The Catholic Church and a Neighbourhood's Heritage *

Cedar swamp and meadow had long typified the region. But all that changed forever in 1827 when Col. John By laid out an upper town to the west and a lower town to the east of where the Rideau Canal would meet the Ottawa River. The traditional boundaries of Lower Town (now spelled Lowertown) are three waterways and a wide street. These are the Rideau Canal in the west which is paralleled two kilometres to the east by the Rideau River. Both flow into the Ottawa River, the area's northern perimeter. Rideau Street marks Lower Town's southern limit.

During the years between 1830 and 1880,Lower Town developed into the business centre of Bytown/Ottawa.Here the city's first railway terminated; the transshipment of goods between the Ottawa River and Rideau Canal took place; and the region's most significant commercial centre, the By Ward Market, prospered.

Lower Town, Ottawa



Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral undergoing restoration (1999)

As these events transpired, an institution was developing which was to have the greatest impact on the face of the area. The Catholic Church arrived early to provide for the spiritual and physical needs of area residents, most of whom were working class - predominantly Irish or French Canadian - and Catholic. What is now Notre Dame was established in 1827; the wood frame church of the 1830s was replaced by the present building, began in 1841. It became a cathedral in 1847 with the creation of the Diocese of Bytown (later Ottawa). The Catholic Church was now beginning to assume the various roles it would play in Lower Town for the next hundred years.



In 1844, Elisabeth Bruyère, a Montreal-area Ursuline nun, was sent to Bytown where she established the Soeurs Grises de la Croix. They are known to posterity as the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa. Elisabeth Bruyère was only 28 years of age at the time. The nuns worked quickly and,in addition to their convent, founded schools, orphanages and hospitals. In the year 1860, they established a large stone facility which over time evolved into the Ottawa General Hospital. While it would remain a Catholic hospital, it prided itself on offering care without regard to age, sex, language or religion. "The General" continued as the largest and most significant health care facility in the region well into the twentieth century. This massive structure - one of Lower Town's most prominent - is today the Elisabeth Bruyère Health Centre.


Aerial view of the General Hospital(1953)

The Church contributed to the community by constructing other significant buildings. The Bishop's Palace (1849-50), south of the Cathedral, is remarkable for its early use, in Canada, of the mansard roof.Nearby is a school building, originally the Collège de Bytown, founded by the Oblates. Occupied only briefly (1851-56) by the Collège, it moved to Sandy Hill and has evolved into the University of Ottawa. From 1888the Christian Brothers operated the building as the La Salle Academy.

The 1840s witnessed significant growth in eastern Lower Town - the area east of King Street (now King Edward Avenue). The Church seized the opportunity and became a significant area land owner and developer.  By 1855, the many properties north of St Patrick from King Street to the Rideau River were nearly all owned by the Church. The resulting expansion of the area's population gave rise to the need for a new parish. Ste-Anne's Church opened in 1873, initially serving the residents to as far east as Notre Dame Cemetery. Nearby is this area's most imposing Catholic structure. The Convent of the Religieuses Notre-Dame de Charité du Bon Pasteur (Shepherds of Good Hope) was begun in 1875.

By 1870, the Irish percentage of the population had declined relative to that of the French Canadian.As a consequence, the Irish played an ever diminishing role in the life and management of Notre Dame Cathedral. Anglophones in 1888 moved to establish a distinct English parish and church for Lower Town. By 1889 work had began on St Brigid's Church and the church was opened in 1890.

Of the services provided by the Church, schooling was viewed as being of paramount importance. To this end, the community has been served by many Catholic schools over the years. The Ecole Guigues in 1915 witnessed a key struggle to consolidate in Ontario the right to education in French. Both St Brigid's and Ste-Anne's parishes operated elementary schools. In 1932, Ecole Routhier was opened. The La Salle Academy moved into new quarters near Ste-Anne's Church in the 1970s.

The historical continuity of Lower Town is strengthened by the survival of its Catholic institutional buildings. While a fifty-year decline in religious activity has resulted in some losses, most of Lower Town's  built Catholic heritage endures. Some of the buildings have been adapted to new uses; others retain their original focus. The Cathedral has undergone a major restoration (1999-2000). The La Salle Academy now serves as a government training facility. Elisabeth Bruyère's hospital continues with a focus on palliative care. While the Sisters of Charity still occupy their huge convent, that of the Shepherds of Good Hope has become the Embassy of the People's Republic of China. Historically there were many Catholic schools in the district, but only the modern Ecole Sainte-Anne remains.Ecole Guigues,famous for its role in preserving French language education in Ontario, has new life as a condominium; Ecole Routhier is a community centre. Our Lady School is boarded up and St Brigid's School (misnamed St Bridget's on the building) is a soup kitchen. The three parish churches continue in use.

Ecole Guigues

Ecole Guigues adapted as a condominium


The importance of the Catholic buildings of Lower Town has been recognised by the City of Ottawa. By-laws protect some structures individually while others form part of the Lowertown West Heritage Conservation District. The Catholic Church was the most visible institution during the growth and maturing of this unique neighbourhood. Its legacy will remain a vital element in the future of Lower Town.

      Richard Rodgers,

      July, 1999


* This essay is an edited version of a chapter I contributed to a book entitled, "Ottawa: A Guide To Heritage Structures".It was published under the authority of the Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee, City of Ottawa, 2000. That book may possibly be obtained through the City of Ottawa.

 © Richard Rodgers,2002-2008

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