Commenting on Montreal’s landscape during a visit to the chilly metropolis in 1881, Mark Twain observed that it was the first time he’d ever been to a city where one couldn't throw a brick without breaking a church window. Indeed, if the number of churches were any indication of piety, there would be more Montrealers in heaven than residents of any other city in North America (and rightfully so, because all those other cities suck).
Times have changed since the Twain visit, however, and so has the city's official religion which is now of the devil may care variety. Here, then, is a slew of the secular and immoral purposes to which various city churches have succumbed to the delight of contemporary consumers, exercise fanatics and heretics alike:
Condos: Would you like to make the House of God your own - quite literally - and fall sleep at the altar? For a reasonable price, this can now be had as various churches across town have been converted into bizarre-looking condominiums haunted by the Holy Spirit. There is the Place Delacroix on Blvd Saint Laurent in Little Italy, the former St John the Divine Church in Verdun and the Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood monastery in NDG, each more unsightly than the next, the balconies in particular protruding like artillery from the sighing church sides.
Fitness: If your religion is exercise and you’ve got some moolah, look no further than the Saint-Jude Espace Tonus (or simply and sexily Le St-Jude) on St-Denis, a church transformed into a gym and spa where sweating bodies in spandex run on treadmills while ogling one other – just as folks in church once used to do. The patrons of St-Jude observe their rituals as fervently as all believers, and the Sunday spinning class is as packed as the Sunday mass of yesteryear. Meanwhile, the surrounding street temples offer appropriate worship attire: Lululemon, Löle as well as many others. As for the establishment’s namesake, St-Jude, patron saint of lost causes, he surely never would have dreamed that his name would one day be juxtaposed with tonus. Then again, St-Jude was a handsome man, at least according to Google images: he looked like Jesus but was better nourished and had a squarer jaw – you’d surely swipe him on Tinder.
Dance: Until very recently, the Loyola Chapel of Concordia University lent its space to the heretical movement known as Flow, which all the Popes would have deemed as nothing but the Devil’s work. It was, in fact, the work of personal development expressed in the form of a Chapel-wide dance party led by new age DJs and yogi gurus. People danced and smoked and made out a bit in the shadows. Some wept in ecstasy while others laughed late into the night. All was bliss until the Chapel unexpectedly pulled the plug – but just wait until marijuana gets legalized.
Circus: In 2011, the Saint-Esprit Church in Quebec City gave up the ghost and was converted into a circus school. Acrobats now swing and swoosh between the church’s vaults like Tarzans on their lianas.
Wrestling: Nowhere is the church's plight (or personal development, depending on your point of view) more apparent than at the Église du Très-Saint-Rédempteur in Hochelaga whose basement serves as the headquarters of Quebec’s Insane Championship Wrestling or ICW. At 8pm on Saturday nights, the Très-Saint-Rédempteur hosts an amateur wrestling match featuring Big Fat Seb, Tony la Puissance Stallone, Freak Hugo and Le Rat, all bedecked in homemade capes and latex, bearing dubious weapons borrowed from the pantry. Eve and Vanessa also ocassionally step in the ring, the latter’s T-shirt saying something along the lines of: "Check out my crack and shut the fuck up."
There is much feigned violence and unfeigned swearing and mothers with babies in their arms approaching the ring to give the antagonist the finger. There are grandmothers and children in the audience, as well as teenagers, macho men and Hochelaga gangsta-types wearing metal rings and flowered sweatpants. It is a community event, for better or worse, and many in the audience are clearly wrestling with poverty and all that it implies.
I arrived at the match as a curious voyeur but left deflated and sad. It is a long way from Le Saint Jude to the Très-Saint Rédempteur, and their religions are very far apart. The glowing faces of St-Jude’s exercising angels contrast sharply with the ashen pallor of the ICW fans. We often forget it in a city whose affordability and rent control still allow the struggling artist to live next door to the urban professional, but just take a few metro stops east and... mind the gap.