Tuesday, January 01, 2013

How the Grey Nuns were tripped up by their own wealth

   There was much precious treasure in the Grey Nuns' building at Guy and Dorch and the worry of theft became so burdensome that the sisters were unable to pursue their mission of helping the poor, an issue they finally settled by selling off their opulent property in 2001 to Concordia University for $18 million.
   The nuns, known as the Sisters of Charity, became so paranoid of possible pilfering of their precious items that they kept people off their property with fences and a full-time security guard.
   When they finally sold the property, the nuns negotiated a deal to allow themselves to move out over 21 years. The sisters delivered the west wing to Concordia in 2007 and the central section and chapel in 2011.
   They will only give up the north and south wings in 2018 and 2022.
  So the nuns are still there but much of their valuable treasure has already been moved to Old Montreal.
   Back in the final days before the sale, few outsiders were welcomed in to poke their nose around.
   In Feb. 2000 I repeatedly phoned to ask for a tour of the building for the purposes of writing an article. I was always turned down flat.
   So one day I knocked as a regular citizen and I was given a long and generous tour of the facilities.
   The nun giving me a tour of the building explained that the nuns - purportedly servants of the poor - had instead become custodians of posh items with which they had been entrusted over the decades.
   They blamed local Protestants for the initial conspicuous opulence of the property. The 1871 building has so much fancy detail because, they claim that anglos pressured them to create an attractive property that would look good in the neighbourhood.
   So the building greets visitors with an impressive door, behind which stands a neo-Roman chapel that was the jewel of the building.
Sister Marguerite, devoted to the poor, would never have done this
   It contained two large paintings depicting followers of Christ searching out his crucifix. They faithful eventually spot Jesus as the guy healing people.
   Higher up on the wall there was a colourful portrait of God atop a cloud.
   And the centerpiece was the wooden tomb of Saint Marguerite d’Youville, the servant of the underprivileged and founder of the mission.
   I've read about treasures in the basement, referred to as a sort of catacombs but I did not visit that.
   The facility, built to house 800, had a mere 300 living there in 2000, a number which had dwindled to 250 a couple of years later. In 2000 the residents were aged 53 to 103.
   There are surely even fewer living there now. Those living at the site spend their time praying, I was told.
   Nuns have become expendable in recent years because many of their tasks have been taken away by government. They had a hospital on the site long ago but that is long gone. There's was also an old-age home there which closed in the 1970s. They also had  a school which taught such things as knitting and sewing but it too was shut in the 1970s.
   The orphanage closed after 31 kids burnt to death on the fourth floor on Feb. 14, 1918. The sisters remain very keen on praying against fire. They also note that the blaze could have burnt the whole place down but somehow miraculously stayed in one small corner of the property, thanks to Sister Marguerite no doubt.
   There was still a 12-room women's shelter on the site in 2000 but it's likely gone now too with the arrival of students.
   The building was to be integrated into a huge skyscraper in 1975 and the nuns even sold the property to the Swiss for this purpose, but the development never happened and the sisters regained control of the property.
    My favourite part of the property is what you see from the outside: the cross has been sitting at Guy and Dorch since 1752, that's 261 years.
   It's painted red to represent the blood of a double murderer. In fact it's a bit brownish but it's supposed to be red.
   That wooden cross sure has stood up over the years, although I suspect the lumber has been replaced a couple of times during those two-and-a-half centuries.
   The monument was put up to remember a double-murder committed by one neighbour on another near the site. A guy named Belisle pretended that he was going away but in fact killed a robbed a couple of thrifty farmers that nearby named the Favres. He returned two weeks later but he had a suspicious amount of wealth, which gave him away and he was hanged, with the cross warning against misdeeds.
   And like Belisle, the Grey Nuns gained too much wealth to be legit.

13 comments:

Leila said...

I'm fascinated by the Grey Nuns and this building - and how Concordia is going to be managing it. But you don't really explain the "how" in How the Grey Nuns were tripped up by their wealth. Would like to see you follow that thread a little more. Happy new year!

Colin Paterson said...

The old Grey Nuns ain't what they used to be.

Anonymous said...

What you have in the basement is a cemetery of young nuns who died of typhus while caring for the Irish immigrants. Average age: 22 years. But you are right. They represent the wealth of the Grey Nuns. Women who gave of themselves caring for the poor, the elderly, the sick and the orphans not only of Montreal, but of the North American continent. In many places, theirs was the first hospital, the first hospice for the elderly, the first orphanage. Theirs was a great work, a great labour, freely given, in the name of Jesus Christ. I love the Motherhouse, the beauty of the chapel, and the spartan, but comfortable rooms of the sisters. Theirs is a great legacy.

Chuck said...

You mention treasure many times but you didnt see anything...sounds more like an urban legend to me. Nice paintings can be found in any cathedrals.

Guillaume St-Jean said...

Une autre vue de l'endroit : http://www.flickr.com/photos/guil3433/6230923281/

JM said...

The Grey Nuns at that convent might have made the difference for City Councillor Nick auf der Maur's election success on at least one occasion.

UrbanLegend said...

I remember reading an archival news article mentioning that the northwest corner of Guy and Dorchester was a place of execution long before the nunnery was built.

Presumably, criminals were hung at that spot.

Anonymous said...

You should speak to Clarence Epstein.

KC said...

Shocked, shocked by the disrespectful tone you adopt in speaking of the Grey Nuns. We are vermin compared to them. But let's get to this finding of the True Cross business, that is, the two paintings to which you refer. One of them shows St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, finding the True Cross. OK, good for her, but she actually found three crosses, because Jesus was crucified between the Good Thief & the bad thief. So they had to figure out which one was the real deal. How? They touched pieces of all three to a deathly-ill-if-not-dead woman who sprang back to life when the right one touched her. That's what the second painting shows. As for the crypt, yeah, it's an underground cemetery, complete with crosses, not only for the nuns who died of typhus, as mentioned in another comment, but for all the departed members of the congregation. The nuns wanted to take the remains with them when they left, but the 'elf & safety people wouldn't let them, on the grounds that digging up the remains of typhus & smallpox victims, even after a hundred years, would be dangerous for the workers. So Concordia will take care of them. As for "God atop a cloud", that's "The Eternal Father", to whom Marguerite d'Youville had a special devotion. And it ain't "neo-Roman", it's "neo-Romanesque". But you got it right, the chapel's a gem, & thank God Concordia's pledged to preserve it. If I understand correctly, it'll become, among other things, an exhibition space for the Fine Arts faculty.

Colin Paterson said...

KC....I don't think anything pisses me off more than religious types who get sanctomonious and think others should buy into their nonsense.
"We are vermin" compared to the Grey Nuns?
Speak for yourself!
In most people's worlds having bodies buried in the basement of a place where you live is just downright creepy.
It is not surprising why so many Quebecers have totally given up on the Catholic church.
I think people should be allowed to believe in whatever they want but don't expect others to be mute when you start to tread on their different beliefs.

KC said...

Colin --- I don't think anything pisses me off more than fucking lefties who get sanctimonious and think others should buy into their nonsense. "We are vermin"? It's called hyperbole, take a laxative. Exceptionally decent of you to think people should be allowed to believe in whatever they want. (Sarcasm.)

Colin Paterson said...

I take it that you don't use universal healthcare or will accept a Canada pension. Both "leftie" ideas.
I bet you are just licking your lips waiting for Harper's new jets. How much do they cost now?
By the way, maybe you can explain why so many Quebecers have left the Catholic church without using "hyperbole".
I read your comments so I don't need a laxative.

DenisH said...

Gentlemen, gentlemen! Let's keep it civil!