Villeray residents mobilize to save Sainte-Cécile church

Sainte-Cécile church is in need of repairs, but the community wants to fight to keep the space open.  (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC - image credit)
Sainte-Cécile church is in need of repairs, but the community wants to fight to keep the space open. (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC - image credit)

Susana Monteiro grew up with the Sainte-Cécile church in Montreal's Villeray neighbourhood — it's where she sang in the choir and got married.

When she heard the parish might dissolve, she and her community banded together to try and save it.

"This church means a lot to me. My parents still come to church every Sunday," she said.

"It's really sad if this building is transformed into simple apartments. I think we have the opportunity to do something better."

The parish was meant to hold a dissolution vote on Nov. 6, but it's been postponed, with no new date set.

Still, the church is in need of serious repairs and can't afford the renovations, according to Monteiro, especially as attendance at mass drops.

She said insurance companies are reluctant to continue insuring the church while the repairs aren't being done.

Though the parish has seen its numbers dwindling, Sainte-Cécile's basement has been a popular hub for community activities.

Recreational centre Patro Villeray and the local senior and youth centres are among those who use the church every day. The basement is home to youth activities like sports, theatre and a summer camp for kids, along with activities for seniors.

Sainte-Cécile as community hub

Patro Villeray has been active in the church for over 30 years and would be devastated to lose the space, said executive director Emilie Leroy.

Without it, Villeray's western side will lose access to leisure activities, Leroy said.

"For some, leisure and recreation aren't a priority. But it's part of social development and quality of life," she said. "If we lose the space, citizens lose services."

Sophie Sylvie Gagné of the Corporation de développement communautaire Solidarités Villeray said her daughter attended summer camp at the church every year and loved it.

Because Sainte-Cécile is central in the neighbourhood, it's within walking distance for many people and the proximity gave Gagné peace of mind.

"If it's not here, there won't be another place. There's not enough space to develop day camps so for sure it will be missing," she said. "Also for leisure activities … for people in the neighbourhood it's a big loss."

The church has also been used for concerts for artists like Radio Radio, she said, which brought life to the area.

Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC
Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC

Yvan Bolduc, president of the administration council of the Villeray senior centre, said the news that the parish might dissolve completely destabilized the organization.

"It's central to Villeray so for seniors who need to commute to come here, it's an extraordinary place," he said.

"The goal is to break isolation so when they come to activities, they make friends, build relationships, it breaks solitude and that's important."

Bolduc said if the church were to close down, the senior centre — which already pays more to rent their new offices since the youth centre closed — would have to turn to privately-run spaces, which he isn't sure they can afford.

Parish is in its rights to sell the church

Those mobilizing to save the church say they want a seat at the discussion table when significant decisions affecting the community are made.

The borough is also taking part in the deliberations on Sainte-Cécile's fate, though Laurence Lavigne Lalonde, borough mayor for Villeray-Saint-Michel-Parc-Extension, says it isn't its responsibility.

If the parish votes to dissolve, it's within its rights to then sell the church, she said.

But Lavigne Lalonde said she understands residents' concerns and wants to help find ways for the space to belong to the community.

"We know it's an important place for citizens. Even those who don't go to the church and don't participate in religious activities, they are really attached to this place," she said.