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Québec City’s Irish community
Saint Patrick’s school and church on Avenue De Salaberry are reminders of just how important this part of the city is to Québec City’s Irish community. After wave after wave of immigration—often in dramatic circumstances—in the 19th century, the Irish who settled in numbers in Québec City went on to gradually improve their lot. Many of their 20th century institutions were concentrated in this neighbourhood.
The first wave of Irish immigrants washed up on Québec City’s shores in the early 19th century. Many were Catholic, and in 1833, since religion was then a more insurmountable barrier than language, they set up their own English-language church, St. Patrick’s in Old Québec, which was distinct from the churches attended by British Protestants and Anglicans.
Further waves of Irish immigrants reached the city in the 1840s. Many were ill or travelling on to other Canadian or American cities. But in 1871 some 12,000 Irish men and women lived in the city, making up 20% of the population.
The Irish gathered down by the St. Lawrence, around the port, and in the Saint-Louis district. When shipbuilding and the timber trade, both mainstays of the city’s economy, collapsed in the 1870s, many Irish workers moved on and Québec City’s Irish population had settled around 5,000 by the early 20th century. It was at this time that they shifted their institutions to the area bordered by De Salaberry, Grande Allée, De la Tour, and De Maisonneuve.
Six cholera epidemics struck Québec City between 1832 and 1854. The first was so severe that it left over 2,500 dead in just a few weeks, many of them Irish. They were buried with other Catholics in the cholera cemetery hastily built away from homes, in the area bordered by the same streets mentioned above.
The Irish first joined with French Canadians in the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul to help Irish immigrants struggling with illness and poverty. Then they created an institution of their own to help orphans, the destitute, and the elderly: Saint Brigid’s Home opened in 1856. Originally in Old Québec, it moved two years later to the vast plot of land occupied by the cholera cemetery that Saint Patrick’s parish had just acquired at the corner of Grande Allée and Avenue De Salaberry. It soon became a place where the whole community could meet.
The progressive integration of Québec City’s Irish community into the French Canadian majority was eased by the religion they shared: 90% were Catholic at the start of the 20th century. Mixed marriages and the resulting bilingualism encouraged upward mobility, and having English as their mother tongue also helped them find a place in sales networks dominated by the British. All of which meant that after a few decades a number of Irish enjoyed a standard of living that enabled them to move to the newly created Montcalm neighbourhood.
This explains how other institutions came to gather around Saint Brigid’s Home. A new Saint Patrick’s Church was built on Rue Grande Allée in 1915 (and completed in 1958). Four years later Saint Patrick’s school moved up from Old Québec to where it stands today on Avenue De Salaberry. It grew to its current size in 1950. Then in 1922–1924 came the monastery and presbytery for the Redemptorists who ran the parish, followed by a leisure centre in 1937, and further down on De Salaberry, a school for girls in 1939.
There are fewer people of Irish origin to be found in the city today. They remain attached to this historic neighbourhood, even though Saint Brigid’s Home has now moved and the enormous church on Grande Allée has been demolished. Their new church—also called Saint Patrick’s—is on Avenue De Salaberry and remains the focal point for this parish of English-speaking Catholics in the city. The annual Saint Patrick’s Day parade starts outside its doors every March.
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