MONTREAL'S DOWNTOWN CEMETERIES
By Edgar Andrew Collard

On the east side of Victoria Square, about midway between St. James and St. Antoine (rue Saint-Jacques and rue Saint-Antoine), is Fortification Lane (ruelle des Fortifications).  The origin of the name is explained by a tablet. The lane marks the approximate line of the northern wall of the old fortifications that once enclosed Montreal. These walls were built in the 18th century, under the French regime, by Chaussegros de Lery, a military engineer in the reign of King Louis XV.  The western wall stood at about the present line of McGill Street and the roadway that marks the eastern end of Victoria Square. The eastern wall was about Berri Street; the southern wall about Commissioners Street. In fact, Commissioners Street received its name, not from the Harbour Commissioners, but from those appointed in the early years of the 19th century to supervise the demolition of the walls, which had become a hindrance to the town's expansion. Beyond the walls were straggling suburbs. But the centre of Montreal's military, administrative, ecclesiastical, business and social life was within the walls. As part of this compact organization, the cemeteries were within the walls also.

The principal cemeteries were just inside the northern wall marked by Fortification Lane today. They occupied the area beginning close to the wall and extending down to about the middle of what is now St. James Street. And they ran from about St. Francois-Xavier Street (rue Saint- Francois-Xavier) to the present beginnings of Victoria Square.  This means that the buildings on the north side of St. James Street today are standing in these old cemeteries. When the custom of burying "within the walls" was abandoned, most of the old bones were left lying where they had been interred.

Later, when foundations and cellars for the buildings on St. James Street's upper side were being dug the bones were unearthed. Even then, in some cellars, the bones were not all removed. They were left lying above ground. A story of a cellar full of bones is told about a building at or near the corner of St. James Street and Victoria Square. A writer in The Gazette in 1872 said: "The writer has frequently been told by a gentleman who in his boyhood resided in St. James Street... that a wine cellar of more than ordinary depth was almost paved with bones and skulls, and that for this reason none of the servants could be induced to go into the place alone, save an old butler who had the cellar in charge, and who cared so much for his wines that all the ghosts in a dozen grave yards would not have frightened him from them."

Back in the French regime the Roman Catholics began burying their dead south of the wall. When Protestants started to settle in Montreal, after the coming of British rule in 1760, they needed a burial place also. They, too, opened a cemetery just south of that northern wall. Most of the interments in the Protestant cemetery "within the walls" were performed by Rev. David Chabrand deLisle. He was a Protestant clergyman from France, "un Francais de France," who was appointed to be the "Protestant episcopal minister" (Anglican).

The government had selected deLisle, hoping he might be able to convert French Canadians to Protestantism. He proved doubly unsuccessful. He made no progress in French Canadian conversions; and he spoke English so badly that his Protestant parishioners could scarcely understand what he was saying. Nevertheless, David Chabrand deLisle was the Protestant minister in Montreal for nearly 30 years. For much of the time he was the only one. This meant that he read the graveside services for most of  the Protestants in the town.  When he died in 1794, he himself was buried in the same cemetery.

These cemeteries "within the walls" were extremely convenient, particularly for the Roman Catholics. The Catholic funerals were held in Notre Dame Church in Place d'Armes (not the present building, but an earlier church, standing just in front of today's Notre Dame). When the body was carried from the church, it had to be taken only a few feet away for burial. By the end of the 18th century, however, continued burials "within the walls" were causing increasing concern. Public health might be endangered. The closing of an old cemetery required the permission of the Attorney General of Lower Canada. The churchwardens of Notre Dame submitted their petition. The reply of the Attorney General went beyond approval. He demanded the closure of the cemeteries. Burials "within the walls" would have to cease.

Catholics and Protestants both established new cemeteries beyond the walls. Neither foresaw how rapidly the city would grow. Much of the new Catholic cemetery acquired in 1799 is now Dominion Square and Place du Canada. Much of the new Protestant cemetery is now the complexe Guy Favreau.  Meanwhile the erection of buildings, where the old cemeteries  "within the walls" had been, unearthed the remains that had been left. As the demand for real estate on St. James Street increased,  many of the first buildings erected were torn down and replaced by bigger ones.

This rebuilding resulted in repeated and deeper excavations. Bones missed by the earlier builders were turned up by those who followed. In 1860, M.E. David, making excavations for shops on the north side of St. James Street (on the site later occupied by the Canada Life Building), discovered several skeletons. One was the skeleton of a woman. It still had its "beautiful long flaxen hair." In July 1907, laborers were digging foundations for the Canadian Bank of Commerce, near St. Peter (on the site previously occupied by the St. James Street Methodist Church, forerunner of the St. James United Church on St. Catherine Street). Their picks uncovered two skeletons near the street line of Fortification Lane. Earlier excavators on the spot had just missed these bones. Had they gone down three inches deeper they would have found them.

Such a discovery had an air of unreality. A reporter of the time remarked; "The remains were gathered up and a small box built for them. Now they rest in a corner awaiting the arrival of some official to remove them. Meanwhile the little box lies unnoticed, and, of itself, without attraction." The bones were those of men. Their identification would never be known. The place where the skeletons had been uncovered was already swarming with construction workers. Even the dead and the buried had to give place to the future.
 

From the book: "All Our Yesterdays" by Edgar Andrew Collard 
published 1988 by The Gazette
Many thanks to Edgar Andrew Collard, his wife Elizabeth, 
and The Montreal Gazette for permission to reprint this article.

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