The discreet charm of a jewel of Old Montreal’s heritage: The Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel
November 20, 2017 / Posted by Heritage Montreal - Collaborator
Do not let the icy winds of these last few days deter you from fully benefiting from a tour of the jewels of Old Montreal’s heritage. Let the winter sun guide you through the district as you follow the footsteps of pilgrims of ages past, many of whom had just gotten off their ships, to the steps of the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel. From outside, you’ll be amazed by its fascinating architectural language; from inside, its walls provide warmth, its infrastructure marvel and its museum souvenirs. This religious edifice incarnates several strata of the city’s history, and is bound to inform curious guests on Montréal’s historical blossoming.
Open your eyes wide and let the wonders of the Chapel amaze you!
In the 1650s, the extramural site on which the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel is located today was formerly chosen for the grounds of a humble wood chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the construction of which was commissioned by Marguerite Bourgeoys. She wanted to create a space for pilgrims to travel to, since the trip to the cross on Mount Royal was lengthy and perilous. Five years later, the chapel’s humble wooden frame was replaced by a rubble-stone one with a steep-pitched gable roof. Unfortunately, the chapel was consumed by a fire in 1754. Only an oak-carved statuette of the Virgin Mary with the Baby Jesus was recovered from the ashes; at the time, believers saw this as nothing short of a miracle. Today, you can still see this same statuette on display inside the modern chapel. After the fire, many didn’t know what should be done with the sacred site; in fact, the ruins were almost razed to make way for military buildings to house British soldiers. But, in 1771, stonemason Joseph Morin and carpenter Pierre Raza (Rangeard) were given the green light to rebuild the chapel with a traditional French architecture: a rectangular nave, a polygonal core and a double-pitched roof crowned with a dual-lanterned bell tower.
Since the new chapel was less popular than the newly inaugurated Notre-Dame Basilica on the Place d’Armes and the impressive Church of Saint-Patrick, the humble place of worship was threatened yet again with expropriation to make way for a train station at the end of the 19th century. Thankfully, city planners stepped up to preserve this important piece of Montréal’s heritage, and plans were made to renovate the chapel following stylistic architectural trends of the time. The project was to be done in two phases. First, Montréal-based architects Maurice Perreault and Albert Mesnard would design and organize the construction of the chapel, and then painter-architect François-Édouard Meloche would take the lead on arranging its aesthetics. They built a new façade, modified the existing lateral facades, revamped the interior décor and added an impressive belvedere atop the original core. The new façade, built right over the former one, conveys symmetry and an architectural vocabulary inspired by Renaissance-era eclecticism. It was covered with both coursed rusticated grey stone and smoothed stone, and the façade led all the way up to a central bell tower – which was modified in 1952 – surrounded by two lateral bellturrets. The chapel’s rear façade which overlooks the Saint-Lawrence was designed by Meloche and features a rich ensemble of architectural elements including many marvellous sculptures – all of which were also inspired by the Renaissance. Atop the rear façade stands the Étoile de la mer, an awe-inspiring statue of the Virgin Mary with her arms open wide towards the river. This effigy, built by Philippe Banlier (Laperle), is a testament to the pilgrims of ages past who would travel to the Americas to fulfil their sacred duty.
For more information on the fascinating history of this jewel of our heritage, on the intriguing life of Marguerite Bourgeoys, and to explore a thousand-year-old archeological site discovered in 1996, visit the Marguerite-Bourgeoys Museum, the institution dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel.