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The Secret Pastiche of the Birks Heritage Chapel

By: Diana Sims

Religion pokes through the surface of Montréal. Despite the seedy underbelly of sex clubs and St. Hubert motels, the cross always shines from the mountain top like an illuminated tree. Like the cross, church and synagogue rooftops sprout among the otherwise two-story architecture of neighborhoods like the Plateau and Saint Henri, green domes discernible from mountain outlooks and the 720. This proliferation of religious architecture led to the city’s reputation as la ville aux cent clochers, and Mark Twain once remarked that Montréal was the first city he had been “where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.”

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It should come as no surprise, then, that a church exists within the otherwise bureaucratic architecture of McGill. The Birks Building is perhaps more well known for its heavily policed reading room, and more often than not its Heritage Chapel is empty. The structure is certainly nothing striking; there’s standard ceiling vaulting and a floor plan like any other Gothic Revivalist church in Europe. Hidden eccentricities abound, however, in its décor. The clerestory windows for example, rather than the usual evangelist symbols or saint portraits, feature stained glass insignias of various British and Canadian universities. There’s the pulpit and tree for Glasgow, for example, and the three red martlets for McGill.

This collegiate kitsch is contrasted by three cloth panels in Indian motifs by French-Canadian artist and McGill graduate Norman Laliberté. Lailiberté’s statements regarding their creation is displayed beside them. Next to these is a  St. Paul icon gifted to the university by the Archbishop of Athens in thanks for Canadian support during the Second World War, while one of the columns on the chapel’s left side features a stone from St. Columba’s Island in Iona, Scotland. The chapel also features a memorial Roll of Honor, a Torah displayed on the rear wall, memorial plaques to two of McGill’s previous presidents, and an organ gifted by the family of a late McGill chairman.

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It seems likely that further investigations into Birks would yield equally odd histories. The usually barren “marriage notice” bulletin by the lower staircase, for example, or the numerous portraits of red-robed white men, or the faculty room furnished entirely in pink–all of these remain ripe mysteries. The Birks Heritage Chapel, however, is a less obvious enigma. It is a thoroughly hidden addition to Montreal religious architecture, unmarked by green dome or conspicuous height, but singular in its hodgepodgic histories and aesthetics. In what other church in Montréal does the martlet fly next to the dove? 

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