Montreal, Quebec, a Catholic city in an overwhelmingly Protestant nation, boasts two world-famous churches: the Parisian-inspired Notre-Dame Basilica and Saint Joseph’s Oratory. These two Montreal landmarks, with breathtaking architecture and stunning interiors, often command the attention of Catholic and secular visitors alike. As such, the smaller Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours is overlooked. Conveniently located near the tourist-friendly rue Saint-Paul, Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours belongs on any Montreal itinerary.
Endearingly referred to as the “Sailor’s Church,” visitors to Montreal’s quaint Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours will have no difficulty understanding why this small chapel became a favorite for those arriving and departing from the nearby Vieux Port. Just a few minutes’ walk from Montreal’s old port, the quiet and understated Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours has historically served those in the city’s maritime industry.
I visited the small church on a freezing cold December day simply to learn more about the church’s trademark tradition: sailors passing through Montreal would visit Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours bearing a lantern or votive in the shape of a ship, intended to a be an offering to the Virgin Mary in exchange for the promise of safe travels.
Now, as part of my job, I’ve toured countless churches and cathedrals throughout Europe and North America, and the ships adorning Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours is quite unique (the closest comparison I can make, believe it or not, would be to Stockholm Cathedral in Sweden’s capital city). The newest ship to the chapels’ collection dates from about a decade ago, a woman working at the church told me.
In addition to ship paraphernalia, Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours honors Mary, who in the Bible birthed Jesus as a teenage virgin. She remains one of Catholicism’s most important figures, and the murals and stained glass windows of this church paint her life story in vivid, if simple, detail. I should note this devotion to Mary is also strong in French culture.
Along with Kevin and Jen, my younger sister, I visited Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours on a freezing cold winter day just before Christmas. Needless to say, we were quite relieved and excited to discover the church was heated. How people lived in Montreal before central heating evades me. Anyways, this makes Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours a lovely place to stop on a cold day and soak up some of the city’s rich maritime and religious history.
Those who have visited France will likely find the interior to Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours familiar. During my time in Paris during the spring of 2015, I wandered into a number of centuries-old churches around the city, and many of them looked like older versions of Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours. Montreal’s French ancestry is a recurring theme not just in the city’s churches but in its food, architecture, and culture. And, of course, Quebec is largely a French-speaking province – although clueless Americans will find most shopkeepers, wait staff, and service personnel speak fluent English.
Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours is free to visit, and it is also an active church for those interested in attending a religious service. When we visited in late December, the church’s staff member informed us we could attend a free concert later in the afternoon. After extensive research, however, I’ve been unable to find an official website for Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours – those interested in attending a religious service or concert should ask their hotel concierge upon arrival or simply inquire at the church itself. In my experience, the woman working on the day of our visit was more than excited to talk about Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours and its lively history.
Poor Kevin, raised in the mild climate of the Pacific northwest, did not fare well on a winter’s day in Montreal. Even Jen and I, lifelong New Englanders, struggled. In our defense, however, we noticed many locals bundled up as well. If you’re visiting Montreal outside of the summer months, I do advise you pack a scarf, heavy coat, and gloves. For reference, when we visited, we had a high temperature of twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit. Just a few hours south, in Boston, the high was in the mid- to upper- forties.