Concordia University’s newest student residence has big, light-filled rooms, a fabulous high-vaulted study hall and a plum address in downtown Montreal. It also has something found in no other college digs in the country: an open crypt in the basement, filled with the remains of long-ago nuns who lived and died in the former Grey Nuns mother house.
Concordia bought the century-old convent, which occupies an entire city block, six years ago for $18-million, with the caveat that some sisters would live in a portion of the building till 2022. But this week, on the eve of Good Friday, the last of the elderly nuns left the mother house forever, some to move from one hospice environment to another.
“We realized that if we stayed till 2022, who’s going to make the decisions and negotiate with Concordia in those last days?” says Sister Faye Wylie, Grey Nuns treasurer. “And then the few that are left over, where are they going to go? It’s not when you’re already in an infirmary bed that you’re able to go out and find a place.” The average age of the 136 nuns, who have moved to a smaller rental facility in east Montreal, is around 85.
Their departure marks another stage in the evaporation of a once-robust order, whose many hospitals, orphanages and schools helped create a social-welfare infrastructure in Quebec and across Western Canada. The mother house joins a growing inventory of disused religious buildings in Quebec, where a debate is heating up about what to do with all these bricks and spires.
Catholics have been abandoning their churches for over half a century in Quebec, where weekly attendance has dropped from 90 per cent of the population before 1960 to around 6 per cent today. The decline of the province’s religious orders has been less obvious but equally dramatic. The Grey Nuns’ mother house was built to house 1,000, or about three times the total number of nuns remaining across Canada, the United States and Brazil. No one has taken final vows since 2004.
“I thought there was always going to be a future,” says Sister Wylie, who joined the order in 1965. “I didn’t realize there was going to be such a major change.”
End of an era
The decline of the Grey Nuns is particularly symbolic of the end of an era for Quebec, where the sisters made it their mission to foster the values of a caring sociey. Serving the sick and the needy was the whole purpose of the religious women who gathered around Marguerite d’Youville in Montreal in the late 1730s.
“She wasn’t trying to found a congregation,” Sister Wylie says. “She just wanted to help the poor.” Her charitable association worked as a lay group for nearly two decades before being recognized formally as a congregation, and continued to collaborate with lay people after that.
When Marguerite d’Youville died in 1771, the Grey Nuns were still a local affair, and remained so until the mid-19th century. After 1840, the order rapidly expanded its reach, and over the next 100 years became a major provider of health care and other social services throughout Quebec, Western and Northern Canada, and the northern United States.
The ground under this expansion had already begun to shift when Sister Wylie took her vows in 1965. Quebec’s Quiet Revolution was under way, and governments across Canada were taking greater control over social services and education. The Second Vatican Council had just produced a papal decree directing religious orders “to adjust their way of life to modern needs.”
Half a century later, the Grey Nuns seem to have failed this ambiguous assignment, even as a new Pope embraces the Youvillean mission of service to the poor. Modern needs did not turn out to include hospitals run by Catholic religious orders. The residential schools disaster implicated the Grey Nuns in a campaign to erase the identity of native peoples, distorting the sisters’ traditional commitment to care and education. As their numbers dwindled, more and more of their energies went toward managing their facilities, or figuring out how to devolve responsibility for them.