The evolution of the YMCA in the neighbourhood reflects the changes that Mile End has witnessed over a century. The organization’s capacity to adapt to the social realities of the neighbourhood is one of the reasons for its success. Mile End residents are very attached to their YMCA. It is seen as an essential neighbourhood institution. But its continued presence in the district has been threatened several times. Like many other stories embodying the spirit of Mile End, the story of the YMCA is one of citizen mobilization.
In 1844, George Williams, a young man of just 22, was working in London for a clothes merchant. Appalled by the terrible living conditions of young workers in London, he created the Young Men’s Christian Association. He wanted to offer young men a place for socializing, far away from the unhealthful temptations of the city, so that they could develop a healthy balance between body, mind and spirit. Other such centres were rapidly established elsewhere in Europe. The first YMCA in North America was founded in Montreal on November 25, 1851, on Sainte-Hélène Street near rue des Récollets.
YMCA missionaries had been working in what is now the Mile End district since 1876. At first, they held meetings in private homes. In 1901, they rented a space on Saint-Viateur Street. Six years later, the organization had a hundred members, all anglophone Protestants. Residents of Montreal Annex, the western part of today’s Mile End, which was then a middle-class neighbourhood, signed a petition asking for the creation of a true YMCA branch in their district. In early 1909, the Fairmount Branch of the YMCA moved into the second floor of a new building, Fairmount Hall (1907) on the northeast corner of Fairmount Avenue and Jeanne-Mance Street. Shops occupied the ground floor, while the upper storey housed a gymnasium and meeting rooms. One of the latter, the Lodge Room was particularly luxurious: olive-green walls, a ceiling decorated with a Louis XVI-style frieze, antique oak moulding and walls covered in burlap tinted to imitate red Moroccan leather. The Empire-style fireplace mantel was framed by Corinthian columns.
The facilities quickly grew too small for all activities. In 1912, the YMCA moved into a new building, constructed at a cost of $100,000, on the northwest corner of Park Avenue and Saint-Viateur Street. It was given the name “North End Branch YMCA”. In addition to a gymnasium and meeting rooms, it now offered a library, bowling alley, swimming pool and billiard room. The new building also included rooms to house young unmarried men, often recent immigrants from Great Britain. To become a member of the YMCA, one had to be over 17, provide references and pay a monthly subscription of $10, a considerable sum at the time. These requirements reflected the standards of the neighbourhood where the YMCA was located.
The YMCA evolved rapidly and adapted to social changes and events. During the 1920s and 30s, it quickly gave up its missionary vocation and no longer catered solely to young Protestant men. Sports took up more and more of its space. Activities for both men and women – in particular dances – were permitted beginning in 1927. Like its Jewish counterpart, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (located at Mont-Royal Avenue and Jeanne-Mance Street), the neighbourhood YMCA became a military community centre during the Second World War. Here soldiers were lodged and entertained prior to being sent overseas. A woman’s committee became quite active, including organizing weekly dances. However, after the war, participation dropped dramatically, as the English-speaking middle class moved to the suburbs.
In 1950, YMCA leaders decided to close the North End Branch and use the building to house its international division, at the time located downtown. The decision was the subject of strong debate within the board of directors. Opponents to the idea felt that the YMCA should no longer be active in a neighbourhood then dominated by the Jewish community. But supporters of the move argued that with the strong immigration after the Second World War, the North End was increasingly becoming a multi-ethnic neighbourhood. English language and Canadian citizenship classes for New Canadians became the new raison d’être for the Park Avenue Y. French classes were added in 1963. By 1966, the YMCA was welcoming almost 1300 students, distributed among 30 classes.
In 1967, the YMCA shifted to more activist, community action: “We have to get out of the building, where we are isolated from residents, we have to get into the real life of the local community.” This decision followed a study demonstrating that Mile End had become one of Montreal’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, with a strong immigrant population, primarily Greek, left to its own devices. Thanks to federal funding, the YMCA launched the Mile End West Project: social workers were hired to help immigrants organize their own community groups. These included the Hellenic Canadian Labor Association and the Hellenic Federation of Parents and Guardians of Greater Montreal.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, the YMCA continued its community actions, in particular with local youth. In 1975, the third floor was used for classes of a new alternative high school created by the Protestant School Board, known as MIND (acronym for Moving in New Directions). The school now shares the Bancroft School building at 4563 Saint-Urbain. In July 1977, the YMCA converted its parking lot on the north side of the building into a community park and outdoor café. The park, named Parasol, was also used for a day camp. It was the result of an initiative of neighbourhood citizens. The YMCA also supported the Mile End Citizens’ Committee, created in 1982. The committee played a major role in organizing Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations in Mile End from 1986 to 1998. The street festival, held annually on a Saint-Viateur Street closed to traffic, helped enhance the image of Mile End as a multi-ethnic neighbourhood rich in cultural diversity.
But the building, considered outdated, was put up for sale in 1989. YMCA leaders planned to construct a new building further north on Park Avenue at Jean-Talon, in particular to move closer to the Greek community, most of whose members had migrated to Park Extension and further north. The citizens’ committee mobilized. The Park Avenue YMCA was finally saved in fall 1993, thanks to a partnership agreement between the YMCA and the City of Montreal. The latter provided a subsidy for the construction of a new building on the site of the old one, at a cost of $7 million. In exchange, the YMCA offered a discount rate for local residents for its recreational activities, and free use of its swimming pool, since the Saint-Michel public pool had recently closed. Actions by the citizens’ committee were credited with convincing the city and the Y to establish this partnership.
[Research and writing: Yves Desjardins et Christine Richard (2016) – Translation: Joshua Wolfe (2020) – Revision: Justin Bur]