s and St. Anthony’s Catholic community. Today, masses are celebrated in English and Polish.

It is no surprise that St. Michael the Archangel has become a symbol of Mile End. The church is notable for its engineering, architectural style and interior decoration.

Its architect, Aristide Beaugrand-Champagne (1876–1950), who also designed the chalet on Mount Royal, chose reinforced concrete for its structure due to the rich architectural potential afforded by this new technology. Reinforced concrete permits the construction of load-bearing superstructures, which allow for vast interior spaces and large windows in the walls. St. Michael the Archangel was the first church built of reinforced concrete in Canada. It was erected just as this new material was being widely adopted. Beaugrand-Champagne called on engineer Charles Michael Morssen, a pioneer in the use of reinforced concrete in Montreal and across Canada.

St. Michael the Archangel is a major feat of engineering. No pillar supports the 74-foot diameter dome. The cupola rises 110 feet above the floor of the nave. The dome was the largest in Montreal until completion of Saint Joseph’s Oratory, in 1937. A few years after building the Mile End monument, in 1922-23 Beaugrand-Champagne took on a new challenge, constructing the cathedral of Sainte-Thérèse d’Avila in Amos (Abitibi region), whose dome (100 feet in diameter) is also exceptional. St. Michael’s tower rises 170 feet. Its exterior walls are in brick and terra cotta. Renovations have altered some of the architectural elements. While the roof of the dome was originally covered in white concrete ornamented by gigantic green shamrocks, it was later reclad in copper. The main facade also lost an imposing inscription: Deo dicatum in honorem St. Michaelis. (Dedicated to God in honour of St. Michael)

St. Michael the Archangel Church is distinctive on the Montreal landscape, due to its architectural style, Byzantine Revival. While this choice might seem incongruous for an Irish parish, it is explained by the call issued by Pope Pius X (1903–1914) to return to the purity of the Church’s origins. Beaugrand-Champagne took inspiration from the jewel in the crown of the Eastern Roman Empire: the Church of Hagia Sophia constructed in Constantinople (Istanbul) in 537. When the city was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453, it became the Aya Sofya mosque, and four minarets were later added. Just like the dome of Hagia Sophia, that of St. Michael the Archangel seems to defy the laws of gravity. And St. Michael the Archangel also has a tower that resembles a minaret. Or is this a nod to the clogthithe, round towers constructed in Medieval Ireland near churches and monasteries?

The interior decoration is just as unusual. The vivid reds, oranges, yellows and greens of the large stained-glass windows (Irish roses and shamrocks) contrast with the scenes depicted on the walls of the dome and cupola. These stained-glass windows are one of the mysteries of the church: their creator has not been identified. According to Kevin Cohalan (member of the Société d’histoire du Plateau-Mont-Royal who is responsible for significant research on the churches of the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough), their design may be the work of Beaugrand-Champagne himself. Cohalan discovered a sketch of the windows on the back of one of the architect’s drawings of the church building. The decoration of the walls and cupola was done in 1926-1927 by Quebec’s most celebrated church decorator, Guido Nincheri. Angels and flower motifs cover almost every inch of the walls. The scene on the cupola, a marouflage (painted on canvas), is remarkable for its beauty and subject: Saint Michael triumphs over the dragon and keeps a watchful eye over the fallen angels.

Even if Irish-born parishioners are long gone from St. Michael’s, a statue of Saint Patrick testifies to the original identity of the church. Due to the merger with St. Anthony of Padua (the Franciscan mission for Polish Montrealers) in the early 1960s, Saint Francis of Assisi and, later, Saint Maximilian Kolbe were added to the patron saint of the Irish. Also, in 1971, San Marziale was welcomed to the church. He is the patron saint of Isca sullo Ionio, a small town in Calabria and the birthplace of many members of Mile End’s Italian community, who do not have their own church. The Festa di San Marziale is celebrated on the first Sunday in July, when the saint’s statue is paraded on Saint-Viateur Street.

Due to its history, symbolic value, architecture and interior decor, the Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Québec has designated St. Michael’s and St. Anthony’s Church as being of exceptional value. It has a B rating on a scale ranging from A (indispensable) to F (low).

Bibliographic notes

Sarah Gilbert, Cymbals and Pinwheels, Mile End Memories, 2010

Gilles Lauzon, Pointe-Saint-Charles : l’urbanisation d’un quartier ouvrier de Montréal, 1840-1930, Québec, Les éditions du Septentrion, 2014

Kate McDonnell, St. Michael’s: an echo of the Hagia Sophia, Mile End Memories, 2008

Library and Archives Canada, The Art of Guido Nincheri, 1999

Claire Poitras, « Sûreté, salubrité et monolithisme : l’introduction du béton armé à Montréal, de 1905 à 1922 », in Urban History Review/Revue d’histoire urbaine, vol. 25, no. 1, 1996, p. 19-35

Sherry Simon, “Hybridity revisited: St. Michael’s of Mile End“, in International Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue internationale d’études canadiennes, no. 27, Spring 2003, p. 107-119

Sherry Simon, L’hybridité culturelle, Montréal, L’Île de la tortue, 1999

Société d’histoire du Plateau Mont-Royal, « Depuis un demi-siècle : le festival San Marziale », Bulletin, vol. 13, no 3, automne 2018, p. 28

[Written by Christine Richard, 2016 – Translation: Joshua Wolfe, 2020 – Revision: Justin Bur]