Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.17

June 3, 2004


University to buy the huge Grey Nuns property

By Barbara Black

Photo of Grey Nuns property

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

Concordia University will more than double the size of its downtown campus over the next 15 years by buying the large property south of the Faubourg that belongs to the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, commonly known as the Grey Nuns.

The announcement was made on Tuesday by Rector Frederick Lowy and Sr. Aurore Larkin, Superior-General of the Order. She expressed the relief of her sisters that their home would eventually be devoted to a mission — education — that is compatible with their values.

About 230 nuns live in the majestic limestone building, which includes a hospital, a chapel and a cemetery. It is protected by Quebec’s heritage legislation, and the university has undertaken to treat the property with the greatest respect.

No new buildings will be constructed on the grounds, which include large tracts of green space, and no jarring changes will be made to the existing buildings.

The space will probably be used for Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts, the largest university art school in Canada. Although a new building is under construction for the visual arts, it will not be sufficient. The School of Cinema is currently in the Faubourg Tower, and the performing arts — dance, music and theatre — are in woefully inadequate facilities on the Loyola Campus.

However, the uses for the building are only beginning to be considered, and must be submitted to academic planning and consultation. Vice-Rector Services Michael Di Grappa said, it was “an opportunity that came to us,” and its details need to be worked out.

The university will pay $18 million for the property. In answer to a question at the news conference, Di Grappa said renovations could cost $50 million over 15 years.

The first phase of the acquisition is scheduled to start in 2007, along St. Mathieu St. on the west side of the 340,000 -square-foot property. Di Grappa said the two tenants, the university and the Grey Nuns, will be separated by soundproofing and an exterior fence for mutual privacy.

Rector Frederick Lowy paid tribute to the firm leadership of Jonathan Wener, chair of the Board’s real estate committee, who launched talks with the Grey Nuns three years ago. For his part, Wener thanked the sisters for their graciousness in allowing the university not only to buy their home, but to share it, a decision he knew was an emotional one.

Also present at the June 1 news conference was Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, who called it a happy occasion, and a good model for the eventual disposition of Montreal’s unused religious buildings.

In 1861, the Sisters of Charity bought from the Sulpician Order the land between Guy, Ste.

Catherine, St. Mathieu Sts and Dorchester (now René-Lévesque) Blvd. They wanted to move from their facilities in Old Montreal, which were subject to floods.

They commissioned Victor Bourgeau, who had designed many religious buildings in Montreal, and the hospital portion opened in 1871. The chapel was consecrated in 1879, and other parts of the building, including an orphanage and the mother house, were completed by October 1901.

The property included cultivated fields and orchards. The Faubourg complex now sits on part of this land. Some of it was leased from the Grey Nuns in 1925 to build the older part of the Faubourg; some Montrealers will remember that a Pascal’s hardware store occupied that building along Ste. Catherine St. In 1975, there was speculation that the property might be purchased and renovated for a new downtown library building, and commerce, fine arts and athletics facilities, but the property remained in the hands of the Grey Nuns.

The Sisters of Charity, better known as the Grey Nuns, were founded in 1737 by Marguerite d’Youville. A widow at 28, mother of two young sons, she devoted herself to the ill and indigent. With three companions, she opened a refuge for the downtrodden, and despite harsh criticism and many setbacks, she carried out works of charity until her death in 1771.

She was beatified by Pope John XXIII in 1990, and is recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint.