A little piece of England
St. Matthew’s Church, today a city library, dates back to the 1870s. It replaced a stone chapel built in 1849 that the many Anglicans living in this part of town had outgrown. The graveyard surrounding it is older still. Opened in 1772 it boasts what is probably the province’s oldest gravestone.
From graveyard to parish church
After New France was handed over to England in 1763, the need to bury Christians of different denominations in separate graveyards led the British government to acquire a plot of land on Chemin Saint-Jean where Anglicans—and later Presbyterians—would be buried. The first person was buried there in 1772.
Fifty years later a priest would sometimes celebrate mass in the gravedigger’s house for the French-speaking Anglicans from the islands of Jersey and Guernsey who had moved to Québec. Arched windows and a dome were added, confirming the new use for the wooden building that became known as St. Matthew’s Chapel. But the fire of June 1845 destroyed the building, along with the rest of the Saint-Jean district.
A stone chapel that could hold up to 500 people was inaugurated on the same site in 1849 and had to be enlarged several times to meet the needs of the growing Anglican population. Montréal architect William T. Thomas oversaw a series of major renovations between 1870 and 1882, while St. Matthew’s was formally erected as a parish. He made the chancel and nave bigger, added a transept, and had a towered gatehouse with chiming clock built.
Thomas was inspired by the Ecclesiological Society, then flourishing in England as a reaction to industrialization. The movement’s supporters hoped to find the roots of true faith in the Middle Ages. This explains why St. Matthew’s Church has a very pure Gothic style, like many other places of worship of its day in the United Kingdom, and why efforts were made to retain its green setting.
The Ecclesiological Society was not the only movement to influence St. Matthew’s Church and graveyard. Most anglophones living in 19th century Québec City had been born in the United Kingdom and maintained close business and family ties there. Since Québec City was an important part of the British Empire in North America, it’s no surprise that the stained-glass windows, pulpit, chancel railing, wrought iron clock in the church tower, and other decorative elements around the church were all made in England.
A successful conversion
Québec City’s Anglican community dwindled throughout the 20th century, to the point that in 1954 when the time came to replace the grand polychrome slate roof, parishioners opted for a more affordable copper covering. In 1979 the community was forced to ask the City of Québec to take charge of both St. Matthew’s Church and graveyard.
The city acquired the historic church and graveyard for a symbolic dollar. It then converted the church into a library, taking care to preserve its authenticity and religious character so that visitors today can admire baptismal fonts from 1894, a marble pulpit, stained-glass windows, and original woodwork.
Relive the history of the St. Matthew Graveyard
Learn about Québec City’s oldest Protestant graveyard. Follow along with the free audio guide as historian David Mendel presents 12 accounts of the lives and sometimes tragic ends of the people buried at this singular site.
The audio guide is available as a podcast in the Apple Podcasts app and from PodcastParty. You can also borrow an iPod from the Claire-Martin Library.
The graveyard is open May 1 to November 15.
A new city park
An act passed by the Canadian government prohibited the graveyard being used after 1860 in order to reassure locals who believed the corpses to be a cause of epidemics. But in line with Anglican tradition, the 8,000 to 10,000 people buried in the graveyard remain there to this day. This is why the new look recently given to the city park just outside St. Matthew’s encourages silent contemplation and the gravestones have not been removed. The gravestone belonging to Scottish solider Alexander Cameron, who died in Lévis in 1759, and whose body was then transferred to St. Matthew’s graveyard, is thought to be the oldest in all Québec.