Known for its broad and diverse religious heritage, Montreal has long been referred to as the “City of 100 bell towers.” While Quebec’s metropolis may not boast universal monopoly in this regard—Prague, Bratislava, Rouen, Dijon, Liège, and a few other European cities are also thus aptly named—Montreal is the only North-American city to be described in this way.
Where the nickname originated is not known with absolute certainty; however, many trace it back to a speech by the great American fiction writer, essayist, and satirist Mark Twain, given during his first visit to Montreal in 1881. Stunned by the sheer number of church steeples he observed from his hotel window, Twain quipped, “This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window!”
Beginning in the 18th century, Montreal’s architectural heritage had expanded steadily enough to include a great many new churches, at a time when Catholics and Protestants sought to make their presence abundantly known to their denominational rivals, immediately following the British conquest of Montreal. If we mix in the heated linguistic tensions in Quebec in that period, we can only imagine how God kept track of where to proffer the gift of faith!
Toward the end of the 19th century, Ignace Bourget, Bishop of Montreal, encouraged Quebec’s religious communities to build more expansive and opulent church structures, resulting in a wave of new church buildings. Over the years, 500 to 600 places of worship have been erected on the island of Montreal, and in truth, well over 100 bell towers now grace the city.
The distinctive heritage of many Montreal neighbourhoods
Decline in church attendance gradually led to the demolition or secularization of many churches over the last twenty years. Throughout the city, however, many of these distinctive buildings survive as neighbourhood architectural signatures to which innumerable Montrealers remain emotionally attached. This “2.0 version” of parish life is the touchstone of their relationship to the city’s churches.
If you cast your gaze from the Belvedere on Mont-Royal, or from atop the Olympic Stadium tower, you will readily understand why. The bell towers are true landmarks of Montreal’s cityscape. They reflect the richness and breadth of know-how of past generations, and the churches’ impressive structures, finely carved sculptures, captivating stained-glass windows, and majestic organs are all a witness to it.
The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) showcases this unique Montreal heritage in the concert “Montreal, City of 100 bell towers”, appropriately including the organ. This tribute to Montreal and its church buildings is part of the city’s 375th anniversary celebrations, and will be a mesmerizing artistic and spiritual experience through sounds and images. As an echo to the daily urban concert of the city’s church bells, the concert is, foremost, an acknowledgement and an appreciation of the everyday presence of all Montreal’s places of worship, since the city’s very founding.
The concert Montreal, the city with the 100 bell towers will be presented at the Maison symphonique de Montréal on Saturday, October 28 at 8 pm.