Description of Historic Place
The Grey Nuns' Convent, an unpretentious 2 1/2-storey solid log structure, has stood for over 150 years near the east bank of the Red River in Winnipeg's historic Old St. Boniface district. Built in 1846-51, the facility occupies a large, well-treed lot south of St. Boniface Cathedral in an area filled with religious, educational, medical and social service institutions established by Roman Catholic missionaries. The convent itself now houses the St. Boniface Museum. The City of Winnipeg's Grade I designation applies to the building on its footprint and the entire interior.
The Grey Nuns' Convent, one of Winnipeg's oldest structures, is a carefully restored structure from the mid-nineteenth-century Red River Settlement and Roman Catholic mission in St. Boniface. The substantial log building is a rare example of the era's Red River frame (also known as piece-sur-piece) construction methods and Georgian architecture, as modified by distinctive French-Canadian influences. Valued for its exterior and interior integrity, the convent also is among the largest known oak log structures in North America. The facility, designed by L'abbe Louis-Francois Richer Lafleche, has been an integral part of the settlement and development of Western Canada, especially for the francophone community. It was occupied until 1956 by the Grey Nuns, a Montreal-based order that came west to aid the Roman Catholic mission by providing educational, medical and social support. One of the major institutions established by the sisters, St. Boniface General Hospital, remains near the convent on avenue Tache.
Source: City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee Meeting, August 25, 1994
Key elements that define the exterior heritage character and integrity of the Grey Nuns' Convent include:
- the front (west) facade with its lightly hued, vertical tongue-and-groove siding, centrally placed enclosed entrance porch with second-storey deck and wood balustrade and numerous rectangular, multi-paned windows set at regular intervals and finished with darkly tinted shutters
- the continuation of the cladding, colour scheme and window organization on the east (rear), north and south sides, including a smaller version of the main entrance porch on the north wall
- the elongated two-storey rear chapel with its angled end (giving the building its distinct T-shaped footprint), small extensions at the east end of the north and south elevations and unmatched fenestration, including slender lancet windows in the extensions
- the roof with its numerous dormers, central belfry and chimneys at both ends
- aspects of the Georgian tradition, including the symmetrical rectangular plan and hipped roof
- the French-Canadian influences, including the steepness of the roof pitch, dormers located near the eaves-line, paired and shuttered casement windows, central entrance and shorter second storey
- the Red River frame method of construction, with large white oak logs laid horizontally with their tenons inserted into grooved vertical oak posts
Key elements that recall the building's historic use by the Grey Nuns include:
- the chapel layout, which includes a second-storey viewing area on the west side
- the tin cladding on the ceiling and walls
- the wording over the chancel, 'O CRUX, AVE, SPES UNICA,' Latin for 'O Holy Cross, Our Only Salvation,' a popular dictum of the Grey Nuns
- the west-end balcony that includes a pump organ and small bench
Key elements of the convent's interior integrity include:
- the original windows with their unique method of weatherproofing through rounded frames and their handcrafted metal hardware
- the original wood elements, including partitioning found on the second floor, the main staircase with balustrade, the original beam supports in the basement, exposed rafters in the attic, etc.
- the example of the original interior wall cladding (a mixture of grass, mud, plaster and horse tails) on the second floor and the stone stovepipe thimbles found on the main and second floors