A short history of the
Montreal Chinese Catholic Community
Montreal was the first city of Canada for a fairly long period of time until about 1970s. It is still the largest city in Quebec province. People commonly tend to believe that the Chinese Immigration into Canada started in 1855 for the gold rush of the Fraser River and then as the main labor force for the Trans Canada railway, Canadian Pacific. When the railway was completed in 1885 some unemployed people ventured to the eastern part of Canada for new jobs. But from an unpublished manuscript of the late Fr. Eugene Berichon, Chinese was in Montreal even earlier in 1863. This is because 4 to 5 young Chinese boys registered themselves in St-Laurent school to learn English, according to the Annals of the Christian School Brothers who were teaching at St-Laurent school, near today’s Chinatown .
In 1902 a devoted English Priest, Fr. Martin Gallagham, at his retirement, played his violin for his Chinese audience, gathered at the corner of St. Urbain and Lagauchetiere streets. He was also reported to have taught English to the Chinese at his residence at St-Patrick’s. In two years he baptized 58 Chinese, as recorded in the Baptism register of St-Patrick’s .They were all male and aged from 18 to 49. There were some with the same names, but without Chinese characters beside their names, and nobody can identify them to be the same persons. I was told by a Priest from St. Pat’s, that it is quite possible that the old Father could not remember his catechumens and had baptized some persons twice!
In 1904 March, under the leadership of Fr. Emile Girot, 35 Chinese signed a nicely written request to Archbishop Paul Bruchesi, asking for a Chinese speaking Missionary. The Archbishop was very much moved by this letter and took a personal trip to Rome to request the Congregation of Propaganda Fide on this matter. The reply was that it would be much easier for him to address such a demand directly to different religious congregations. On his return from Rome, he wrote immediately to many congregations and even to different cities such as New York and San Francisco. He was really enthusiastic to do missionary work with the Chinese!
At the same year, an English Jesuit, Fr. William Hornsby, a missionary from China, came on vacation to Montreal and preached to some 400 Chinese during a Mass assisted by the Archbishop at the auditorium of the Christian School Brothers. It was exactly the same spot where our Community Centre stands today.
We can say the enthusiasm on the Apostolate for Chinese was raging in the whole city of Montreal at that time. It was reported on the newspapers of Montreal that Fr. Cutter, also a Jesuit, started to learn Chinese from Fr. Hornsby to prepare for his missionary work for the Chinese in Montreal. But a language is not a matter you can pick up in a few months time!
Among the devotees there was Brother Adrien. Fr. Etienne Desmers and the Sisters of the newly founded Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of Immaculate Conception – their main goal being the Mission work in China. Some Sisters brought in many young girls, sometimes one hundred of them to help the Sunday school of the Chinese Mission, while the students at the Sunday School hardly reached 200. Mrs. Crevier was the leader of the staff of the Sunday School.
The so called Sunday School at that time was organized each Sunday after noon from 1 to 4 O’clock, with English lessons, then followed by catechism. Since the Chinese were unable to understand English, they invited an interpreter named GOON Hoy Hon. After the catechism there was Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
On June 22nd 1908 the Chinese community gave a banquet for Archbishop Bruchesi during which they reiterated the request of having a Chinese speaking missionary to Montreal. Mgr. Bruchesi was the 4th Bishop of Montreal and was Bishop for over 40 years (1897 – 1939). And he had a special interest in the Chinese Apostolate. He invited from New York a French Missionary, Fr. H. Montanar, who had spent 15 years as missionary in Canton and naturally could speak Cantonese. Fr. Montanar brought with him a catechist named WOO. On September 15th 1912 Fr. Montanar celebrated Mass at the chapel of Notre Dame –des-Anges, which was exactly the location of our church today. His office, however, was at the Parish church of the Holy Child Jesus (at the corner of St. Dominique and St. Joseph Streets). Unfortunately only two years later when the First World War erupted, he was called back home to France for military service.
Trouble in Multiples
In June 1915 Fr. M. Gallagham passed away. Fr. Montanar left for France, and about the same time, the pastor of the Holy Child Jesus parish, Msgr. Lepailleur,a very good friend of the Chinese, had to be transferred on completion of his term of office. In addition, the basement of the Holy Child Jesus needed a big renovation. So the Sunday School could not stay there any longer. Fortunately Bishop Bruchesi was still there to give a helping hand. Fr. Emile Girot, A Sulpician Priest, was able to obtain permission from the president of the Catholic School Commission, Mr. Pereault, to move the Chinese Sunday School to a college named, Academie Commerciale du Plateau, which was located much closer to Chinatown.
In October 1915, Archbishop Bruchesi, seeing the difficulty of having a missionary for his Chinese community from outside of his diocese, made a decision to have his own missionary. He went to his seminary looking for a seminarian with language talent and a natural interest with the Chinese people. Romeo Caille a theological seminarian volunteered himself to be this candidate. The same year, on November 11th, the chancellor of Montreal Diocese officially introduced R. Caille to the Chinese Community during Sunday School.
In September 1916, the Missionary Sisters of Immaculate Conception rented two units on Anderson Street, close to Chinatown, and invited Miss CHAN Lai-Ching to open a school for about 15 Chinese children of mixed parentage. This was considered the beginning of our Chinese school today.
On Christmas Eve, 1916 the newly ordained Deacon R. Caille baptized 4 Chinese adults in the presence of Archbishop Bruchesi at the cathedral of Montreal. It was the front page news in the press. The baptized were Lee Yan, HUM Dik-Kee, WONG Tang and NG Sing.
Desserte of Holy Spirit
On July 1st, 1917 Romeo Caille was to be ordained Priest at the chapel of M.I.C. Sisters motherhouse, and many Chinese leaders were invited for this ceremony. Right after the ordination, Fr. Caille was nominated desservant responsible for the Chinese community by the archbishop. Fr. Caille did not have an official mandate, nomination, description of territory, nor a proper church, let alone the name of his community’s Patron Saint. The term of “Personal Parish” was a new term created by the new Canon Law of 1983.
On October 11th, 1917 Fr. Caille had to go to St. Patrick’s to perform Baptism as “priest responsible for the Chinese”. So we cannot find any date for the founding of our community. After consultation with the Chancellery office we decided the founding date should be July 1st, 1917, and in 1992 we celebrated our 75th anniversary. In December 23rd, 1917, 9 persons were Baptized by the Archbishop at the auditorium of the commercial college.
On April 26th, 1918, the municipal office gave us the first Baptism & Marriage register, which was the official civil register book in Canada at that time, but bearing such “nameless” name. It was not until January 29th, 1926 that Fr. Caille wrote his title as Desservant of the Holy Spirit. The register Book issued by Municipal Office on February 7th, 1927 bears also the name of “Holy Spirit”. We may think by that time the name of Patron Saint was given officially to the Mission.
There was no catechumen class at the beginning period of that time, and we can suppose Fr. Caille dedicated most of his time to help the founding of the Chinese Hospital. In 1918 the Spanish flu epidemic was raging in Montreal. Every hospital was full of patients beyond its capacity, even with patients in the corridors. There were many asylums organized, but because of the language barrier, Chinese patients had no place to go. In cooperation with M.I.C. Sisters and Fr. Caille the Community leaders rented two units on Clark Street to open a Chinese asylum. The Chinese called it hospital. Many Catholic organizations contributed beds, mattresses, blankets and other furniture. With the Sisters as nurses, the asylum was opened on October 17th, 1918, and on the same day 17 patients were accepted.
After a few months, the epidemic was over, but some new comers came in and some doctors were visiting them regularly and were paid by the patients. One year later, the Chinese Association purchased its present day office in Chinatown but used only a part of the building, leaving the first and 2nd floor for patients. This is the origin of today’s Chinese hospital, which was inaugurated on March 8th1920.
There was an unhappy event at the time in the beginning of 20th century, when the sectarian animosity still was in full vigor. Some Protestants among the Chinese community leaders saw that Fr. Caille and the Sisters were in control of the so called Chinese Hospital, and became jealous. The nurses of Montreal General Hospital (still at the corner of St. Dominique & Rene Levesque, with mostly Protestant staff) were called in. When the Sisters came to the new place and saw some unknown nurses, they withdrew completely from there. The professional nurses could work as volunteers just for a short time, and the Chinese Association could not have much funding for the nurses. As for the maintenance of the building they had to go to other cities every year such as Quebec city and Halifax, for fund raising. Fr. Caille’s intervention was requested. They went to the mother house and begged the Sisters to come back, but only with a written official agreement.
The Official Location
For 8 years all the activities were carried out at the Commercial College. On January 31st 1922 the Archdiocese of Montreal purchased the neighboring property of the Chinese Hospital in Chinatown for our Mission. The ground floor was used as the chapel, the basement & 2nd floor as a school and, the 3rd floor as the Priest’s residence. The school was named “Holy Spirit School”. We could assume at that time, the school of the Sisters was also moved here.
The Priests in Charge
Fr. R. Caille was in charge of the Mission for 25 years, on December 31st, 1942 he resigned for personal reasons. Afterwards, the Society of Quebec Foreign Missions took charge of the Mission for 23 years. Of the priests in charge, only two served longer terms.
Fr. Eugene Berichon took office on October 1st, 1946 to June 30th, 1954. He was Missionary at Sipingjie, Manchuria for many years and spoke Mandarin. In 1947, he helped Fr. Lyons from Toronto to mobilize the population of Montreal against the evil legislation of 1923 on Chinese immigration. He started the Legion of Mary for our Mission as well as for the French sector in Montreal. On March 3rd, 1950 after the big fire in Chinatown where 9 persons died, he represented the Chinese community at large to do news releases and received assistance from outside of the community.
The second one is Fr. Lucien Lafond. On July 1st, 1954 he succeeded the very sick Fr. Berichon. He also had done several years of missionary work in Manchuria and experienced the Japanese concentration camp and the Communist inhuman trials. Several teeth were smashed which caused him acute pain all his life.
Fr. Lafond founded the Chinese Service Association in 1956, mainly to assist his English classes held at St. Laurent school near Chinatown. Despite some opposite opinion from his confrere of Quebec he asked the Archbishop of Montreal for a Chinese Priest to assist his Apostolate works.
After 20 years of work in Honduras Fr. Lafond came back home very sick. And after over 10 years in convalescent homes, he passed away on March 14, 2003 at Montreal.
The First Chinese Priest to come to Montreal
By God’s Providence in 1956 the Archbishop of Montreal, P. E. Leger, went to Rome asking for a Chinese Priest. At that time, I had just completed my thesis. So my name was given to him by the Congregation of Propaganda Fide with a condition that I should not ask for incardination to the Montreal diocese. The intention was that one day China would be free, and then I should work for China. But it was changed with 1983’s new Canon Law.
My Visa was easily obtained because the Archbishop’s brother was the Canadian Ambassador to Italy. I arrived on June 19th, 1957, and Fr. Lafond came to meet me on the ship with two parishioners. To console me Fr. Lafond told me that it was a Thursday, so not many people could come, but there would be more people in the church on Sunday. However, on Sunday I could only see 16 persons, and 9 of them were not Chinese such as Fr. Lafond’s parents and the Sisters next door. I began to get the taste of being a missionary.
First Attempt of Mission
As it was mentioned before, after my arrival Fr. Lafond and I stayed at the unit next to the Chinese Hospital. We were living on the 3rd floor, while the ground floor served as a chapel. In the summer time we left the main door open to get a bit of fresh air. At that time the Mass was said in Latin. At the end of the mass, the celebrant had to turn around to bless the faithful. One day a passerby on the street happened to pass in front of the open door and thought that Fr. Lafond was greeting him. He hastily greeted back in a kind voice. I could hardly contain my laughter.
A few uneventful days passed. So I asked Fr. Lafond about our work. He took me to different Hospitals to visit the Chinese patients (all males). After salutation he offered them a cigarette. I thought this was the way he approached people. But I was not a smoker and a Priest’s salary was not high. So I purchased a small machine to make cigarettes with tobacco and paper. It was much cheaper. But I didn’t use it for long, because I went with the Sisters to visit families and to receive some visitors at the residence. 30 years later at the time of moving, I discovered the machine and put it into the garbage.
Development of the School
Just one year before my arrival Fr. Lafond founded the Chinese Service Association to render services to the Chinese community, specifically to start a new school of French and English for the Chinese public by using the St-Laurent school facilities. A lot of people registered but a few months later the number dropped tremendously. It was a common phenomena for language schools in Canada.
We were living in a very narrow space with no room for activities. An old and sick Priest Fr. Bolduc was living in an old church near us. Attached to that church was a lot of empty rooms left by the teaching Brothers. Fr. Lafond obtained permission from the Archbishop and we moved in. On August 15th 1957, I celebrated the first Mass in the church. By September the Sisters of N.D.-des- Anges came to start a kindergarten and an elementary school using a small van to transport children. Sometimes Fr. Lafond and I had to be the drivers to save some money.
Abraham told his son Isaac “God will provide” ( Gen.22,8). In Rome I learnt a bit of Cantonese as preparation for coming to Montreal. But at that time, a great majority of Chinese in Montreal were from the countryside of Canton. For about two years, I had much difficulty to communicate with them, but there was no way out. Fortunately for me the “False Paper” case came out. Due to the discrimination law, the Chinese could not bring their families into Canada. After 1947 the Chinese veterans came back from the War and made a strong protest backed with much public pressure. Finally the law was changed. The Chinese were allowed to obtain Canadian citizenship and to apply for their families to join them in Canada. But some made false declaration in order to help some nephews or relatives to come. Some also sold their extra false names for profit. The Canadian Government intervened with a serious investigation. It was called the “False Paper” case.
Canada is a democratic country with laws and human consideration. Now came the program of adjustment; every false paper immigrant could make his or her adjustment. But the majority of Chinese leaders more or less were involved somehow with the false paper affairs and lost their credibility with the Immigration Department. I was new here with a clean record, so I was requested almost every week to go with them to the Immigration Office in Montreal. It gave me a good chance to familiarize myself with their dialect which helped me a lot in my communication with them, especially with the elderly. Later on I realized it was the Providence to teach me the “Sai Yat”!
Misfortune Turned to Blessing
By the fall of 1965 Fr. Lafond was nominated for Honduras, Central America, and Archbishop Leger became a Cardinal, who then asked me to replace Fr. Lafond.
I said: “There is no problem concerning the pastoral work, but I am quite uneasy about the financial situation.”
Cardinal: “We as clergy, never studied financial administration. This is the field of God’s Providence.”
I said: “If it is so, I will try it.”
The Cardinal: “Towards God’s Providence, we have to believe but not to try it.”
I said: “Then I will believe, and please pray to increase my Faith!”
It seemed like joking but the Cardinal’s advice remained with me all my life. After two years the Cardinal resigned from his Montreal administration and went to Africa to serve the lepers there. I stayed here to experience God’s Providence. On January 1st, 1966, I started to assume responsibility for the Mission. I dared not make any new changes. I received the total balance fund of the Mission of $8000. The weekend cinema continued to pay for the school buses. Four months had not passed yet, when suddenly a letter came from the school commission asking for rental for two years, i.e. for the current year and one year retroactively. A while ago, the newly established Ministry of Education of Quebec had sent somebody to take the measurements of our building both horizontally and vertically without saying anything. The rental was over Nineteen thousand dollars which was according to the downtown rental market, because the church and the residence were old buildings with very high ceilings. The letter was rather kind asking for only two and not eight years.
The first thing I did was to have an appointment with the Cardinal. To my great surprise, the Cardinal said: “My poor Father, don’t you know the Quebec legislation? A few years ago this would not be a problem. But now I have no power anymore with the school commission. If I write letters to them, it would hurt you rather than help you. The new Ministry of Education has taken power from me.”
I understood the only thing I could do, was to depend on God’s Providence and I had to do my part too. I made an appointment with the President Mrs. Therese Roux. She was sympathetic but could do nothing about it. Several other school Commissioners gave the same answer, i.e. a public building could not be used by a church without paying rent. If it was publicized it would provoke serious criticism for both parties. The best way was to quit the place quietly. Knowing that the total asset is eight thousand dollars how can we afford such a high rental? The Vatican II council was over, but the execution of its new regulations started slowly. We did not have church Wardens yet. No one could share my anxiety and I should not let others know either. How can I have the Divine Providence?
Should we go back to the old unit on Lagauchetiere Street, then people, Catholic or non-Catholic, would suspect that I did something seriously wrong. How could I carry on my apostolate in Montreal?
Since my youth my father taught me the devotion to St. Joseph who, the general administrator of the Holy Family, must have experienced financial difficulties and would have sympathy to intercede for me. I went to St. Joseph’s shrine on Mont Royal, and nothing happened. I was hopeless for a few days.
The Mission is God’s work not mine, so I should trust in God. The Cardinal taught me to rely on Divine Providence. It is easy to say but very hard to live with .
I heard there was a school commissioner Mr. Fernand Biondi the general secretary of the shrine, so I went to St. Joseph’s again. After my prayer at Brother Andrew’s tomb, I went to see him. He asked: “Why do you run a school?” I said: “It gives me a chance to get in touch with the parents and to help the children who were born in Hong Kong but know neither English nor French. At first, their pronunciation caused laughter from the whole class. So a few months later they disappear from the school. But after attending our classes for one or two years and were transferred to the public schools, a few even came out first in their classes in the first year of their transfer.”
Mr. Biondy seemed interested in my story and said: “I can’t give you any blank check but I will refer your matter to our meeting. It is important that you should write this down in French. I will see if I can assist you. Please write down the names of students and their schools.” I did my home work immediately on the next day.
Two months later he instructed me to bring him all the original bills of expenses such as: taxes, heating, gas, electricity and other maintenance cost. But by August about the end of summer I did not receive any news from him. Since we had to notify the parents concerning the future of our school, I called him up urgently. I only got the answer in 10 days telling me to continue the school at least for one more year. This gave us hope for the future. During this waiting period there were other forms to be filled. Mr. Biondi called me before Christmas telling me to expect a Christmas gift. The school commission was cancelling our two year rent, and in recognition of our school’s contribution to Montreal education system, we would receive a grant to cover all the expenses dating back to the year before, with a check of over 21 thousand dollars. This might be a happy coincidence, but I took it as a miracle of Providence.
A Triumphant Church
In my first visits to Archbishop Leger, he was surprised at my ignorance about the political changes of Quebec. It was true I didn’t pay much attention to the “ Revolution tranquille”. I only realized it later. We, in our clergyman’s black cassocks, could pass on the Jacques Cartier Bridge without paying the toll of 25 cents. I remember well when I passed the bridge for the first time, I was searching my pocket to find money for the toll, while the collector laughed at me telling me to go ahead without paying because I was going to visit the sick or their family, a non-profit job. When I came back I told Fr. Lafond about this. He told me next time to give him one dollar bill and he would return me 4 quarters. If the police discovered me with a minor traffic violation, he would give me a warring instead of a traffic ticket. If I parked my car irregularly, with a ticket on my car, I could take it back to the police station, which was right next to the church, telling them directly: “I don’t need it, please take it back”. They would take it with a laugh saying: “Be careful next time”. Once I did the same thing but met the chief of police. He added that he would then not pay rent to the church that year for their Lenten retreat.
Early in the summer every year at the Corpus Christi feast each parish would have their liturgical procession through the streets of Montreal. It was not like today when you have to call one month ahead to ask for a permit from the city. The police would come to ask for the date and the time of your procession in order to prepare their officers to come to keep order.
The social welfare was taken care of by the Sisters. This was why there came about the cause of the Children of Duplesis (1898 – 1959). Duplesis was a devout catholic and the Premier Minister of Quebec (1936-1939; 1944- 1959). For 17 years, he ruled Quebec with an iron fist, especially against the Witness of Jehowah. Naturally he made many enemies. During his regime the abandoned children of broken families were cared for by the Sisters. The Sisters treated some rebellious and defiant male children with physical punishment or isolation. After the so called quiet revolution in Quebec, the social custom had been changed very much. Those former children are now adults of 40-50 years of age. These men went to the court asking for compensation for their physical suffering and mistreatment. This could be considered as part of the triumphant Church’s unfortunate legacy.
The Holy Spirit is like the wind, and can blow wherever He wants,
Now let’s turn back to our Mission. On December 1966 , when the school received the grant from the school commission, accordingly teachers were required to be fully qualified. But the Sisters of Notre Dame –des Anges were all missionaries to foreign lands without education certificates in Quebec. That was why despite 10 years of service (1057-1967), they had to leave our Mission. Only one, Sister Therese Woo, stayed behind teaching Chinese without a government salary. We had to invite the M.I.C. Sisters to come instead and Sister Madeleine Leung was principal of our elementary school and kindergarten.
Some Historical Vestiges
In the mean time on January 12th 1960, we made use of our old church on 106 Lagauchetiere St. West, to open a well baby clinic for the Chinese community. Dr. Suke yen Lai was in charge for 5 years. In 1965 we handed over this organization to the Chinese Hospital. Fr. Lafond already founded a Godparents Association, mostly with French speaking Catholics, on November 12th 1961. This was necessary due to the lack of Chinese Catholics competent enough to be Godparents for catechumens, and the French faithful was honored to fill up such positions. This Association gave us assistance in many ways. They assisted our outdoor processions for Corpus Christi, and Christmas parties especially an annual banquet in restaurants or our community centre. It was called “gastronomic dinner”. For 38 years, the banquet with about 300 guests each time, contributed tremendously to our financial situation. After close to 40 years, with the increase of Chinese Catholics, lack of new blood, and the language barrier with Chinese new comers, they finally stopped their activity on 1999.
In 1962, during one of the communist movements many Chinese from the southern part of China escaped to Hong Kong literally without even shirts on their backs. The government of England and of Hong Kong urgently requested the international assistance to avoid the “sinking” of Hong Kong Island. As a member of the Commonwealth, Canada was the first to reply affirmatively for one hundred families with a condition that the Canadian citizens should sponsor to settle them in Canada. Mr. Simon Yuen, one of our parishioners working at Immigration Department transmitted the news to our Chinese Service Association. We had a meeting that same evening to send a telegram to congratulate the Prime Minister of Canada and sponsor 10 refugee families to Montreal. It was done by December that year.
There was no Chinese cinema at that time in Montreal, we started the showing of Chinese movies every weekend to cover our school bus expenses. The entrance fee was one dollar .It lasted for 5-6 years until Chinese movies theatre started their business. Today the elderly people can still remember Mr. Fred Lee and Simon Hum who were in charge of publicity and collecting tickets. Mr. Francis Fung later operated the movie projectors.
Also in the 1960’s, before the city started its kindergartens, our kindergarten was welcomed by the parents. We started with a van, and later with one and even with two school buses of 42 seats. When the driver was sick I would take his place.
In 1965 the Chinese Service Association started Scholarship Awards for Chinese students with the intention of helping to upgrade the low social standing of the Chinese who at that time made a living mainly by working in the laundry places or restaurants. Based on their academic achievement, from the public school, a grade 7-8 student who came first in the class would be awarded $25. Similarly, a grade 9 student who came first in the class would be awarded $45 and a souvenir cup
In 1993 a new set of competitions was devised. Five finalists would present a short speech and answer to some questions given by 5 Judges both in French and English, according to the suggestions from Madames Shirley Tam and Cecelia Lai. The first prize in 2001 became $1000. This activity was appreciated by the Chinese community leaders who contributed generously every year.
“The tree wants to stop but the wind is still blowing”
To resume our Mission’s history, by the fall of 1970 suddenly a letter came from the school commission, telling us that according to their investigation 80% of our students were born in Montreal and they should go to the public schools. Consequently the grant should be stopped. We understood immediately we should also leave this building. The wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing again. We could give up the school but not the building with its church. Today when we look back, we can easily see the hand of God was pushing the wheel of history forcing us to grow with time.
A few members of the Godparents Association formed a sort of brain storming team. The first thing we had to do was, to make sure that the school commission did not have a precise plan to take back the building. If they had no plan, the second stage was to negotiate the price and abate it by some good reason such as we were using it for an education purpose by teaching language to adults and Chinese language to Chinese children, without government subsidy. Since the building was over one hundred years old, it had no market value. Besides, it was the Mission which had been maintaining it for over ten years previously. Finally we had to offer them the city’s evaluation for the land only, which was over one hundred and ten thousand dollars. Our offer was accepted by the school commission and on August 17th 1971 the deed was signed. The M.I.C .Sisters left our Mission, except Sister Charlotte Duhamel who continued to come to the Mission to teach English and French.
After the purchasing of the property we had may plans in mind for our future. The easiest and most suitable one was to start a low cost housing development. We would first form a nonprofit corporation, which would borrow money from the government to buy a part of our property and build low rental houses for the Chinese Community. With parishioners living close by the church we could carry out our religious activities while the Mission could renovate and repair the old building with the money received from the land sale.
We visited several other housing projects in Montreal area, and Brossard as well with parishioners but our dream did not come true. Seven months later i.e. March 29th, 1972 the Federal Government suddenly expropriated the whole area offering us $515,000 according to the city’s evaluation. It was already 5 times our cost price! But three years later on March 24th,1975 the Court gave us a sum of $904,625 including interest!
By now the biggest problem was to decide where we would locate our Mission. There were two choices: in the Chinatown area or the suburbs. After several general meetings of parishioners, the majority voted for the Chinatown area.
In the mean time we had registered our Mission on March 3rd, 1973. This made it more convenient for us to negotiate with the government or settle any other legal affairs. Before this, we had to go to the Chancellery office every time for all kinds of signatures.
There was an empty lot right across street from the Chinatown metro, left there for many years, and we sent a letter to the city Hall to apply for purchase. The reply was : “The city has no intention to sell any land at the moment”. Sr. Duhamel gave us an idea that the founder of her congregation used to bury some medals of Saints into the land she wanted to purchase. I had some St. Joseph’s medals from the Oratory and so I spread them into the muddy and unpaved parking lot, waiting for God’s guidance.
In 1974, through a real estate agent, and our parishioner, Mr. Pierre Lee, we purchased 5 pieces of land on St-Laurent Boul., with almost the same dimension as our old church. Another parishioner, Paul Cheng got in touch with some developers to build a high rise building with some floors reserved for our community. But due to lack of funding, this plan was not realized. There were other plans but none were accepted by the construction committee. Also because of the busy traffic on St-Laurent Blvd. posing danger for the children and seniors, the construction committee turned down the idea of building a community centre there.
Early 1976, through a casual conversation with the city clerk, I picked up some valuable pointers. That is, the City had no land to sell but could exchange land with people who could honestly provide exact information of the land to be exchanged and the reason for doing so. And it was done! On February 18th we mailed the letter and one week later we had a positive reply. After a second surveying of both lands (ours was a little bigger than the city’s land) the official changing of lands was signed on June 30th, 1978. Our dream of 5 years ago became a reality. Was it a pure coincidence or a miracle? From that moment on we started the planning of our community centre. Mr. Henry Ng’s plan was chosen among others.
Centre for Seniors
It was on 1976, when Fr. James Wan was studying sociology at Concordia University and residing at our Mission, he took advantage of the Federal Government’s “ New Horizon” funding program and started our centre for the seniors with Mrs. Rosa Fong and others.
By May 5th, 1975 after all government compensation was paid and the Federal Government started pressing us to move out of the old building. With the Presbyterian and the Pentecostal Churches already gone, we only had to follow. Fr. Wan and I rented a unit on Anderson Street as our living quarter. Our office, school and Senior centre were moved to the Federal building on 1179 Bleury Street with a symbolic rent of one dollar per year. In those busy days, the rent payment was forgotten, and only two years later, after warning from the Financial Department that the Mission finally paid the rent of $1.00.
When we were busy in construction of our centre, a popular movement was born in Montreal, called “Save Montreal”. It asked the government to conserve all the old buildings in Montreal and our old church was one of the buildings concerned. All of a sudden, the provincial government pronounced our church to be a cultural monument of the city. Therefore nobody can demolish it and the owner should keep it with its original vocation, which could not be changed without legitimate reasons. We, the Chinese catholic community, would have the acquired right, to use it because we were the former owner. Our legal team recommended strongly in designing our community centre to avoid the title of church or worshiping place, even our polyvalent hall can be used as a temporary church. And so in any press release we should stick to this point. The main entrance of our centre on the west side is also to facilitate our communication with our former church. Such wish was accomplished later on.
The History of the Old Church
The church was first built by the separate Scottish Presbyterians in 1834, but 30 years later sold to the Men’s association of Notre Dame Parish in 1864. At that time the Men and Women had different Associations. The men’s Association had their own chapel on 100 Notre Dame Street East, which was destroyed by fire, and expropriated by the city for the first Superior Court House. This Association with the compensations from the city and the fire insurance, bought the above mentioned church. The church was extended an extra third in length and the height doubled with a second row of windows added on top. All the remaining decorations and sculptures of their old chapel were transferred back to this church. Today we can still see the only two remaining columns with Corinthian heads at the back of our church. We have a picture taken in 1872 with a three-level bell tower, but it was destroyed by fire before the second world War and then replaced by today’s tower. During the second War it was used by the Unemployment office of the Federal Government. Later it was purchased by the Montreal School Commission, and then on March 11th 1987 it was sold to our community for one dollar!
Construction of the Community Centre.
On February 25th, 1976 the city of Montreal had accepted our exchange of lands, but we had to wait for two years to finalize the legal documents. In the meantime, we had to demolish all the old houses on St-Laurent Blvd. for security reasons and rented the land out to a parking company for revenue to pay city taxes.
Concerning the construction of our centre, a first plan was to have the main entrance to the south on Viger Avenue facing the Metro, but on November 22nd , 1977 the Palais des Congres announced its construction plan with a big plaza on its north side, So we decided to move our center’s main door towards the west on Cote street which was a smaller street but safer for children. At that time there was a lot of criticism on this planning.
The construction work of the centre was an enormous task for our construction committee, because all the members were without experience. Fortunately, we had assistance from a construction team from the Bishop’s office and so avoided a lot of errors and mistakes. One regret is that we didn’t have a basement. It was due to our lack of funds. The construction committee was very careful in spending and did not want to borrow any money. Especially by the end of 1982 when interest rates were very high in North America, we did not want to cash our saving bonds and lose considerable interest income. So, the committee decided to borrow an amount of over $26,000 from parishioners without interest. It saved the community about $90.000.
Construction of Logement Communautaire
When the community was first formed, Fr. Caille was like a general without soldiers. To rectify the situation for the future, the committee started a housing project soon after the community centre was completed on June 7, 1981. With nearby housing for the parishioners, church activities and liturgical ceremonies could then be carried out more smoothly.
At the time the Federal Government was encouraging concerned citizens to form different non profit organizations to build low cost housing. They could borrow money from banks with guarantee from the Government. The tenant would pay one quarter of revenue with government supplementing their deficit in housing.
This was legislation No.56.1. Mr. Kao Wah, a retired immigrant parishioner from Bank of France, was elected a Director of our Mission. He gave a wonderful helping hand. The original plan was to build the centre together with housing project in order to save money and energy. But the Government officials wanted to avoid any possible abuse. So they purposely delayed their approval on the project, until the completion of our center.
But this delay turned out to our advantage because it gave us time to study the details of the legislation. In a special area the said legislation allowed even commercial areas under 20% of the whole edifice. Our Logement Communautaire Chinois was the first housing project in Montreal area with commercial facilities. Its construction was started in March 1981 and was completed on February 7th, 1982.
Other Housing Projects
At the time of our housing project, the Chinese community of Montreal started the “United Center of Chinatown”, a non-political, and non-sectarian umbrella organization, to represent the Chinese community at large, to negotiate with the Government. I was chosen as vice-chairman in charge of housing development of Chinatown. On enquiring, I was informed that in order to apply for housing development, we needed first to prove land ownership. So I reported this to the United Centre. But no action was taken yet. Soon after, there was a change of personnel who became involved in politics. I then resigned from my post in order to devote more time on our Mission and the Logement Project. To my great regret, there were rumors that Tou had involved himself in the Chinatown housing project with the intention merely to benefit his own church housing. What a horrible slander!
Once the first Logement project was completed, we were encouraged by city officers to develop a similar project at the east side of Chinatown. Since it was for the welfare of the community, we were more than willing to do it. In 1987 we started building the Foyer Catholique Chinois Phase I. In the meantime it came to our knowledge that the large piece of empty land on the south side of the Foyer belonged to the City. We therefore proposed to expand the Foyer project to include the neighboring land. Our proposal was rejected because the Government housing management would only allow low cost housing projects with no more than 20 units in order to maintain close and friendly relationship between the administration and the tenants. However, such restriction would not apply to the building of a hospital. Since we were also aware that the Chinese Hospital council was planning to move to Chinatown, we therefore passed on such information to Mr. Peter Tang, President of the executive council of the Hospital. The council immediately approved the use of the site for a hospital. But at this time, the construction of the Foyer foundation was scheduled to begin and to be completed in 2 weeks’ time. So a most practicable money saving scheme for the multilevel hospital project would be to follow the same schedule as the Foyer in building a deeper and stronger foundation on the south side Unfortunately, the Chinese Hospital management later on had a change of plan and decided to abandon the move. That resulted in a waste of $6,000 for their part of the excavating and construction work. But we were left with a bigger and stronger foundation between the Foyer I and II.
Foyer I was inaugurated on April 18 1988. We started Foyer II immediately at the abandoned land of the Chinese Hospital, by forming another O.S.B.L. with a routine application only to the Provincial government. The work started on July 1989.
During that period, we had frequent contacts with the city Hall and were often able to have access to first hand information. We learned that the provincial government encouraged citizens to construct housing for seniors, slightly losing autonomy. We therefore applied for such type of housing using our last piece of land available south of Foyer II. But to our pleasant surprise, we were offered two houses on Hotel-de-Ville Avenue which were originally promised to an organization and were cancelled on account of their poor credit. Of course, we were more than happy to accept the government’s offer, and within a year, we completed the conversion of these two houses to our Logement II. It was inaugurated together with Foyer II on June 16th 1990. They fulfilled much of the housing requirements of the Chinese Community at large. Since the completion of these housing projects , there was never an empty unit for more than a week.
The Chinese School
When we were building the community centre we already had altogether six to seven hundred students attending three sessions. They were run by the Chinese School teaching Cantonese on Saturday mornings, afternoons and Sunday afternoons. They were adequately accommodated in ten classrooms But ten years later we had to add two more stories on top of our building. In 2005, the number of students reached over two thousand. At present, the number is slightly below 2000.
Looking back on our school’s history, we should be very thankful. In 1916, our first school on Anderson Street had only 15-16 children. In 1922, the Holy Spirit school had about 30 students. In 1956, Fr. Lafond had a language school with 200 registrations but two or three months later the number dropped considerably.
In September 1957, Sister Therese Woo of N.D.des-Anges, and others came to our service and added Chinese classes. The language classes from St-Laurent school also moved in. We had an ordinary elementary school grade 1-3 and a kindergarten recognized by the government for only 4 years (1958-1971). But later on only the Chinese classes remained. They were run by Sister Woo and her loyal, hardworking assistant and teacher, Miss Yu Lai-Ching. Many former students can still fondly remember their invaluable contribution.
So far we have traced the history of the building of our community. Now I would like to report a little about our internal organization. The most important one should be the “Directors”. They correspond to the Canadian church Wardens, or the French “ Marguillers”.
The reason is due to Quebec history. All Quebec laws were adopted from the continental laws of France. After the “Quiet revolution “ in Quebec, the power of the Church was much restricted. All registered parishes could no longer carry out charitable or educational functions. They became the monopoly of the Government. In 1964, Quebec Bishops succeeded in establishing social legislation No.304. Our community was registered on January 25th, 1973. Under this legislation, our Mission was less restricted and would have the power to provide religious instruction, education and charity. We had a financial committee much earlier, but officially, our Directors were registered on August 21st, 1973 with the approval of the Archbishop of Montreal.
The original six Directors were: Bill Fong, Thomas Tong, Miss Cecilia Wong (Who passed away the same year on September 13th, and replaced by Mr. Henry Mah), Mr. Harry Fong, Mr. Johnny Woo, and Dr. Pablo Tchang. The term of office for each director was 3 years with a maximum of 2 successive terms. Each year 2 wardens would be replaced by newly selected ones. The idea behind the system was democracy with accessibility and transparency.
The Pastoral Council
As I reminisce every time on the forming of our Pastoral Council, I can never stop chuckling. When I first reported the idea to the chancellery office, Fr. Mario Paquette was there. He answered me saying “You are really chinois” (colloquial French means unthinkable)
In 1988 when our old church was renovated and consecrated, Fr. Paquette actually urged me to follow the new Canon Law #536 by forming a Pastoral Council. But I felt that our Mission was not yet ready because we lacked a charity group which was one of the 3 basic requirements of the Pastoral Council, i.e. Faith Education (including apostolate), liturgy (choir, readers, altar servers) and charity (St. Vincent de Paul). We had the Chinese Service Association to help the refugees and give out Christmas baskets but these were not done on a regular and permanent basis. Later on at a General meeting of parishioners, Sister Lai Sau-Ching of the Precious Blood Community suggested to form a Pastoral Council modeling after the Hong Kong Council, with membership consisting of the clergy, Faith education, Apostolate, Liturgy, Youth Group, Women’s League, Marian Society, Legion of Mary, Public Relation and Celebration, plus representation from the church Directors. There were a total of around 20 members, a far cry from the Archdiocesan regulation which recommended a maximum of 11 members! Only a few years later when a new group, the Social Concern Group was formed that the Pastoral Council could be really considered a bona fide council.
Actually, from the beginning of the Church history, charity was an essential activity of Christianity. During Mass a part of the collection was always reserved for the poor of the community. That was why when the Roman emperor asked St. Lawrence, the deacon ( 258 A.D.), to bring all the wealth of the Church, he called in all the poor people of Rome to him, saying that the wealth of the Church had all gone to them!
Legion of Mary
The founding of the Legion of Mary in our Mission dates back to the days of Fr. Berichon who, in 1946, was expelled by the Chinese communists from China. He returned to Montreal, and was appointed immediately as the pastor of our Mission. He had worked with the Legion in China, but had also suffered terribly in the name of Legion which was considered a military organization by the Chinese Communists. At that time in Montreal there was only one organization of Legion of Mary in the English Sector. In January 1947 he started the first Legion Meeting at our Mission (with special permission from the Archbishop of Montreal). Fr. Beruchon was French, so naturally a few French Catholics joined him in the Legion. A few months later, more French people joined in, and started French sector of the Legion of Mary in other French parishes as well. So we can say the French Legion was started in the Chinese Mission.
I have already covered the history of our Mission in close to 30 pages. When I look back I cannot help but join our Blessed Mother in praising God: “Because He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name” ( Luk.1:49).
I officially resigned from office on June 28, 1998. Fr. James Wan succeeded me. Fr. Wan was with us for seven years (1972 – 1979) while studying at Concordia University. It was at that time that he founded our Senior Club. With special permission of Cardinal Wu of Hong Kong, he came back in 1996 to serve our Mission. I was thankful to have found a successor.
Before closing my story on our Mission I find it my duty to mention two special persons who have contributed greatly towards the Mission.
Sister Charlotte Duhamel
She was born in New York city on July 10th, 1904. At age 8 her family immigrated to Quebec. Her school principal could not speak one word of English. Therefore on November 1st, 1912 for her first Communion, her parents and the Pastor had to give her supplementary instructions. At age 14, she became a resident student. One day when the M.I.C. Sisters came for fund raising, she was much impressed, especially by their uniforms. She confessed candidly during the Mass she was paying special attention to the details of their uniforms. After Mass, the Sisters gave a speech to the students and offered a beautiful statue of Mary for prize drawing. Though little Charlotte was quite conscious of her often lack of luck, she was very anxious to get it. So she made a deal with God. If she could win the prize, she would consider it as God’s will to have her enter the M.I.C. Congregation. And she won the prize!
Three years later she graduated from high school, but her father needed her to take care of 4 younger brothers and one younger sister. Only by August 2nd 1923, could she be admitted as postulate. At first, she had in mind to go to China as a Missionary, but after her novitiate, she was sent to different convents, retreat houses of her congregation. She had 27 nominations all her life and stayed at every convent of Canada and U.S.A. but never to China. When she came to serve our Mission in 1967, she liked to tell people that she was not sent to China but China came to her. She was always happy with us. And so for us, she had two mother tongues English and French to teach others. On Sundays, she played the organ for our liturgies. Four years later, when other Sisters had to leave, she stayed with us. She became our common friend.
One day she was with us on our New York trip organized by our Women’s League. At the border, everybody showed their passports but she pulled out only her worn out Baptism certificate of a New York parish. The officer asked for a Canadian certificate, but she had none, not even a social number, because she was working at her convent and never needed one. She even argued with the Officer that she was born in the States and had the right to return home. Since the officer could not make her understand the importance of having immigration papers, he told me to have her apply for Canadian documentations.
In 1984, when she reached 80 years of age, we dared not invite her to teach, but she continued to come to meet people in our Centre. On August 16th 1986 we gave her a dinner party to celebrate her retirement and to give her a return air ticket to Hong Kong. The old and beloved Sister was most happy telling people her life long dream became true at her old age, to go to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan! She died at age 97 at her Pont-Viau convent..
Brother William Agnew
We all call him Brother Agnew, an endearing name used even by nonmembers of the Legion in our Mission. For over 50 years, Mr. Agnew has been attending our Legion’s weekly meetings. He was born in Scotland on August 25th, 1912. At age 17, he immigrated to Canada. In 1934 he worked as seaman, and in 1941 he was drafted to perform military service in the Canadian navy. So he traveled to many ports of the Atlantic. By the end of 2nd World War, he continued his services in Murmansk, Russia. In 1946 he retired from military service and worked as a security guard for Bank of Montreal near Chinatown. In 1956, a coworker Mr. Darbyson, a devote Catholic, introduced him to our Legion of Mary, Gate of Heaven praesidium. Now for 51 years, he has been attending our weekly meetings at the Community Centre, and every Thursday goes to the Chinese Hospital helping the wheelchair patients to attend Mass.
For many years he has been visiting the Chinese families and teaching them English. He is well acquainted with Chinese community. He was invited quite often to attend their dinners and celebrations. Now Brother Agnew does not drive anymore but at his 95 years of age, he is still coming faithfully to our Legionary meetings and work.
There is another side of this friend unknown to our community, For almost 20 years, he has been serving his own parish, St. Monica’s, opening the church door, preparing the altar, serving Mass and leading the Rosary, plus cleaning the Altar and locking the door after Mass. What a wonderful example for all of us all! Thanks be to God!