Quebecs religious heritage is threatened, particularly because of the
decline in religious practice, the almost complete lack of succession among
religious figures, and the reduction in parish council revenues. Places
of worship, as well as rectories, cemeteries and monasteries are sold,
reconverted for other purposes and sometimes even destroyed without involving
in the decision-making process the local communities attached to these
religious properties. In a context where this tendency will gradually increase
and where current mechanisms no longer seem to meet the needs, the Committee
on Culture of the National Assembly, in an unprecedented approach, took
the initiative to find long-term solutions and proposed the implementation
of four religious heritage priorities.
On 6 June 2006, the Committee on Culture of the National Assembly tabled
its report on the future of Quebecs religious heritage. Containing 33
recommendations adopted unanimously by its members, this report stems from
an unprecedented approach in the history of Quebecs parliamentary committees
undertaken during an order of initiative1.
A Substantial Heritage with a Precarious Status
Quebecs religious heritage is rich and diversified. Its presence throughout
the land bears witness to the preponderant role it has played in the history
of Quebec, from the beginning of the colony to modern times, when the secularization
of society gradually took place. Quebec still boasts to this day at least
4000 cultural buildings and institutions of a religious and social nature,
2800 of which are places of worship, all religious traditions taken into
account. In addition to these heritage buildings, there is an impressive
quantity of moveable property and works of art such as paintings, sculptures,
silversmithing, organs, stained-glass windows, sacerdotal clothing as well
as thousands of linear metres of religious archives. The outstanding value
of this heritage and the special place it holds in the history of Quebec
are manifest in the number of religious items protected under the Cultural
Property Act: close to 500 of these are legally protected (classification,
recognition, designation), which represents slightly more than one third
of all protected cultural property. In addition to this building, property
and archival heritage, there exists an intangible heritage, that is, the
traditions, rituals, knowledge and know-how held by priests and nuns.
This heritage, as rich as it may be, is threatened, and during the past
few decades we have witnessed religious buildings left to waste or simply
unoccupied. Others have been sold, reconverted and, in certain cases, even
demolished, and this tendency will increase. The root of the problem can
be explained in particular by the reduction in religious practice2, which
has a direct impact on the revenues of parishes, several of which are no
longer able to balance their budget. These parishes have under their care
huge buildings that are not adapted to the reduced size of the community
of believers and whose expenses for upkeep, renovation and restoration
increase disproportionately to their revenues. In addition to this financial
reality is the almost complete absence of succession both among priests
and nuns. The merging of parishes has often been the solution of choice
to cope with this lack of financial and human resources. These fusions
or groupings of parishes generally lead to the closing, sale, reconversion
and sometimes even the demolition of religious buildings deemed as excess.
The citizens, be they believers or non believers, have a deep attachment
for this heritage, which often holds a central place in their village or
community, and wish to be informed beforehand of the possible closing of
these religious buildings. They especially want to be consulted in relation
to prospective reconversion or demolition projects.
The moveable property, archives and religious works of art are directly
threatened by the closing of churches, rectories, convents and other buildings
of a religious nature, and several items of great value have been destroyed
or sold in the past. The limited amount of information acquired with regard
to moveable property inventories contributes to this problem since most
of these objects were not indexed. Lastly, the average age of the members
of the various religious communities is 80 years, which indicates the urgency
to proceed with the examination of the immaterial heritage in order to
have records of this living memory which all too often is transmitted by
word of mouth without any information being documented.
In recent years, many legislators have been called upon or consulted in
their own riding in relation to the safeguarding of a church threatened
of being closed down, the inadequate upkeep of a religious building, the
announcement of the sale of a monastery or the expensive restoration of
a religious work of art. However, behind these special requests, for which
immediate or medium-term solutions were found, there lies a general problem
that requires more than simply handling individual cases as they occur.
That is precisely what gave rise, in November 2004, to this order of initiative
focussing on finding long-term solutions.
An Unprecedented Approach
The adoption of this order of initiative by the Committee on Culture was
followed by the publishing of a consultation paper in June 2005. An extensive
general consultation began in September of the same year during which the
Committee received 120 briefs and 69 answers to the on-line questionnaire.
For the first time in close to twenty years, a standing committee travelled
to Montreal, Gatineau, Sherbrooke, Saguenay, Rimouski, Trois-Rivières and
Quebec City to hold public hearings. Certain persons who answered the on-line
questionnaire were also heard during the public hearings, which is an unusual
occurrence in standing committee practice. By travelling to the various
locations, the Committee sought to inform and increase the awareness of
local populations with regard to the importance of their religious heritage,
but also to create a mobilizing effect enabling better dialogue between
civil and religious authorities, heritage experts and the citizens. The
comments gathered throughout the mandate and the major media coverage of
the Committees proceedings lead us to believe that its objectives were
The Committee also conducted visits to churches, monasteries and a museum.
In October 2005, a Committee delegation also took part in an international
symposium held in Montréal under the theme "What Future for which Churches?",
where some thirty experts and practitioners related their experiences.
At the suggestion of several of the groups heard during the public hearings,
a Committee delegation participated, from 5 to 10 February 2006, in a study
mission in Belgium and in France, two primarily Catholic and Francophone
countries disposing of much experience as regards the protection and promotion
of their religious heritage3.
In order to properly underline the importance the Committee grants to better
dialogue between the civil and religious authorities, the experts and the
citizens, it proceeded with the public launching of its report, on June
6, 2006, at Saint-Roch Church in Quebec City in the presence of over 200
guests from various backgrounds.
The Religious Heritage Priorities
At the conclusion of its work, the Committee unanimously decided that four
major priorities must be implemented. The first of these priorities concerns
the recognition of this heritage, since we cannot make informed choices
if we do not fully understand the issue at stake. Hence, the Committee
proposes to complete the inventories of religious property, to carry out
the inventories of moveable property and to institute an examination programme
for the purpose of promoting the immaterial religious heritage. It has
also been proposed that priority be given to the inventory of religious
archives and organs and that training and research be fostered in this
The second priority involves the protection measures to be implemented.
The Committee proposes to establish a one-year moratorium period regarding
religious buildings and cemeteries, so as to inform the citizens of their
possible sale and to involve them in finding new roles for them. It also
recommends the adoption of legislative measures permitting the Ministry
of Culture and Communications to classify certain religious buildings as
heritage sites, and this, in addition to the protection measures stipulated
in the Cultural Property Act. Since the adoption of such measures is likely
to take some time, the Committee deems it necessary to declare a moratorium
beginning on the date of the tabling of its report until January 1, 2008,
so as to suspend the transfer or modification of religious buildings and
The third priority concerns the transmission of this heritage to future
generations. Hence, the Committee proposes that measures be adopted to
support the efforts to promote the religious heritage, to encourage religious
tourism and to increase the awareness of young people with regard to this
heritage. It further recommends the organization of a national day celebrating
the religious heritage, similarly to the holding of Culture Days.
The final priority aims to improve the management of this heritage by consolidating
the coordinating role of the Ministry of Culture and Communications within
the machinery of government and by acknowledging local and regional responsibilities
in the matter. In the same manner, the Committee proposes that the Quebecs
Religious Heritage Foundation be eventually transformed into a religious
heritage council and that new responsibilities be assigned thereto, particularly
as regards reconversion assistance, counselling services, support and awareness-raising.
The Committee is of the opinion that it is necessary to continue public
and recurrent financing of the new heritage council, but that it must also
diversify its financing options by establishing a matching fund promoting
the financial participation of private sector enterprises4.
The opinion is widespread that there is presently a momentum in Quebec
on the matter of preserving this heritage, and the Committee proceedings
contributed, jointly with other initiatives, to bring this issue to the
forefront. For this reason, the Committee members are confident that the
various actors concerned by the report will follow up on the recommendations
as expeditiously as possible.
As I mentioned during the two-hour debate on the report from the Committee
in the National Assembly last June, this order of initiative on Quebecs
religious heritage certainly was the highlight of my parliamentary experience
since my election as Member for Shefford in 1994. As an elected official,
it is relatively rare to be able to carry out such work, in collaboration
with colleagues from both the Government and the Official Opposition, in
a serene climate that is free of partisan politics. It was a challenging
task, what with our numerous meetings, but so very rewarding. I was particularly
pleased that the Committee on Culture was successful in tabling a unanimous
report containing realistic recommendations to the Government, a report
that was most favourably welcomed by the population as we witnessed on
the occasion of its public launching last June 6 at Saint-Roch Church in
Quebec City. This document should change the course of things and contribute
to preserving Quebecs religious heritage, which represents our tremendous
artistic, historical and cultural national wealth.
1. The standing committees of the National Assembly may, on their own initiative,
examine any matter of public interest that falls within their terms of
reference. These mandates differ from those ordered by the Assembly and
allow the committees much more autonomy when carrying them out.
2. Quebecs population numbered 80% of practising Catholics in 1960 and
today has only between 5% and 10%.
3. The summary of the study mission is available in French on the Internet
site of the National Assembly at the following address:
4. The French version of the Committee report is available on the Internet
site of the Quebec National Assembly at the following address:
The English version of the report is available on request.