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Grey Nuns: On tourne la page
“Pour nous, ça va toujours rester la Maison Mère. Un petit village.”
“To us, it will always be the Mother House: a little village.”
In 2004, an historic building and an important part of Montreal’s religious and architectural heritage changed hands when Concordia University announced that it would purchase the Grey Nuns Mother House, located north of Réné-Lévesque Boulevard between Guy and St. Mathieu streets. The Sisters of Charity of Montreal (“Grey Nuns”), a religious congregation founded by St. Marguerite D’Youville in 1738, originally purchased the land in 1861 and opened the Mother House ten years later. At the time, the Mother House was a rural summer retreat from the bustle of the old port. Since then, the building housed the Sisters while also being the site of some of their social initiatives, including a hospital and an orphanage. The Mother House was named a historic site in 1976. This past March, the last remaining Sisters left the Mother House and moved to a retirement home in the Rosemont borough of Montreal
Though several existing projects present the history of the Grey Nuns and explore the architecture of the Mother House building, this is the first project to record and preserve the personal stories of the Sisters who lived in the Mother House. For many Concordia students, knowledge about the Mother House and the Grey Nuns who lived there has been acquired secondhand. This project is intended to allow the Sisters to speak for themselves, using their own voices to tell their stories. In the wake of their recent move, we were lucky to receive the opportunity to talk with several Grey Nuns Sisters about their lives at the Mother House and their experiences adapting to life at their new home. These conversations provide insight into the transformations occurring to both religious places and communities in Montreal today.
“Qu’est-ce qui nous manque aussi, c’est les fêtes qu’on avait à la Maison Mère.”
“What we also miss are the celebrations that we had at the Motherhouse.”
“J’aime beaucoup la Maison Mère, mais j’aime prier ici comme à la Maison Mère.”
“I really do love the Mother House, but I can pray here as well as I can there.”
“I keep myself busy here and I always find ways to occupy my time.”
“I have left, I have left.”
We conceived of this project in the context of some concepts that were introduced to us in our course, “Religion and the Public Sphere”. In Robert Orsi’s introduction to his work Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape, he describes how sacred places and congregations have increasingly been displaced in North American cities to make room for urban renewal projects. The Sisters of Charity of Montreal have always been associated with urban life and as such have experienced multiple displacements, their move out of the Motherhouse being their most recent and, presumably, their final displacement. Orsi also writes about the “Garden City ideal” movement that emerged in the late 19th century, in which the cultivation of urban green spaces “would provide city people with the salubrious physical, moral, and spiritual benefits of regular contact with the natural world.” We were interested to see how the Sisters’ narratives would fit into such discussions of the benefits of gardens and nature within the city, given the differences between the environment surrounding the Motherhouse and that of the Square Angus retirement home.
We also considered the shifting ownership of the Motherhouse building in the context of the larger trend of repurposing both secular and religious spaces. In Montreal, one can witness previously secular spaces being used for religious purposes (ie. storefront churches), but it is becoming increasingly common for historically religious spaces to be used for the purposes of secular institutions. The transformation of the Motherhouse from a religious to secular space also speaks to contemporary discourses on secularism in Quebec, and the irony of preserving the facades of historically religious buildings.
Lastly, in conducting our interviews with the Grey Nuns Sisters, we wished to explore the notion of topophilia – a strong attachment to place – and the distinctions made between space and place by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in his article “Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience”. We wondered whether the Sisters would exhibit a strong sense of attachment to the Motherhouse, or if their sense of “place” and community would be transplanted to their new home. According to Tuan, humans wish to turn “spaces” into “places” by attaching meaning to them, but there is always an ambivalence towards “places” as they can be contested, people can be displaced from them, and they are always in flux. With our project, we sought to pursue these ideas of displacement and attachment, given the Grey Nuns’ relatively long history of living in the Motherhouse.
About the Grey Nuns, About the Mother House, About Concordia’s New Residence, Grey Nuns Project(Fine Arts Department, Concordia University), Virtual Preservation Initiative, Preoccupations Photographic Explorations, Sister Constance McMullen in the Motherhouse: A one-act play
I have an unhealthy attachment to material goods and as such, selling this camera was a positive action. It was cathartic in so many ways. The camera is a Yashica Mat LM from the 1960s and I bought it about 9 years ago in London, Ontario. It took me a while to remember how I had procured this camera. I sold it to rid myself of something I didn’t use very often and because an extra 200$ is an extra 200$. However it took me a few months of wrestling back and forth to finally sell it. What I thought about today was where did my hesitation in selling this camera come from? What makes this piece of metal(and by the way, I own another Yashica TLR camera) special? What causes attachment?
First, what makes this camera special? My answers to that question would be: it was one of my first camera purchases and that the pictures I have taken with it remind me of a time long past. So, what does it matter that it was one of my first purchases? I didn’t keep my first banjo and I have no idea what the first book I bought on my own is. Music and literature make up part of my identity in the same way photography does. It seems silly to imbue this camera with a sense of specialness for something as mundane as when it was purchased. It took me an afternoon to remember that I had bought it in London, Ontario! Secondly, is it the camera itself that reminds me of the past or is it the pictures I have taken with it? The pictures itself are my reminders and as pictures are an outcome of a process, any of my cameras are capable of this.
Where is the hesitation aside from this? It really is a number of things, all irrational in their own right. What if this camera is unique? What is the value of this camera skyrockets in the future and I miss out? What is my other camera breaks and I’m left with no camera? This fear of missing out or fear of the unknown is beyond silly, however it informs much of what I do. So selling this camera was a way of letting go of this. Would I be upset if this camera was some rare specimen that netted the new owner a lot of money? Yes! But honestly, that chances of that happening are slim to none.
We form attachments to material goods, considered commodities, by turning them into singular objects. This camera, one of tens of thousands like it made, transforms from a commodity by virtue of my imbuing it with meaning. This isn’t a bad thing and we all do it but we are not, or should not be slaves to our material possessions, no matter how attached we believe ourselves to be to them. At least this is how I would like to think…serenity now…
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