St. Michael’s church is incontestably one of the most recognizable visual symbols of Mile End. But its architecture confuses many, tourists and Montrealers alike. In 2008, Kate McDonnell, with the assistance of Kevin Cohalan, published an article on Urbanphoto.net which answers just about every question one might ask about its history. Mile End Memories is happy to republish the article, along with a new French translation by Catherine Browne.
By Kate McDonnell
Over the years I’ve heard people surmise it to be a temple, a mosque, an Orthodox church, even a synagogue. Familiar sight though it is in central Montreal, the first thing the huge domed building at Saint-Urbain and Saint-Viateur brings to mind is not the Roman Catholic church.
At the turn of the last century there was something of a migration of Irish-Canadian working people from their overcrowded Point St. Charles and Griffintown haunts north into Mile End. In 1902, the Catholic archbishop of Montreal, Mgr. Paul Bruchési, gave his approval for a new parish to be created. The first mass was said upstairs of a fire hall at Laurier and Saint-Denis that no longer exists. Their first small church building was on rue Boucher near there; it no longer exists either.
By 1914 the growing parish decided it needed something bigger and grander. In July of that year excavations began. Work stopped briefly when war broke out that autumn, but resumed in April 1915, and the church was ready to use by that December. The price tag was $232,000 and the church could hold 1400 people.
This information comes from a booklet published in 1927 when the parish was already 25 years old. The text describes, and images show, that the dome and the cap on the tower were both decorated with patterns, and the massive façade with the words Deo dicatum in honorem St. Michaelis and a smaller motto1 on a banner over the doors. Those flourishes are gone, but carved shamrocks are still part of the façade, a nod to the time when the parish was pretty well a monoculture, with priests called McGinnis, Fahey, McCrory, Walsh, O’Brien, Cooney and O’Conor and church wardens Keegan, Gorman, Dillon, McGee and Flood.
Also, unusually, there’s no mention of bells, and no evidence that the tower ever contained any: unlike most church towers it’s closed all the way to the top.
But why a Byzantine-style building? Pius X, pope from 1903 to 1914, was a fan. He was a cultural conservative who barred women from singing in church choirs, deprecated the use of baroque and classical music in favour of a return to Gregorian chant, and encouraged a parallel adoption of early styles of church architecture. The booklet rises to poetic fancy now and then, describing the church as a “superb temple which flings its mosque-like dome to the skies” but, even then, why that particular style fired those particular priests and wardens is anyone’s guess. Clearly it was a break with typical Montreal Catholic church architecture, which till then had stuck predictably to variations on Romanesque and Gothic. But they found their architect in Aristide Beaugrand-Champagne, responsible for the design of several other churches around Montreal – all more conventional than St. Michael’s – as well as for the lookout chalet on Mount Royal, and he gave them a building which stands out alone among the hundreds of church buildings in this city.
The parish also made an inspired choice when they picked Guido Nincheri to paint the depiction of St. Michael watching the fallen angels in their descent. As the anonymous writer of the 1927 booklet (my guess is it was Luke Callaghan, the parish’s second pastor) puts it: “The dreadful Fall of the Angels is cleverly portrayed: from the four corners of the dome they are being hurled through the starry space, shorn of their pristine beauty, stripped of their spiritual charm, their drapery, rent in the awful cataclysm, disclosing the animal concealed beneath. They are enveloped in flames which creep around the cornices of the arches and the vertical bands supporting the dome.”
(Habitués of Mile End will recall that the school around the corner on Clark – originally simply St. Michael’s School – was renamed for Luke Callaghan at some point, although now it’s no longer serving its original purpose.)
Nincheri, born and trained in Italy, came to Canada in 1914 and developed his own neo-Renaissance style that graces several Montreal churches (including the beautiful, if notorious, Madonna Della Difesa fresco that depicts Benito Mussolini among a large crowd adoring the Madonna – he’s the one on horseback). Nincheri’s work for St. Michael’s is equally stunning, although apparently it’s not clear whether he also designed the church’s stained glass, which is officially unattributed; in style it doesn’t much resemble the example of Nincheri’s glasswork shown in this article or this example found in another Montreal church.
In 1914 it would have taken an extremely acute social critic to anticipate the tipping point that was reached 50 years later when most of Quebec’s Catholics suddenly stopped attending Mass. Social factors that led to the dispersal of much of Montreal’s Irish Catholic community were also years away. In 1964, Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger arranged for St. Anthony of Padua’s Polish Mission (located until then in the chapel at Hôtel-Dieu) to share the church, and in 1969 the parish was renamed St. Michael’s and St. Anthony’s Catholic Community, still its official name.
The story as I’ve heard it is that in recent years, the building in visible decline, some Russians asked the diocese if they could buy the building for an Orthodox parish. Its Polish stewards, appalled by this possibility, got organized, raised funds and applied for government grants, had the massive dome re-coppered in recent years and are still deep in the process of renovating and repairing other parts of the building. Last century’s priests never thought what a major financial burden they were leaving to posterity: many times the original $232,000 have been poured into the building since then to keep it from deteriorating.
It’s a safe guess that, 50 years hence, St. Michael’s will not have been turned into condos. It will remain what it is, a grand architectural folly with artistic embellishments, memorial to a time when working people felt it a good use of their hard-earned funds to help build a temple to their deity.
(Thanks to Kevin Cohalan of the Société d’histoire du Plateau Mont-Royal for clues needed to write this entry.)
Further reading: Sarah Gilbert’s story about the annual parade for San Marziale