“People of a certain age still trace their roots back to Griffintown ” said Bill O’Donnell, president of King’s Transfer, which has been a mainstay in Griffintown for 80 years – or three generations. “They don’t say they are from Montreal, but from Griffintown. They went through hard times and they are very proud of how they survived”- Bill O’Donnell, president of King’s Transfer (Their heart’s in Griffintown: ‘A community that cared for us and watched over us’; Catherine Solyom for The Gazette. Montreal, QC, Nov 7, 2001. Pg. A6)
Griffintown began to grow with the first wave of Irish immigrants in 1815. Though at the beginning most new arrivals chose to move on to other areas of the city or beyond, the ones that did stay created one of Montreal’s largest Irish Catholic communities. The famine and economic depression in Ireland during the 1840’s sent droves of refugees from the island into Canada. Whether it was the strong labour market or ethnic camaraderie that made the new arrivals decide to stay in the area is still debated by scholars. (Solonyszny: Residential Persistence, 32)
View of Griffintown as seen from the Street Railway Power House chimney, 1896. Looking down Mountain Street, St Ann’s Girl’s Academy and Church can be seen. Photo from Richard Burman
In addition to Irish immigrants, the area counted a large number of French Canadians, English, Scottish and “Others” (most likely Italian and Jewish immigrants) in a population survey of St. Ann’s Ward. At the turn of the 19th century, Griffintown was home to 30,000 of Montreal’s residents. (Ibid., 35)
Church and Community
In response to growing demand within the Griffintown Irish Catholic community, St. Ann’s Cathedral was built in 1854. The building became central to Griffintown in spiritual and secular affairs as the sisters and brothers that lived on the premises would actively engage with the members of the community. The church also provided a counter current to a strong Irish Nationalist movement growing within the community. It provided an outlet of ethnic pride within a complacent context while secular nationalists were attempting to recruit against the perceived Orange oppression. As a large number of families were immigrating to Griffintown, the youth question stressed the community. St. Ann’s brothers and sisters established and maintained schools, nurseries and recreational centers within for Griffintown’s youth. It also imposed a staunch Catholic propriety on the neighborhood, dictating the “do’s and do not’s” of every day society(Burman: 1-15).
St Ann's Church was central to the Irish Catholic community in Griffintown. Photo 1951, from the collection of Richard Burman
Until 1998, Montreal’s school system was divided between Catholic and Protestant school boards. At the turn of the century, school funding was the responsibility of the religious community. As a result, most schools under the Montreal Catholic School Board were underfunded due to low patronage by the wealthier members of the Catholic community.(Copp: Anatomy, 69) Griffintown, however, hosted several schools as well as youth services: St Ann’s Boys’ and Girls’ school (Catholic, 1859), St Ann’s Academy for Girls (Catholic, 1864), St Ann’s Nursery, St Helen’s school (Catholic), Williams st school (Protestant), The Nazareth Street Mission-later the Griffintown Club-and the St. Ann’s Young Men’s Society.
In spite of the poor conditions in the neighborhood houses, many of those that have moved on from the Griffintown area still consider this region home. In his documentary The Ghosts of Griffintown, Richard Burman interviewed members of the Griffintown community before it began to deteriorate. Memories of community were created out of necessity, where parents worked long hours outside of the home. Residents depended on one another, particularly for child care while both parents worked.
Mr Galvin's Grade 6 Class at St. Ann's Boys School. From the collection of Richard Burman, 1951
Parc Griffintown-St Ann, located on the site of St Ann's Church. The foundation of the church still remains and benches are arranged to face the church's altar. No visible clues remain of St. Ann's Girls Academy nor the Presbytery. Photo by Aymeric Grail, 2009.
St Ann's Nursery provided childcare for many of Griffintown's working-class families. Photo from the collection of Richard Burman
Current photo of St Ann's Nursery. Note the parking lot that exists in lieu of the Kindergarden. Photo by Evelyn Reid.
Boxing ring at the Griffintown Club. Started as the Nazareth Street Mission then moved to Ottawa and Shannon Streets, the Griffintown club provided the community with recreational space since 1908. Photo from the collection of Richard Burman, approximately 1938.