Concordia University officially unveiled to the public on Sept. 15 the final renovations to its landmark Grey Nuns Building, the historic 19th-century convent it acquired in 2004. The renovated building includes new and refurbished residence rooms for 600 students, new group-study spaces, common rooms and a kitchen. But, the central attraction is the building’s former chapel, stunningly transformed into a silent reading room for up to 200 people.
Clarence Epstein, Concordia’s senior director of urban and cultural affairs, says the interior elements of the former chapel, including religious symbols, stained glass windows and woodwork, have all been maintained. “Everyone who walks in, they all know they’re in a very special place,” he says.
The chapel was designed by noted architect Victor Bourgeau, who planned more than 250 churches, cathedrals and other sites around Quebec. Dr. Epstein calls the repurposed room an “exquisite vestige” of the Grey Nuns’ vision of a sacred and quiet space, as well as a “21st century nod to what universities always have been, which is a place where you attend in quiet study for the purpose of enlightening your life.”
Heritage preservation was front and centre in the entire renovation process, says Dr. Epstein. While older buildings can present special challenges, he notes that the transition of the building from a nuns’ residence to student residence was “not a stretch.”
The Grey Nuns Motherhouse was built for the Sisters of Charity of Montreal and opened in 1871. Under an agreement with the university, the nuns had until 2020 to quit the residence, but the final remaining sisters decided to leave in April 2013. They will always have a presence, however: an intact crypt lies beneath the chapel, where 276 people are buried.