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History of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges

The Founding of Canada's Largest Cemetery

In the 19th century, most cemeteries were built next to churches to allow the faithful to pray for the deceased. One of the city’s first cemeteries was located near Notre-Dame Church (now basilica). In 1799, for hygiene and space reasons, La Fabrique de la paroisse Notre-Dame de Montréal closed this cemetery and inaugurated the new Saint-Antoine Cemetery at what is now Dorchester Square. However, in 1853, the council of the city of Montréal passed a bylaw prohibiting burials within the city limits, forcing another move.

In 1854, La Fabrique de la paroisse Notre-Dame de Montréal bought a piece of land on Mount Royal in Côte-des-Neiges from Dr. Beaubien.

The first burial in Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery was on May 29, 1855, a 35-year-old Irish woman named Jane Gilroy.

The Catholic cemetery, Cote des Neiges, Montreal, QC, about 1910 Image credit : Notman Collection, McCord Museum

Landscaping

Influential architects

Inspired by the design of the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, the first Notre-Dame-des-Neiges architects sought to strike a balance between classical styles and honouring nature. It is a romantic monumental cemetery with tree-lined paths, designed by two influential architects.

Henri-Maurice Perrault drew up the plans and laid out the winding, irregular paths that give the cemetery its romantic atmosphere. Perrault was the nephew of John Ostell, Montréal’s most famous architect of the time. Ostell designed the cemetery’s first buildings, including the charnel house (now the Sainte-Claire d’Assisi Mausoleum), the chapel and the present administrative pavilion in 1877-78.

Another renowned architect left his mark there as well: Victor Bourgeau, who contributed to the construction of the original monumental gate on Côte-des-Neiges Road (it was modified in 1926) and to the construction of the two adjoining houses. Bourgeau is also known for his magnificent work inside the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montréal.

A cemetery on the mountain

In addition to the size of the site, there is a symbolic importance to being on a mountain. In Catholicism, it gives hope of the promised resurrection. In the middle of nature, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges offers an atmosphere for quietude, meditation and contemplation.

The landscape that makes up the cemetery is complex and can be divided into three distinct areas:

The plain: the main entrance on Côte-des-Neiges Road is laid out on an axis, as is typical of Catholic cemeteries. It features a central cross with two golden angels on either side over an oval area surrounded by trees. This axis extends to the imposing façade of the cemetery’s first charnel house (now the Sainte-Claire d’Assise Mausoleum).

The plateau: at the top of the slope at the edge of the plain is the second zone, laid out in a rectilinear pattern. This is where the Notre-Dame-de-la-Résurrection Chapel and administrative pavilion can be found. The arrangement of rows of trees along the roadside is in keeping with the tradition of monumental cemeteries. The plateau also rises to the high points of Outremont and Montréal.

The summit: it is characterized by a typical New France design, a Way of the Cross leading up to a Calvary, which many historians of the time have likened to the sacred mountain, a metaphor for the Christian soul seeking to get closer to God.

Essential buildings, a ceremonial welcome

During the first 50 years after the cemetery’s founding, the original routes and sections were laid out and essential buildings such as Notre-Dame-de-la-Résurrection Chapel and the administrative pavilion were constructed. From 1875 to 1900, the development of society and of the city was reflected in the sections created and reserved for certain cultural communities and in the construction of majestic monuments. 

The cemetery’s original entrance gate was replaced by Victor Bourgeau’s monumental gate. It was built entirely of stone, but deteriorated and was partly demolished in 1926.  It was only in 1998 that the current gate was installed, according to the plans of Faucher Aubertin Brodeur Gauthier Architectes, complete with a metal arch.

In the decades that followed, the construction of mausoleums shaped the landscape, as did the 1994 transformation of the first charnel house into the Sainte-Claire-d’Assise Mausoleum. This area is named Commemoration Place and has a pond out front to welcome visitors at its prominent location in the axis of the main entrance. Including water in the design of Commemoration Place is not insignificant. Like the mountain, the significance of water in Christianity is important: it symbolizes eternal life. 

Welcoming cultural communities

The waves of immigration that began in the second half of the 19th century required cemeteries to adapt and, of course, provide a proper welcome. Notre-Dame-des-Neiges has been open to different Christian communities since its foundation.

Demographic changes in Montréal have led to the creation of sections in the cemetery for communities wishing to be together in their final resting place. The first section, created in 1894, was for the Union Nationale Française, followed by one for the Chinese Catholic Mission in 1917. Today there are sections for Japanese, Ukrainian, Polish, Italian, Portuguese, Serbian and other communities.

These groups have brought their own aesthetic to these sections, bringing about one of the cemetery’s distinctive features. 

Other interest groups also decided to come together and highlight their social impact, including the Firefighters Association, the Union des Artistes, the Catholic Sailors’ Club and the Canadian Army.

Famous Individuals

Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery is home to nearly one million deceased, including many who have left their mark on our society’s history in the arts, sciences, politics, history, architecture and business.

Here are a few names you’ll probably recognize:

In politics

About 20 Montréal mayors are buried here, including Camillien Houde, Jean Drapeau and the Honourable Alphonse Desjardins. There are also monuments to feminist activist and professor Idola Saint-Jean, Fathers of Confederation Sir George-Étienne Cartier and Thomas d’Arcy McGee, senator and first female party leader Thérèse Casgrain, Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, and many others.

From the arts community

Many individuals from the art world are buried at Notre-Dame-des-Neiges: Quebec’s first singer-songwriter, Mary “La Bolduc” Travers, author Emile Ollivier, actress and co-founder of the Théâtre du Rideau Vert Yvette Brind’amour, painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, organist Françoise Aubut-Pratte, poet Émile Nelligan, sculptor Sylvia Daoust, playwright Gratien Gélinas, impresario René Angélil, writer Alice Parizeau, opera singer Joseph Rouleau, and many others, mostly near the Union des Artistes (UDA) monument.

From the world of sports

Among the sports figures who chose Notre-Dame-des-Neiges for their final resting place were hockey player Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, Montréal Canadiens co-owner Léo Dandurand, professional wrestler Jean “Johnny” Rougeau and radio host René Lecavalie.

To learn more about the remarkable individuals buried at Notre-Dame-des-Neiges and their places of burial, the Répertoire des personnages inhumés au Cimetière ayant marqué l’histoire de notre société (French only) can be purchased at the administrative pavilion for $5.


Door of the private mausoleum of Thomas d'Arcy McGee Image credit : Armour Landry

Artistic and Architectural Heritage

Founded in 1854 and inaugurated in 1855, the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery contains heritage treasures that have been granted different statuses by the municipal, provincial and federal governments.

Funerary monuments are actual stone archives, many of which have gone down in history, such as the Monument aux Patriotes. The numerous works of art in the mausoleums are also important elements of religious and artistic heritage.

Several historic buildings, such as the administrative pavilion, the Notre-Dame-de-la-Résurrection Chapel and the Simon-Lacombe House, attract visitors with their unique character and are undeniably important parts of our heritage.

Many Quebec artists have endowed the cemetery with remarkable monuments. Carved in marble or granite, they served a common goal: remembering. The cemetery acquired exceptional monuments from the 1880s to the economic crisis of 1929. 

Bronzes, ornaments, engravings, mosaics, busts and more. The variety of works and their components is quite impressive. This includes the contributions of exceptional artists, such as sculptors Louis-Philippe Hébert, Henri Hébert and Émile Brunet, who has roughly 30 works in the cemetery.

  • Commemoration
  • Funeral Prearrangements
  • Interment and burial
  • Interment in a crypt or columbarium
  • Funerals and Ceremonies
  • Cremation
  • Eco-Friendly Options
Commemoration

Because we know that your loved ones are not forgotten, we offer several memorial services and items to honor their memory.

Funeral Prearrangements

Funeral prearrangements allow you to plan your final wishes while you are alive, and to ensure that they are respected at the time of your death.

Interment and burial

Thanks to its exceptional location on Mount Royal, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery has a large surface area that allows it to offer many plots even today.

Interment in a crypt or columbarium

Interment in a columbarium allows the insertion of an urn in a niche; burial in a crypt allows the insertion of a coffin in a dedicated space in a mausoleum.

Funerals and Ceremonies

Arrange a religious or secular funeral on site, accompanied by very talented professional musicians to mark these important and emotional moments.

Cremation

Cremation is now chosen by nearly 75% of Quebecers. There are many reasons to choose this option, including its simplicity and the possibilities it offers.

Eco-Friendly Options

Inspired by the nature of Mount Royal, we have developed eco-friendly options to allow people to make their final gesture kind to the planet.