Five-alarm fire destroys 117-year-old Franciscan church

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On February 6, a five-alarm fire destroyed a 117-year-old abandoned church at 2040 René Lévesque. The blaze raged from 5 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., forcing the Montreal Fire Department to demolish what remained of the building for safety reasons. The fire badly damaged the former convent attached to the church and an historic mansion on the same property. One hundred and fifty firefighters were deployed to the scene.

Though arson is suspected, the fire’s cause is still unknown. Members of the nearby community claim to have seen squatters coming and going from the church, which was near the Atwater metro station.

“I tell you, it was set,” said Mary Stanton, a former member of the church’s community, as she looked over the ruins. “It was such a blaze.”

The Montreal police service’s arson unit is conducting an investigation.

The church was run by the Order of Friars Minor, commonly known as “the Franciscans,” a Roman Catholic religious order founded on the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. The Franciscans abandoned the church in 2007, when the building would have required $5 million in renovations to bring it back up to code. They had been attempting to sell the $7 million property, but had been unsuccessful.

With religious practice in the province at record lows, cash-strapped parishes around the city have been forced to abandon their churches, some of which are important cultural artifacts. The Quebec government has appropriated funds for church preservation, but fires like this suggest that such initiatives are limited. The Franciscans’ church had not received any municipal money for a reclamation project.

“For historical and cultural value, these buildings are enormously valuable, but to decide what to do with them and to keep their architectural integrity, it becomes tricky,” said Jarrett Rudy, Montreal historian and chair of McGill’s Quebec Studies program.

This particular Franciscan church had more historic than architectural value, according to Marc Le Goanvec, the provincial head of the Franciscans in Quebec.

“It has a value for the people of the borough, and it has a value as [a reminder] of the past, but it [was] not Notre-Dame church, not a jewel in the architectural sense,” he said.

Stanton, however, a member of the Secular Franciscan Order at the church, felt differently.

“Beautiful,” she said describing the church. “Beautiful.”

The church sat on what was once a prestigious stretch of René-Lévesque Blvd., which commands a view over the Saint Lawrence River and the southern suburbs. There are several mansions on the stretch, but many of them are now unoccupied.

“It was a hot property in the late 19th and early 20th century,” said Rudy.

The Franciscans arrived in Canada with the first missionaries in the 17th century. After being pushed out by the English and the Anglican Church, they returned to prominence in the late 19th and early 20th century, when this church was built.

The church once had a large congregation during the mid 1900s, and held Masses both on the upper and lower floors.

“In the best years … it was pretty busy. The old friars said that a lot of people were coming down from St-Henri, Petite-Bourgogne, all these places,” said Le Goanvec.

However, church attendance in Montreal halved during the Quiet Revolution, and the departure of English speakers from the province hurt this church in particular.

“The Franciscans would have been hard hit, and especially that group, by the decline of the English-speaking community,” said Rudy.

The ranks of the Franciscans themselves are also declining.

“We have very few vocations [new priests], and our friars are getting old,” said Le Goanvec.

In keeping with the teachings of St. Francis, the church had always served the poor.

“The Franciscans were not with rich people, they were mostly with poor people,” said Le Goanvec.