MONTREAL — In many ways, the garage sale that took place at the Sisters of Ste-Anne’s mother house was no different than any of the dozens of others that took place in the Montreal area over the long weekend, although few of the others are quite as steeped in history.
On Saturday and Sunday, browsers and bargain hunters rummaged through tables full of books, furniture, plants, electronics and artwork both religious and secular — the kind of everyday objects that accumulate over 110 years of life in a religious institution.
And that life is quickly drawing to a close.
Sister Celine Dupuis said the mother house in the Lachine borough has hundreds of rooms and is far too big for the remaining members of the religious organization, whose average age is 87.
“There were 315 sisters living here at one time. Now it’s 180,” she said. And Dupuis, who at 76 is among the youngest, says the place has become too much to manage.
Now, they’re preparing to vacate the sprawling greystone building for a smaller home to be built on the grounds nearby.
Dupuis said many of the objects accumulated over the years predate even the mother house.
“The congregation exists since 1850, so it’s a real collection,” she said.
On Sunday, it was difficult to move among the crush of people that lined the convent’s halls to inspect the desks, art and different items stacked in every corner. Some 5,000 people visited the sale on Saturday, with some waiting up to an hour to enter, a spokeswoman working with the convent said.
Dupuis said even the ordinary objects for sale, such as suitcases, contain memories.
At one time, every sister was given a large suitcase, which contained all her worldly possessions during frequent deployments on religious missions all over the world.
“I used to say that we are like soldiers, we can be (sent) anywhere,” she recalled.
But Dupuis said she was pleasantly surprised to see the most popular items were religious statues and crucifixes, which quickly sold out.
At a time when the Quebec government is introducing a bill to ban the wearing of religious symbols for many public servants, she admitted she hadn’t been sure there was still interest in religious objects.
“With the secularism bill and all that, we think everyone wants to remove all religious signs, but no,” she said. “There are many people who care about that, who want that.”
The sisters will spend two more years in the mother house before becoming renters in the new house.
They have decided to sell the massive building to a community organization, which will transform it into affordable and social housing. Much of the sprawling grounds will become a park administered by the city.
Dupuis wouldn’t disclose the agreed-upon sale price, but said the sisters agreed to sell below market value to ensure the building serves the community.
She said some of the more valuable objects, including a beautiful collection of antique wooden furniture, will be sold at auction in June, while other valuable items have been donated to other churches or museums. Other sales will be held closer to the moving date, she said.
Despite all the years and memories, Dupuis said she wasn’t sad about the sale or the impending move.
“It’s not (sad) for me, because it’s sharing, and it’s a way of continuing our mission in some other way,” she said.
While many shoppers at the sale came looking for knickknacks, Robert Blondin came looking for a piece of his family history.
Blondin, 79, said his great-grandfather was the brother of Esther Blondin, the congregation’s founder, making him her closest living descendant.
He said his ancestor founded the Sisters of Ste-Anne in 1850 because she was upset with the lack of educational opportunities for young Quebecers, especially girls.
He said Blondin, who he describes as a “feminist before her time,” had to fight to open the institution, which would eventually expand to include a number of schools, convents and missions both in Canada and abroad.
“It makes me feel funny to feel they’re closing this place,” he said.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press