Description of Historic Place
The Ursuline Monastery National Historic Site of Canada is an impressive complex of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century stone buildings located at 18 Donnacona Street on the brow of the hill in Québec City’s historic Upper Town. Its chapel altar is a masterpiece of French Canadian wood sculpture created in 1730.
The Ursuline Monastery was designated a national historic site of Canada in 1972 because:
- it is one of the few large conventual complexes in Canada which date from the first century of settlement;
- the fine timber work, wooden staircase, roof frame and metalwork of the old monastery comprise the largest and most imposing vestige of 17th-century Canadian architecture;
- its chapel altar, made in 1730 by Noël and Pierre-Noël Levasseur is a masterpiece in French Canadian wood sculpture; and,
- the large stone wings added to the convent in 1850 complete one of the most important and most attractive groups of buildings built in Canada before 1880.
The heritage value of the Ursuline Monastery National Historic Site of Canada resides in the architecture of the complex, particularly those 17th-century vestiges which reflect its historic roots, its architectural excellence as a pre-1880 building group, and the superb craftsmanship of its chapel altar. An Ursuline Monastery was initially constructed on this site in 1641-42 just two years after its Canadian founder, Marie de l’Incarnation, and her companions arrived in Canada. The original convent was destroyed by fire in 1650 as was its successor. This second convent, destroyed in 1686, nevertheless established the footprint of the present complex which now consists of 15 buildings constructed in six successive stages between 1687 and 1850. Vestiges of each of these stages survive. This complex contains high quality work by several noted Quebec craftsmen including Charles Baillargé, Noel and Pierre-Noel Levasseur.
Sources: Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Minutes, October 1972, November 1988
Key elements that contribute to the heritage value of this site include:
- the site of the convent on the brow of the hill that describes Upper Town;
- its sympathetic setting among buildings of similar age, forms and materials;
- the grouping of five-storey, rectangular buildings around a central courtyard;
- the complex’s irregular profile created by abutting steeply pitched roofs, most of them with inset dormers, a projecting cupola, tower caps, and church spire;
- the common use of masonry construction materials;
- the repetition of rectangular five-storey massing with elevations of regularly spaced fenestration and minimal detailing;
- the common use of materials, notably greystone walls, metal roofing, iron grill-work;
- the Neo-Classical features of the Church with its spire, cupola, and arched window openings;
- the high quality of craftsmanship evident in all parts of the complex, particularly the work of Noël and Pierre-Noël Levasseur in the chapel and the tendril-like grillwork by Charles Baillargé in the St. Joseph Wing;
- surviving evidence related to the construction of specific portions of the convent in different time periods such as the pre-1720 Ste. Famille, kitchen and St. Augustine Wings, the church and the private chapel and community room in the Ste. Famille Wing of the 1720-1785 period, and the Externat, Ste. Angèle Wing, Notre-Dame-de Grace Wing, Marie de l’Incarnation and St. Joseph Wings of the 1830-1875 period;
- the integrity of the found nature of the design, materials, and craftsmanship of 17th-century interior elements (specifically the fine timber work, wooden staircase, roof frame and metalwork of the old monastery);
- the design, materials, craftsmanship and finishes of the church and specifically the chapel altar;
- the 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century materials, hardware, finishes and textures and their craftsmanship in all interior areas of the convent;
- evidence of the historic functional layout of each of the convent wings: location, spatial definition, spatial relationship to other wings and contribution to the overall role of the complex;
- architectural evidence of the use and purpose of specific areas ( the square framed stair in the St. Augustine Wing, special panelling and mantel in the Community Room, segmentally arched windows in the early nun’s room in the Ste. Famille Wing, the flagstone floors, plaster and whitewash finishes and segmentally arched fireplace in the Kitchen Wing, special religious furnishings in the main chapel and private chapel);
- surviving evidence of the interface points between public and private space including the porte-cochere, grillwork on the exterior and segmented definition of interior spaces;
- artifactual evidence of life in the complex over time (the oven door and box stove in the Kitchen Wing, the laundry trough, wooden clothes pegs and lavabo in the St. Famille Wing, the school as well as the rich collection of furniture, silver, pewter, copper, textiles and other relics throughout the convent and in two Ursuline museums);
- archaeological evidence of earlier structures and early life in the complex (including the gardens, artifacts excavated in the courtyard and removed from the site); and,
- evidence that the convent was one of the initial occupants of the Rock of Quebec (the promontory that projects over lower town and the St. Lawrence river).