The new St. Brigid’s

St. Brigid’s Catholic Church, Ottawa

Photo : St. Brigid’s Catholic Church, Ottawa

St. Brigid’s Catholic Church, Ottawa

Photo : St. Brigid’s Catholic Church, Ottawa


Michael Vidoni

Les bâtiments et l'architecture

Published Date: févr. 12, 2009

St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in Ottawa has entered a new era. For almost 120 years, it has stood at the heart of a diverse and dynamic neighbourhood not far from Parliament Hill. Its builders, ministers and parishioners came from the immigrant stock that occupied the tenements of Lowertown and worked in the mills that belonged to the Protestant power-elite of Upper Town. As ownership now passes from the diocese to a group of cultural enthusiasts, the new St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts and Humanities will become a magnet for the throngs of young, hip and moneyed Ottawans who are settling in this now-diverse quarter.

The Catholic diocese of Ottawa (then Bytown) was established by Pope Pius IX in 1847 to serve the growing population of French Canadians and Irish in the city, many of whom had migrated to the area as labourers on the Rideau Canal. In 1853, the Cathedral of Notre Dame was dedicated; it became the principal place of worship in the city. Other parishes were established in Upper Town and two French-speaking churches were built in the vicinity of the cathedral. In 1888, Archbishop Duhamel agreed to a secession of English-speaking parishioners from the cathedral to establish the parish of St. Brigid’s nearby.

The Romanesque Revival church – designed by Ottawa native James R. Bowes – incorporates many styles, as was common in the late Victorian era. Reflecting the modest means of the parish, the church was also constructed of heavy limestone blocks instead of more elaborate stonework. It is fitting that the structure was dedicated to St. Brigid, the patroness of Ireland, as its sparely adorned exterior is reminiscent of Ireland’s fortified churches.

The interior is truly a study in contrasts. On the one hand, the layout is simple. The nave is divided in three, with two side aisles flanking the centre one. On the other hand, the ceilings of the side aisles offer rare fan-vaulted construction, decoratively painted and adorned with pendants. Generous pews of carved ash and walnut receive parishioners, and elaborate painted altarpieces decorate the chancel. Orme and Sons of Montreal installed the magnificent symbol-laden stained glass windows. Irish motifs, such as the harp and shamrock, adorn the gilded pipes of the enormous 1910 Casavant organ in the choir loft.

The real treasure of St. Brigid’s, however, came later in its history. In 1908, an ambitious program of interior painting was undertaken by Toussaint-Xenophon Renaud. The Quebecois painter had a prolific career, painting nearly 200 ecclesiastical interiors throughout Quebec and the Ottawa Valley. There are murals of the Nativity, the Descent from the Cross and depictions of the Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph. Renaud also decorated the wooden columns to resemble marble and created an extensive program of polychromy, stenciling and gilding. The whole interior was whitewashed in the 1960s, and only the murals above the main and side altars have been restored.

The church quickly became a focal point for the local Irish population. Until 1895, the Christian Brothers educated young men, while the Grey Sisters did the same for girls. By the time of its 50th anniversary in 1939, the parish offered numerous organized activities, including choirs, service groups and athletic teams. The Society of St. Jerome sewed clothing for the poor and St. Brigid’s Young Men’s Association fielded teams in hockey, football, track and field, lacrosse and baseball. Notable National Hockey League alumni Alex Connell, Edwin Gorman and King Clancy honed their skills on these teams.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the demographics of St. Brigid’s changed. The owner of the church – the Archdiocese of Ottawa – like many dioceses in Ontario, has undergone a property rationalization in recent years. In April 2006, Archbishop Marcel Gervais announced that St. Brigid’s would close due to the escalating costs of maintaining the aging building. In September 2007, the last mass was celebrated in the church and it was deconsecrated.

In October that same year, the building was purchased by a non-profit group to convert the space into a cultural venue. The building is protected by a municipal designation and a provincial conservation easement – the elements that make St. Brigid’s such an important building will be preserved. Renamed St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts and Humanities, it is the home of the National Irish Canadian Cultural Centre. Its new owners have filled its schedule with events both Irish-focused and cross-cultural. Even as its religious purpose has ended, its important social function is as strong as ever. St. Brigid’s continues to fulfil the diverse cultural needs of the new Lowertown.