Project Canterbury

My First Year in Canada

By the Right Rev. Ashton Oxenden, D.D.
Bishop of Montreal, and Metropolitan of Canada

London: Hatchards, 1871.

Chapter II. First Impressions of Montreal

OUR first impressions of the city of Montreal were very favourable. It is a well-built town, beautifully situated on rising ground, and backed by a fine mountain-like hill, from which it takes its name (Mont Real), having at its foot the huge and noble St. Lawrence. It has been justly called 'The young and beautiful Queen of the West.'

The lower parts of the town, near the river, are chiefly inhabited by the French-speaking portion of the population, with the exception of two or three leading streets filled with first-rate shops, which are mostly served by English proprietors; and still nearer the river are clustered the handsome warehouses and offices of our wealthy merchants. The upper parts of the town are of more recent growth, and contain commodious and detached houses, belonging to men of business and persons of fortune. The streets in this part of the town are as yet incomplete, showing at present certain gaps, which will ere long be filled up with handsome houses. They are all flanked by trees, chiefly maples, which, besides the welcome shade they afford in summer, greatly add to the beauty of the town.

One thing particularly struck us at first, namely, that most of the houses have their shutters closed, so that the rooms are in almost funereal darkness. This arises from the necessity in hot weather of excluding the burning sun, and also the flies which here abound. And the consequence is that people get so used to this state of things, that darkness becomes the normal condition of many rooms even in winter. Loving as I do the bright sunshine, it will be long before I shall be prepared to endorse this custom.

The Montreal builders are excellent. They not only run up their houses at an indescribable speed, but they build them well and substantially. A house begun in the early spring is often finished, and even inhabited, before the following winter. The exceeding dryness of the climate facilitates this speedy occupation. The English maxim does not therefore hold good in this country, 'When your house is built you should put your enemy into it the first year, then your friend, and afterwards you may get into it yourself.' We are now building a house under the wing of the Cathedral for the Bishop's residence; but we are too fresh from England to hurry matters; and so, having begun it in April, it will be finished in the spring, and we hope to get into it next autumn. I was unwilling to have entered upon this responsibility, since it involves a permanent tax upon the episcopal income; but a small sum originally devoted to the purpose was available to meet about one-third of the outlay, and it seemed to me especially desirable to do something towards the completion of the group of ecclesiastical buildings around our beautiful Cathedral. May it be the peaceful and happy abode of many of my successors! I cannot expect it to be more than a very temporary residence for myself.

I cannot speak with much praise of the street roads of Montreal. This year, at least, they have been in a chronic state of roughness, and the consequent jolting is extremely unpleasant. It must be very difficult however to keep them in decent repair, in consequence of the severity of the winter, with its repeated attacks of frost and snow. The side-walks are not paved, but are covered with strong springy boards, which, though somewhat unsightly, are by no means unpleasant to walk upon.

The streets are all alive with carriages, both hired and private, and the pace at which people drive is at first rather alarming to a sober, slow-moving Englishman. The public cabs have a very old-fashioned look, being very high from the ground and difficult of entrance, with a good deal of silver about them, and of the stamp of the Louis Quatorze age. They are however very clean, and the drivers are generally honest and unexacting.

The private carriages are extremely well appointed. They are well built, and the horses good; but one misses the neat liveries to which we are accustomed in England; and the practice which prevails pretty generally of driving with one rein in each hand, strikes one as being a little awkward.

The chief buildings which adorn the city of Montreal are its Churches. The largest, although not the most beautiful, are the Roman Catholic Church of Notre Dame, and the Jesuits' Church in Bleury Street. But the English Churches are far more beautiful, at least to our taste. Of these our Cathedral stands first and foremost, being a large cruciform building, and a very pure specimen of the Early Decorated style of Gothic architecture, with a simple but extremely beautiful little Chapterhouse beneath its shadow.

The whole is very chaste and handsome. The inside is less effective than the exterior. The recent addition of an obelisk to the memory of the late Bishop makes the group complete.

Besides the Ecclesiastical buildings, there are others which strike the eye. M'Gill College is admirably placed with the mountain as a background, and a little park in front. It is a secular University, and well managed. Then the principal Banks, St. Patrick's Hall, the Town Hall, &c. are all worthy of this flourishing and wealthy city.

The Victoria Bridge, which spans the broad St. Lawrence, is one of the wonders of Canada. This enormous bridge is, I believe, nearly two miles long. It is of wrought-iron, and rests upon twenty-four limestone piers. The railway passes over it, and it is therefore of immense importance to Montreal, and to Canada generally. It was constructed at an expense of about one million and a half sterling.

Montreal has lately sustained a great loss in the removal of the Imperial troops. The barracks have now a deserted look, and I fear that very soon there will not be a soldier left.

At one time it was doubtful whether Montreal would not be chosen as the Seat of Government. In many respects it seemed the obvious place for this distinction; but for reasons, wise or unwise, Montreal was set aside, and Ottawa chosen. In the latter city Government buildings have been erected on a large and splendid scale; and there the Governor-General resides at Rideau Hall, just outside the town; and there also the Dominion Parliament meets, and the Ministers of State have their offices.

The Parliament consists of an Upper House, or Senate, chosen by the Crown, and a Lower House elected by the people. The members of the former have the title of 'Honourable' prefixed to their names for life. The same privilege belongs to those who have served as Ministers of State.

The city of Montreal has a Mayor and Corporation, to whom is entrusted the management of its local concerns. The inhabitants are exceedingly well conducted. One rarely meets with anything that offends either the ear or the eye, and a drunkard or a beggar is seldom seen; on Sunday too the streets are unusually quiet and orderly.

Upon the whole, I prefer Montreal, as a place of residence, to almost any town that I have ever seen. And we may truly feel that 'our lines are fallen in pleasant places,' and that God has surrounded us with temporal blessings far beyond our deserts.

But the loveliest spot does not constitute happiness. Our joy depends far more on what we are than where we are. A right and well-regulated mind is a better possession than the most favoured dwelling-place.

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