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Montréal's Hidden Landmark

For the week of Monday October 15, 2001

On October 19, 1886, the Board of Trustees for Montréal's third St. James Methodist Church approved plans for a new building for its growing congregation. Once built, it was said to be the largest Methodist Church of its time, not only in Canada, but in the world! The church was renamed St. James United Church in 1925, when the United Church was founded and Methodists became part of its membership.

St. James United Church

St. James United Church
© Parks Canada / R. Goodspeed / 1996

Methodism began in the first half of the 18th century within the Church of England under the leadership of John Wesley (1703-1791), an Anglican clergyman, who encouraged a disciplined or "methodical" way of life. Methodists settled in Montréal at the beginning of the 19th century, some of whom soon formed the St. James congregation. They worshipped in a tiny chapel, later replaced by their first church building. During the course of the century, the congregation grew to become large and prosperous, leading to the decision to build the existing church.

Highly optimistic about the future, the Trustees hired Alexander F. Dunlop, one of Montréal's most prominent architects, to draw up plans. Built in 1887-88, the church was designed in the High Victorian Gothic Revival style. This style, based upon Gothic architecture of the late 12th to the early 15th centuries, is characterized by twin towers, stained-glass windows, pointed arches and the use of varying colours of stone, all seen at St. James. Dunlop designed the interior in an amphitheatre plan on a grand scale. Arranged on two levels and curved to face the pulpit, choir stalls and organ, the seating reflects the central role of preaching and music in the Methodist tradition. The interior decoration is typically Victorian with lavish woodcarving and intricate ceiling plasterwork.

Interior of St. James

Interior of St. James
© Courtesy of Ellen Englert, 2001

Sadly, by the 1920s, the income from the shrinking congregation simply couldn't support a church this size. In 1925, the Trustees decided to develop the land in front of the church with the construction of a modern commercial building. Three storeys in height, the new building hid most of the church. The only current visible signs from Ste. Catherine Street are the two towers and the St. James United Church neon sign.

Although the commercial building detracts considerably from a full appreciation of St. James, its revenue nevertheless makes the church's continued existence possible. St. James United Church, a national historic site of Canada, was commemorated with a plaque in 2000.

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