Leap of Faith Gives Convent New Life
The Sisters of Loretto Convent was never the architectural superstar of Catholic Hill, a collection of 19th century limestone religious and educational buildings perched high above the city of Guelph, Ont. Always a modest contrast to the ornate Church of Our Lady Immaculate, the former convent is now basking in the spotlight as the new home of the Guelph Civic Museum.
It’s among a growing inventory of buildings across Canada that have become surplus to the needs of religious organizations, but are being acquired and thoughtfully adapted to new purposes.
Built in 1857 as a nuns’ residence and a boarding school, the convent was typical of the stone buildings going up in the burgeoning town at the time, says Stephen Robinson, Guelph’s senior heritage planner. Designed by Brantford, Ont., architect John Turner, the convent actually predates the church by 30 years.
A chapel addition was made in 1872 and two storeys were added to the original structure in 1896. There were further additions over the course of the 20th century, including a high school. But after the sisters vacated the building in 1996 and the building had sat empty for more than a decade, the Diocese of Hamilton considered demolishing it.
However, the Guelph Civic Museum was looking for a larger site and the former convent met several of its criteria including high visibility, connection to downtown and its status as an iconic building, says Ian Panabaker, Guelph’s general manager of downtown renewal, and the city’s former heritage and urban design planner.
“This building already had an established identity within the urban design framework, which is really hard to achieve with a new greenfield museum project,” adds Paul Sapounzi, a principal with +VG Architects of Brantford, Ont., which specializes in heritage projects such as Toronto’s Don Jail. “Convincing people that we could turn this residence into gallery, teaching and community meeting spaces was a big leap of faith. Now that the museum’s complete, it makes total sense.”
The city signed a long-term lease with the diocese, surplus buildings were removed around the convent, and +VG Architects began the two-year, $12.7-million redevelopment. The project was funded by contributions from the federal and Ontario governments as well as a community capital campaign. The 30,000-square-foot museum opened in February of 2012.
An addition was made to the west side of the building to house elevators and a loading dock. A spectacular new glazed entrance was created on the north side as a kind of “display case for the façade,” Mr. Sapounzi explains. While the exterior stonework was cleaned up with “a light touch… to show the cumulative history of the building, including its wear and tear,” the interior was another story, Mr. Sapounzi adds.
The architect was able to restore the original central circulation staircase, however multiple renovations and structural and water damage meant there was very little heritage value left inside. Some of the trim and doors were saved, and stained glass windows were restored and mounted on steel frames in the chapel.
The crumbling 19th century foundation would never support the demands of a 21st century museum including mechanical systems on the roof and heavy archival material to be stored on the upper floors. “We had to essentially create a whole new interior structure,” Mr. Sapounzi explains. “We spent the money on boring stuff like creating a really good foundation, lighting, allowing the floors to have a lot of flexibility in terms of their loading, and creating a sustainable and barrier-free building.”
The project was complicated by the fact that the building is situated on a challenging slope and the parking area had to accommodate school buses and transport trucks.
Since the Diocese of Hamilton wanted to retain ownership of the site and the convent sits right beside Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, it was never in danger of being knocked down and replaced with a condo or office tower. But what will happen to a surplus of churches and ancillary buildings that various religious organizations are expected to put up for sale across the country in the coming years is anybody’s guess.
“There aren’t as many people attending mass as there once were; there aren’t as many clergy being ordained to minister to those congregations. We’re also seeing a consolidation of church locations and the construction of new facilities that operate on a regional basis,” says John O’Brien, business administrator for the Diocese of Hamilton.
Three years ago, Mr. Sapounzi’s firm was asked to create a cultural heritage impact statement for the Sisters of the Visitation monastery in Ottawa. The historic building is comprised of a 1865 Gothic Revival house and four wings that were added in 1913. It’s a rare example of a property that until only a few years ago, housed a cloistered religious community. Ashcroft Homes purchased the property for $14.5-million in 2010 and is building 1,000 condo units and a seniors’ residence. As the centrepiece of the Q West project, the monastery will undergo a $4-million transformation that includes a restaurant, upscale grocery retailer and a 25-room inn, says Ashcroft president David Choo.
“I think all religious congregations, if they haven’t done it already, will be looking at what they need, how to downsize and build something that would better suit their needs,” says Sister Thérèse Meunier, congregation leader for the Sisters of St. Joseph.
The Sisters commissioned Toronto’s Shim-Sutcliffe Architects to build a $38-million facility on O’Connor Drive in Toronto that includes 23 assisted-living units and a 35-bed care centre. Fifty-eight elderly nuns moved into the new building in March.
Perhaps in contrast to when the Loretto Convent was built 156 years ago, the Sisters of St. Joseph have planned for when they no longer require the building. It was designed so that it could eventually be sold as a long-term care or assisted living facility, Sister Meunier says: “We tried to build in the sustainability… and potential for the future.”
• The 125-year-old Church of our Lady Immaculate was designated a national historic site in 1990 as an exceptional example of the High Victorian Gothic Revival style in Canadian architecture.
• The former Loretto Convent is the oldest existing school building in Guelph.
• In February, the City of Guelph received an Ontario Heritage Award to recognize its conservation and education efforts including the adaptive reuse of the former Loretto Convent.