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The basement with graves from deceased nuns at the Grey Nuns mother house in Montreal that is being converted to academic purposes.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

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.

"We got pretty far from what we said we were about," Sister Wylie says. "We got weighed down by all these properties. People don't join congregations to run buildings. There's a certain freedom when you get rid of them." Most of the order's properties have been taken over by others, though some, like the Grey Nuns Community Hospital in Edmonton, are run by "faith-based" Catholic organizations.

Crisis in religious architecture

Clarence Epstein, Concordia's director of special projects and cultural affairs, says the full transformation of the mother house into a centre for the university's fine arts faculty will cost "hundreds of millions," and require help from all three levels of government. An even more expensive day of reckoning is coming, he says, for many other religious buildings that are falling out of service.

"Montreal and the entire province are in the midst of a crisis in the repurposing of religious architecture," says Mr. Epstein, author of a scholarly study of pre-Confederation churches in Montreal. "We're looking at hundreds of buildings that will be in precarious situations in the next 10 to 20 years."

The vast mother house was already becoming a burden in the mid-seventies, when the Grey Nuns struck a deal to sell it to a private developer. That fell through when it became clear how much of the sternly beautiful building was guarded by heritage legislation. The jewel in the centre of the structure is a gorgeous chapel with an intricate altarpiece carved from Vermont marble.

The remains of Marguerite d'Youville, who was canonized in 1990, were transferred from the chapel to another site with great ceremony in 2010. The nuns wanted to shift the bones of those buried in the crypt (which is essentially an underground graveyard), but since some died during a typhus outbreak, health authorities prevented the move.

There are scars in the walls of the mother house where objects of veneration have been removed, and the chapel had been deconsecrated by the time I visited last month. But most of the interior will remain as before, including the altarpiece and the huge Casavant-Frères organ in the rear balcony. Concordia will use the room as a study hall, concert space and multipurpose venue. Any changes, including restoration of what is already there, must be approved by the provincial Culture Ministry.

The nuns' early exit is a mixed blessing for Concordia, which like other Quebec universities is enduring a clawback of funds from the province. The university will have interim beds for nearly 600 students in the mother house by this time next year, but Mr. Epstein says there is no money yet to upgrade the rooms fully.

Preservation a challenge

There are plenty of other ecclesiatical buildings in Montreal in need of a future plan, and the means to pursue it. Ten minutes east of the mother house, the 1853 convent of the Soeurs de Miséricorde stands empty, after a long-term care facility was forced to leave because of structural problems. Five minutes beyond that, the Église Très-Saint Nom-de-Jésus raises its twin copper-clad spires above a crumbling neo-Gothic structure that was declared unsafe by the fire department in 2009. A citizens' group has sprung up to preserve the church, which is on the Heritage Canada Foundation's list of the country's top 10 endangered sites. The Montreal archdiocese would prefer to knock it down and build social housing.

That is one striking feature of the debate over the future of such buildings: the pragmatic view often taken by those most intimately acquainted with them. For the Montreal archdiocese, as for the Grey Nuns when they tried to sell their mother house to a developer in the 1970s, Église Très-Saint Nom-de-Jésus was mainly a means to an end, and disposable now that conditions have changed.

Civil society has mostly lined up on the preservation side of the issue, through groups like Heritage Montreal and the Fondation du patrimoine religieux du Quebec. The province has invested $271-million in church restoration over the past two decades, with an eye to improving tourism and increasing employment. The Fondation claims that labour-intensive restoration efforts have created more than 4,000 jobs in Quebec.

Even when church and state agree that an ecclesiastical building should be preserved, it is often difficult to decide how. All parties believe that the Maison de Mère d'Youville, where the Grey Nuns began their mission and still have their headquarters, is a monument of historic importance. But when the nuns offered, in 2010, to sell it for $1 to the neighbouring Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archeology and History, the museum turned them down.

Louise Pothier, the museum's director of exhibitions and technologies, says Pointe-à-Callière is extremely interested in the Maison, its artifacts, and its 17th-century underground vault – the largest in North America, she reckons. But the cost of maintaining and running the site is beyond the current resources of a museum already stretched, she says, by other acquisitions near the Old Montreal waterfront.

Things could change as cash begins to flow for the big civic party of 2017, which will mark the 150th birthday of Canada, the 50th anniversary of Expo '67, and the city's 375th birthday. That is also shaping up as a deadline of sorts in the museum's continuing negotiations with the Grey Nuns, who may not have long to keep talking.

Sister Wylie views the coming end of her order not as a tragedy, but as one more event in the organic life of Catholic faith and service. Newer, more vigorous types of religious community are springing up in Quebec, she says, pointing to groups like La Famille Marie-Jeunesse in Sherbrooke, which includes men, women, young people and families.

"What our traditional religious congregations, in their very organized way, brought to society in the past, I don't think is needed any more," she says. "It's not this structured religion we need, it's spiritual care. People are very spiritual, they have a desire to look after their brothers and sisters, and do things that were always important to the Grey Nuns. We have to be present to that, and look at how we continue the mission."

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