The History of Ascension of Our Lord Parish
Thanks to its well-deserved reputation for stability and peace, it might come as a surprise that the Church of Ascension of Our Lord was launched in controversy and got underway with a whiff of acrimony still in the air.
In 1926, when a group of resolute Irish Catholic Westmount parishioners applied to the Archbishop of Montreal for permission to build their own church – because until then they had been going to church services at the St-Leon de Westmount French parish – They were turned down.
Undeterred, they set sail for the Vatican and many weeks later returned home triumphantly with a Papal Deed of Erection.
Trumped by the Holy See, the Diocese of Montreal exercised its right to name the new parish’s first pastor. Its selection was Monsignor Wilfrid Emmett McDonagh, age 42, a man of uncertain mettle who was in disfavour with the hierarchy at the time.
Predictably, there were Anglos against this project (“We don’t need another church,”) but work on it went full-steam ahead anyway.
Financed by a bank loan and pledges, the trustees searched for an appropriate piece of land in Westmount area, eventually they bought a large tract of land from the Grey Nuns, bordered by Sherbrooke Street and Clarke and Kitchener Avenues.
Then they awarded a princely $326,000 contract to John Quinlan & Co. to build a church which was designed by the Boston architectural firm of Maginnis and Walsh, Edward Turcotte of Montreal was associate architect. The neo-gothic design of the church was quite different from what was usually seen in Catholic churches in Quebec.
Another unusual feature of the 13,483 square foot church was the location of the square bell tower built over the transept crossing with belfry and pinnacles, and not over the entrance of the church as is usually the case in Catholic churches. This type of construction was more commonly seen in Protestant churches.
Furthermore, there are no bells in the tower.
The inside of the church is very simple and elegant. Again, in the English style with the wooden framework of the nave visible.
The church has been compared to the St. Vincent Ferrer Church on Lexington Avenue in New York, whose construction was completed less than ten years before Ascension of Our Lord.
When the plans were being drawn up and monies allocated, another $90,000 was directed to be spent for heating, power, the altars, pews and all furnishings inside the church. That amount included $600 spent on sets of curtains for the four confessionals, the material was ordered from a Boston company.
The cornerstone was laid in October of 1927 in the presence of many local dignitaries. By Christmas of 1928, the church was close enough to completion to celebrate Mass. So imposing was its interior, with its soaring neo-Gothic nave, its vaulted ceilings and majestic pillars, that one former curate, Reverend Peter Timmins, has called it ” the nicest piece of (religious) architecture in Montreal.”
The neo-gothic style was enhanced by the three lancet windows north of the nave – The Crucifixion.
The three lancet windows situated behind the altar and the Sanctuary depict the Ascension of Our Lord.
Both of these magnificent stained glass windows were created by Earl Edward Sanborn of Boston Massachusetts in January 1930, just as the Great Depression hit the world.
For the next ten years the depression took it’s toll, and eventually more financing was needed to shoulder the increasing debt load as many families lost everything.
A wedding ceremony celebrated in the sacristy.
Fortunately for Ascension Parish, Father McDonagh surprised many with his able stewardship of the Ascension’s affairs, both spiritual and temporal.
In the circumstances, it was understandable that “Father Mac” would fasten a keen eye on the cash flow. Once, when a mink-coated dowager put a nickel on his collection plate, he gave it back to her – with a withering stare.
By the end of the second world war, the debt was sufficiently under control (it would finally be paid off in 1974) that Father Mcdonagh opened a $150,000 fund for a new rectory. Considered by many as an attractive but impractical white elephant (“too big for the residents, too small for a church hall”), it was completed just months before Monsignor McDonagh’s death in 1954.
Another milestone in Ascension Parish history was the blessing by Archbishop Joseph Charbonneau in 1947 of it’s beautiful memorial chapel. The celebration took place in the presence of many dignitaries including Prime Minister MacKenzie King. The four memorial plaques are of stone drawn from Caen, scene of bitter Canadian fighting in France during World War II.
Between 1941 and 1944, parishioners made donations dedicated to family members to be installed along the east and west sides of the church. Toronto glass makers Yvonne Williams and Ester Johnson were commissioned to make seven of those memorial windows. Another family commissioned C.W. Kelsey of Westmount.
The six icons situated above the main altar were painted by Frank H. Schwarz of New York. He was also commissioned to paint the Stations of the Cross.
The three icons represent from left to right:
Saint George, for England.
Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque,
a French nun and mystic, with a great devotion to the Sacred Heart
who was canonized in 1920.
Saint Patrick, for Ireland.
The three icons represent from left to right:
Saint John the Baptist, for Quebec.
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux
or more properly Sainte Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus et de la Sainte Face, was a nun who was canonized in 1925 and is recognized as a Doctor of the Church.
Saint Andrew, for Scotland.
In 1960, stained glass for the final two sets of large lancet windows were commissioned.
Those windows were made by Vincent Poggi of Montreal.
Those on the west side represent Christ, in tones of purples and blues to recall the Scottish faith were donated by the Murphy family of Westmount.
On the east side, panels representing the Virgin Mary in the tones of greens, to recall the Irish devotions were donated by the McCauley family of Westmount.
The remaining windows near the ceiling of the church had amber-colored glass installed in 1960. They produce a warm glow throughout the church when the afternoon sunlight suffuses the interior with a warm golden hue.
In November of 1969, as St Ann’s church was closing down, the parish acquired its baptismal font, originally presented to St. Ann’s by Mary Winnifred Phelan in memory of her parents.
Monsignor McDonagh was succeeded in 1955 by Msgr. Edward Lapointe. A shy, quiet-spoken man, he kept the parish on an even keel at a time when Quebec was bubbling with social ferment. He retired in 1970.
Like Msgr. McDonagh, Msgr. Lapointe too was fortunate in his curates: the late and much lamented Neil Willard, who became a tireless Auxiliary bishop and Chancellor of the Archidocese of Montreal; and his classmate, Peter Timmins, whose grandfather, ironically, had turned thumbs down on the Ascension in 1926, and stayed at St.Leon.
Reverend Timmins & Jacqueline Kennedy
at Ascension of Our Lord.
Msgr. Lapointe’s successor was Reverend Richard Griffin. The St. Leo’s academy grade five class photo on the left was taken with the Ascension Church in the background where he served as an altar boy.
It was Reverend Father Griffin’s lot to be named Pastor in the same year as the October Crisis, when everybody in the world seemed to be in revolt against something, including the Catholic church. As it turned out, Father Griffin was just the man Ascension parish needed for that tumultuous period.
In 1979 the board of the Fabrique agreed that the parish should sponsor two families of “boat people” from Viet Nam, it was a major project which continued for several years, until all the members of the families were settled.
1996 was the year the whole parish got together to celebrate Father Griffin’s 35th anniversary of ordination and the parish’s 70th anniversary.
A 1946 graduate of St Leo’s Academy next door, he had the advantage of knowing many of the wardens and parishioners, let alone the peculiar ethos of Westmount in general.
With a sunny disposition and rollicking sense of humour, yet unpretentious and humble, he could nevertheless be as immovable as the pillars of Ascension Church when he felt he was right. Early in his tenure, he was challenged by some of the wardens for supporting, from the pulpit, a boycott of a local supermarket chain organized by the United Farm Workers of America over starvation wages being paid to migrant workers.
He reminded them that the cause was being backed by most of the bishops of North Amercia and, anyway, the morality of the issue was such that he was bound in conscience to speak up. Case closed.
In a period of declining vocations, Father Griffin seldom was able to enjoy the luxury of a curate, although there was a procession of clerics who came to help out. One of these was Father John Purcell, a retired priest who came around to help out and stayed for 23 years, his last “Curate”.
“Just a grand person to be around” Father Griffin would say of his friend.
Father Griffin’s proudest moment came in 1987 when he launched a $500,000 Church Restoration drive and reached the objective in three months! This allowed for a total overhaul of the Ascension, everything from the ceilings right down to the sidewalks. Typically, not a frill was added, only the church’s timeless elegance reinforced.
Father Griffin gave much of the credit for the success of the drive to two old friends: John Heney, an accomplished fund-raiser, and the late Bill Brown, an indefatibable workhorse who led the team and made one of the biggest donations himself.
As with his predecessors, Father Griffin had been blessed with superb support over the years from involved parishioners and strong personalities on the board of wardens. When he became ill in 2001 it was Father Griffin’s wish to stay on as pastor. The parish drew together to support their Church and their pastor. As was his wish, he died “in harness” in October 2002.
Much has changed since Ascension celebrated its first Mass, especially since the 1970’s: the rising tide of multiculturalism, the exodus of Anglos, the decline of church attendance and the relentless pressure of secularism have diminished the number of Catholic families in the parish from 2,000 to 400. But, church regulars, alluding vaguely to the parable of “the sheep and the goats”, stress that the ones who practice their faith today are more devout than the ones who reacted reflexively a generation ago to the dictates of Catholicism.
So Ascension prevails, seemingly impervious to the ill winds continuously pounding againts its message – a lasting monument to the stability and consistency of the devoted people who have run it from the outset.
In 2003 Father Peter Laviolette was appointed to take the helm of Ascension parish. He was instrumental in bringing many young families to join our community.
Our religious instruction program, which had only a dozen children a few years ago, is now vibrant with more than 150 children participating.
Father Laviolette retired in September 2009. Msgr. Sean Harty and Fr. Patrick Donnelly have replaced him as Parochial Administrator and Parochial Assistant.