The novelist Mark Twain is said to have referred to Montreal as a city of spires, writing that “you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window” in Canada’s largest French-speaking city.
“In Quebec cities, the church is the landmark,” historian Paul Mackey says. “In Europe you have castles –here, we’ve built churches.”
From the arrival of the first French settlers in the 1600s to the last half of the 20th century, the Catholic Church and the rest of society in Quebec were tightly intertwined in a way difficult to imagine in the rest of North America. Hospitals and schools were church-run, and priests played a key role in political and family life in the province.
“Since many people finished school in grade nine, the priests, who were more educated, became social and political leaders,” Mackey says.
A wave of nationalization and secularization in the 1960s, known as the Quiet Revolution, upended that dynamic almost overnight. “This was also the time of the birth control pill and the Second Vatican Council which called for the church to be more open to the world,” Mackey says. “At the same time there was a political transition in Quebec, which put hospitals and schools in the hands of the state, and made higher education available to more people.”
As a result, church attendance plummeted, from more than 80 percent in the mid-1960s to nine percent in 2012, according to a study by University of Ottawa researcher Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme. Data from the Quebec Religious Heritage Council shows that between 2003 and 2016, one in six Quebec churches closed its doors. By the late 20th century, many of the buildings had fallen into abandon and disrepair.
“Two hundred and thirty-three churches still belong to us, but since 1980 we’ve had to sell 42,” says Rémy Gagnon, head of the department of buildings and religious heritage at the Quebec City regional diocese, the second largest in the province. “You can see the rhythm that we’re talking about.”
But now, with the…