Constructed: 1887 - 1888
Architect: Canon Georges Bouillon
Location: Rideau Street between Waller and Cumberland streets, Ottawa
Established in 1869 as a bilingual school for girls, the Convent of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (better known as the Rideau Street Convent) was soon expanding to meet enrolment demands. A new 2 ½-storey wing designed by architect-priest Canon Georges Bouillon (1841-1932) was opened in 1888, revealing the stunning Rideau Convent Chapel on the second floor.
Rectangular in plan, the Chapel was divided into a nave and two side aisles surrounded by stained glass windows. It was superbly decorated in a neo-Gothic style with a decorative (as opposed to structural) fan vaulted ceiling in wood supported by slender marbled cast-iron columns with an intricately carved wooden altar screen.
By the late 1960s, the secularization of education in Ontario combined with declining enrollment at the convent resulted in the program of study being reduced to a secondary French-language program.
In June 1969, the Collegiate Institute Board announced plans for a new École secondaire De La Salle in Lowertown East, which would absorb students from the La Salle Academy on Sussex Drive and the Rideau Street Convent.
It came as a surprise when on December 5, 1970 an advertisement headlined “Rideau Street Commercial City Block For Sale” appeared in The Ottawa Journal. The Sisters of Charity were selling the convent.
Mary Roaf, president of Action Sandy Hill, first alerted the Heritage Committee of a Capital for Canadians (forerunner to Heritage Ottawa) to the news. In May 1971 the new owner, Glenview Realty (Ottawa) Ltd., announced ambitious plans to adapt existing buildings for use as retail and office space to be known as “The Mews.”
Optimism within the heritage community was short lived. After a careful cost analysis, Glenview Realty announced on March 14, 1972 that it was shelving the project and applying for a demolition permit for a possible new high-rise development.
Efforts by the National Capital Commission (NCC) to find a solution to save the Chapel were unsuccessful and the City issued a demolition permit on April 21.
Heritage advocates lobbied at the highest levels. On April 27, a letter from the Hon. Jean Chrétien, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development at the time, informed the NCC that the Historic Sites and Monuments Board (HSMB) judged the Chapel interior to be of “national significance on architectural grounds” and urged the owner to “preserve it if at all possible.”
Building on the HSMB recommendation, the Heritage Committee and Action Sandy Hill organized a public demonstration on April 29, placing a make-shift plaque on the building commemorating the Chapel’s national significance.
A hopeful meeting on May 3 between Glenview Realty, Mayor Pierre Benoit and Doug Fullerton of the NCC failed to reach an agreement on the outright purchase of the Chapel itself, estimated at $500,000.
Activist Mary-Anne Phillips (co-founder of the Heritage Committee) quickly organized an effective media event. On May 6, before a noon-hour crowd of newspaper reporters, photographers and TV cameras assembled in front of the padlocked doors of the convent, she lit a symbolic votive candle.
Perhaps the optics of this last desperate act had the desired effect. Five days later, an 11th hour agreement was reached. The costs of dismantling and storing the chapel would be shared by the NCC and the National Gallery of Canada.
After four years of painstaking restoration and reconstruction, a priceless part of Canada’s architectural heritage was unveiled in the National Gallery of Canada in 1988, nearly 100 years after its original dedication.
The reconstructed Rideau Street Convent Chapel remains on display at the National Gallery of Canada, where it continues to be appreciated as an important example of Canada’s ecclesiastical history.