Projet Nouveau Gesù
What to do with a 150-year-old church that practically no one attends? That’s the challenge facing the Projet Nouveau Gesù. Here’s a bit of what it’s about.
The Gesù church was built in the early 1860’s as the chapel for the French Jesuit Collège Saint-Marie, located at the intersection of Bleury and what was then known as Dorchester Avenue, now René Lévesque Blvd.
Because it was a college chapel it never functioned as a regular parish, which means it never had a regular congregation outside of the students and faculty of the college. So, when the college closed in the 1960’s and was torn down shortly after that, the church was left essentially unused.
What saved this beautiful piece of architecture from being torn down with the college was the existence, under the church, of the first theatre to be built in Montreal. In keeping with the Jesuit tradition of educating the whole person and promoting human development through the arts, the theatre was created by excavating under the church.
The original theatre seating was simple wooden benches on a dirt floor which could accommodate the entire population of the college, which numbered around 1,000. Because of this theatre, the entire building was designated a heritage site.
The theatre has since been renovated and is now a state-of-the-art performance space that seats about 600, and is active about 200 days a year. Smaller performance spaces have also been added, as well as offices for various artistic groups. All of this is managed by the Centre de créativité, which leases the space from the Gesù, for the promotion of the relationship between art and spirituality.
Occasionally, the Centre will also use the church itself for various presentations, including performances on the magnificent Casavant organ that shakes the whole building when the organist lets loose on it.
But the church remains relatively unused. There are only four liturgies a week, including a Sunday mass, but these are attended usually by fewer than 30 people.
Having examined the situation in depth, a task force created by the Provincials of both French and English Canada, in anticipation of the formation of the new Canada province, recommended in their Feasibility Report released in December 2018 that a strong effort be made to rejuvenate the apostolic presence of the Society of Jesus in downtown Montreal by developing an apostolic centre that would promote collaboration and creativity in four main areas of focus: spirituality and religious practices, arts and culture, education and social justice.
These four areas of focus, what the report calls ‘hubs’, correspond directly to the traditional strengths of the Society of Jesus as well as the history of the Gesù itself. The vision of the task force is that the Gesù will serve as the ‘meeting place’ for groups and organizations whose mandates harmonize with the apostolic vision of the Society and who are willing to work together to create new and dynamic responses to the needs of the community in the city core, including the homeless, immigrants and refugees, indigenous peoples, as well as the universities and arts and theatre groups in the area.
The full realization of the project foresees the construction of a multi-purpose annex to the church that will provide space for all of this to happen. About half of the building will be residential, offering social housing, student housing, some residential space for artists, along with ateliers and exhibit spaces. The other half of the building will provide space for not-for-profit organizations that operate within the four areas: a drop-in centre for the homeless, a welcome centre for African immigrants, perhaps a learning centre for urban indigenous people, a children’s theatre, a local orchestra, and so on.
For this dream to come to reality we will need to get back from the City of Montreal the land that borders the church on the north and west sides, which was given to the city for $1 (it’s a long story). We are presently in negotiations with the city to have that land returned to us for the same price. Most of the parcel will be turned into green space, privately owned but open to the public. The portion on which the building will stand represents about 1/4 of the full parcel. And even that will have green space incorporated into the design (a roof-top garden, an atrium with vegetation, etc.).
As I said, this represents the fullest realization of the project. However, Projet Nouveau Gesù is committed to promoting the apostolic vision of the Feasibility Report with or without the new building. We’ll just have to do it differently if we have to work within the confines of the present facilities. Either way, I am consoled and immensely encouraged by the synchronicity between our project and the universal apostolic preferences recently published by Fr. General. We are on the right track! I pray that the Holy Spirit will guide our work for God’s greater glory.