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St. Anne's Ward, or the Transformation of an Irish Montreal Neighbourhood: 1792-1970
By Sylvain Rondeau, under the supervision of Paul-André Linteau, Ph.D., Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)
Established in the 19th century, St. Anne's ward occupied the entire southwest area of Montreal. It was known as an Irish neighbourhood.
From Faubourgs to Ward
The ward originally consisted of two faubourgs, or suburbs, that had sprung up in the 18th century. The Faubourg des Récollets (also called St. Joseph) was located just outside the fortification gate adjoining the Récollet property. Running through the faubourg was St. Joseph Road (the future Notre-Dame Street), which later became Upper Lachine Road. Lying between the St. Martin River to the north and the Petite Rivière to the south, the faubourg had virtually reached its occupancy limit by the start of the 19th century.
Experiencing less rapid growth in the 18th century, the Faubourg Sainte-Anne, located further south, extended over a larger area where urban development did not begin until the early 19th century. It was crossed by the other road leading to Lachine, Wellington Street. The St. Gabriel farm was situated here. The southern section of this faubourg has long been known as Point St. Charles, a name still associated today with this area of southwest Montreal.
The incorporation of the City of Montreal led to the creation of municipal wards, including St. Anne's ward, which absorbed all of the former Faubourg Sainte-Anne as well as the southern part of the Faubourg Saint-Joseph in 1845. The ward was then bounded by St. Joseph Street (Notre Dame Street) to the north, McGill Street to the east, the St. Lawrence River to the south and the limits of the City of Montreal established in 1792 to the west.
The ward's history is intertwined with the major installations that were built there. The construction of the Lachine Canal in 1825 and subsequent work to expand it provided many unskilled labourers with employment. The building of the Victoria Bridge, which was completed in 1859, was also a source of jobs. Beginning in 1847, Montreal's first large factories were set up along the canal to take advantage of the hydraulic power generated by the locks. Like the Grand Trunk (future CN) railway shops, they turned St. Anne's ward into an industrial, working-class area. During the 1960s and 1970s, the closing of the Lachine Canal, the relocation of most industrial activity to other parts of Montreal and to the suburbs, and the building of highways led to the ward's decline.
Griffintown? Point St. Charles?
St. Anne's ward encompassed a number of different neighbourhoods, including Point St. Charles in the southwest, Griffintown in the northeast and Victoriatown in the southeast. Victoriatown disappeared in 1964 when work for Expo 67 was done.
In the last decades of the 20th century, one area of St. Anne's ward gradually came to play an increasingly important role in the collective memory of Montreal's Irish community. Formerly the Nazareth fief belonging to the McCord family, Griffintown owed its name to real estate developer Mary Griffin, who divided it into lots in 1804. Originally located between Mountain, William, Des Soeurs-Grises and De la Commune streets, its imagined territory extended beyond these initial boundaries. Factories and adjoining residential areas sprang up there beginning in the 1830s.
Point St. Charles is the name that was given to all of the former St. Anne's ward, the area between the Lachine Canal and the St. Lawrence River, at the end of the 20th century. Having progressively lost its industries, it evolved into a residential neighbourhood that saw renewed development beginning in the late 1990s.
An Irish Fief?
Contrary to popular belief, St. Anne's ward (and especially Griffintown) was not a solely Irish area. While a large proportion of its inhabitants (up to half in 1871) were of Irish origin, between a quarter and a third were French-Canadian, and others were English or Scottish. Moreover, the people who lived there accounted for only a third of all those of Irish stock in Montreal.
Nevertheless, St. Anne's ward played a major role in the history of the Irish community. During the great famine of the 1840s, thousands of people left Ireland to try their luck in the New World. Mostly poor, illiterate and from rural backgrounds, many of these unskilled workers settled in St. Anne's ward, finding jobs as workers or labourers at the nearby docks or factories.
During the first half of the 19th century, a steady flow of immigrants fuelled population growth in St. Anne's Irish community. This geographic concentration explained the inauguration, in 1854, of Montreal's second Irish church, St. Anne's, which became a parish in 1880. It also explains why this part of Montreal has long been represented municipally, provincially and federally by politicians of Irish origin.
Beginning in 1870, however, a number of factors contributed to the relative decline of this community. Immigration from Ireland dropped precipitously, while the social and geographic mobility of the city's Irish population resulted in some residents moving to other areas of Montreal, other regions of Canada or even to the United States.
In the 1920s, Italian and Eastern European immigrants settled in the area. In 1960 most of the people in Griffintown were of Italian or Ukrainian origin. By the early 21st century, the majority of residents of the former St. Anne's ward were French-speaking, living alongside people of all different backgrounds, some of whom had Irish roots. These Irish Montrealers, with their rich heritage, help to maintain the memory of the Irish character that used to be so strong in this neighbourhood.
A Working-Class Neighbourhood
In the 19th century, living conditions in St. Anne's ward were hard, especially because of the epidemics that struck Montreal. Being next to the river, the area was also frequently hit by flooding, with sewage and waste ending up inside the dilapidated houses, fostering the spread of mould, infections and disease. In the 20th century, these major scourges were better controlled, but the sorry state of the housing became even more evident.
An essentially working-class ward, St. Anne's was also the scene of a number of strikes. Fed up with their conditions, workers would down tools in an effort to force their employers to make improvements. In contact with fellow countrymen living in the United States, some Irish workers helped to spread trade unionism in Montreal and elsewhere in Canada.
In 1970 St. Anne's Church had virtually no more parishioners and was torn down. The demolition tolled the death knell for the Irish presence in the neighbourhood. A park on the site where the church used to stand is a reminder of the Irish community's history in an area that has been left to go to seed.
BOILY, Raymond, Les Irlandais et le canal de Lachine : la grève de 1843. Ottawa, Leméac, 1980, 207 p.
CROSS, Dorothy Susanne, « The Irish in Montreal », Master Thesis (History), McGill University, 1969, 308 p.
BENOIT, Michèle and Roger GRATTON, Pignon sur rue : les quartiers de Montréal, Montreal, Guérin, 1991, 393 p.
LINTEAU, Paul-André, Histoire de Montréal depuis la Confédération, Montreal, Boréal, 2000, 627 p