Buildings Finding an Afterlife as Condos, Galleries and Spas ByKAREN JOHNSON
Exterior view of Le Saint-Jude spa in Montreal.
Will Lew for The Wall Street Journal
Inside the former Saint-Jude Church in Montreal, personal trainers mill about where priests once did and hot-stone massages have replaced baptisms.
In this city, a former Roman Catholic stronghold where Mark Twain once said you couldn't throw a brick without breaking a church window, questions about what to do with all those churches have lingered for years.
Le Saint-Jude spa is one answer. The health club and spa opened two months ago in the city's trendy Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood, after three years of planning and a year of construction. To turn the former church into a facility that caters to the body instead of the soul, the builders erected a two-story steel structure within the church, creating a modern enclosure within a building more than a century old.
The renovation, which cost 2.65 million Canadian dollars ($2.53 million), won a design excellence award in 2012 from Canadian Architect magazine.
While other areas in North America embraced separation of church and state, Quebec entrusted its key institutions—health care and education—to the Catholic Church. Official secularization came in the 1960s with the so-called Quiet Revolution. That transition, coupled with a general decline in attendance, left the Catholic Church with far more space than it needed.
Deconsecrated religious buildings in Quebec are so plentiful that the province established an advisory board to help tackle issues such as the disenchantment that often arises when the buildings are sold.
In Montreal, churches "were a public space, a meeting place and a power base," said Clarence Epstein, history professor at Concordia University in Montreal and author of "Montreal: City of Spires."
Former churches in Montreal are finding an afterlife as condominiums, galleries and arts spaces.
SPAS & SPIRES: Deconsecrated religious buildings are finding an afterlife in Montreal as condominiums, galleries and arts spaces. Above, the gyminside Le Saint-Jude Spa, a health club that opened two months ago in a former church. Will Lew for The Wall Street Journal
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts converted the neighboring Erskine and American Church to create the Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion of Quebec and Canadian Art. The legacy museum links underground to the renovated church, a 59,000-square-foot expansion project completed in 2011.
"We reinvented the whole museum," said Danielle Champagne, director of the museum's foundation. The museum tried to maintain the significance of the late-19th century building, including restoring the 146 stained-glass windows, about 20 of which were Tiffany glass.
"We are a museum, so it's part of our mission to protect this," Ms. Champagne said. "Otherwise it might have become condominiums."
The C$33 million renovation, which created an art gallery and 444-seat concert hall, won a 2010 Canadian Architect Award of Merit, the Grand Prix du Design 2011, and the Prix d'Excellence 2011 from the Institut de développement urbain du Québec. Ms. Champagne calls the finished product "a jewel of the city."
The reincarnation of religious buildings has sparked concerns that the church has compounded its problems.
Amid plunging church attendance, the Catholic Diocese of Montreal said it has sold off about 50 churches and other religious buildings in the past 15 years. But about a year ago, the diocese issued a moratorium on further sales, in part because closing churches can lead to even lower attendance, as some congregants don't move on to churches farther away.
"The purpose of this moratorium is to see where we are now," a diocese spokeswoman said.
Some churches have found new life as condominiums. The church-to-condo conversion is tricky to pull off well, experts say, and the bigger the church, the bigger the architectural challenge. Often, what results are units with unwelcoming, windowless rooms toward the building's interior.
The best church conversions, according to Concordia University's Mr. Epstein, emulate the original intention of the structure as a meeting place or public space. He cited Chic Resto Pop, a project in Montreal that converted a church to an affordable cafeteria and meeting place for the neighborhood's low-income residents.
Two Montreal colleges—Dawson and Marianopolis—house libraries in renovated chapels and classrooms in former convents.
At Le Saint-Jude, owner Tony Attanasio said the health club's "fully integrated concept" makes his space more than just a place to work out. He said he hopes his center becomes an extension of home for its members, and as integral to the neighborhood as the church once was. Le Saint-Jude includes an indoor garden and there are plans for a restaurant.
"It's a good reflection of where Quebec is now," Mr. Attanasio said. "Where the priests would say the Mass, we do massage."
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