Design

Campanile church in Alta Vista now sits like a ghost town, its future uncertain

Tim Murray carefully climbs the stairs in an abandoned church he designed more than 50 years ago on what were, in the 1960s, farm fields on the outskirts of Ottawa. The church was the centrepiece of Murray’s largest commission to date — a convent and education centre on Heron Road that included a dozen interconnected buildings situated around a series of courtyards. The church had to be modern, full of light, and functional, he says. Between measured steps, he talks about the quality New England clay bricks he had convinced the nuns to purchase after a trip they all made to Boston to share a lesson in architecture. He used to do that with clients sometimes. They’d return all speaking the same language.

Photography: Marc Fowler
Photography: Marc Fowler

We arrive at the musty main entrance where the centre aisle of the sanctuary would have been. The late Gerald Trottier’s exquisite bronze sculpture that, to me, looks like a tangle of doves ascending, still hangs beneath the sky-lit apex. But Trottier called it Manna From Heaven or, as Murray explained, “blessings coming down.” That’s art for you — mutable. Manna is surrounded by a pyramidal concrete enclosure poured continuously, on Murray’s direction, for about 36 hours. Fifty-two years later, it’s still fairly smooth. Along the right and left walls are lattice-brick corridors Murray designed so that nuns late for mass could slip silently from their private quarters and enter from the back of the church, unheralded.

The sisters were human, he says. They deserved mercy.

Famed architect, Tim Murray. Photography: Marc Fowler
Famed architect, Tim Murray. Photography: Marc Fowler

But everything changed when the nuns left. The church became a cocktail lounge. Murray sits at a cocktail table where the pews used to be and combs his windblown grey hair with his fingers, taking inventory of what has changed. The parquet floor is littered with straws and mouse feces. There’s a dartboard where the pipe organ was, and the altar is now a bar, which is funny if you’re Irish Catholic, which we both are (or were). The perimeter of the roof once had a glass soffit that collected rainwater; as light passed through, it would reflect through the glass above and shine inside the church. It was one of Murray’s favourite design elements.

Campanile's main entrance with Gerald Trottier's sculpture, Manna From Heaven. Photography: Marc Fowler
Campanile’s main entrance with Gerald Trottier’s sculpture, Manna From Heaven. Photography: Marc Fowler

“The angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection,” he says. He explains: the angle at which the sun’s rays hit the water would be duplicated in reverse, and if the breeze moved the water, the light would dance on the ceiling opposite, a mysterious natural phenomenon you could never predict. It was designed “to connect the average joe to the spiritual realm,” Murray says. “I stole the idea from a famous architect named Saarinen.” But the soffit is full of stones now, and a wide second-floor mezzanine — added by the new owners years later to increase seating capacity — obscures most of the natural light and makes the place feel gloomy.

Gerald Trottier's sculpture, Manna From Heaven. Photography: Marc Fowler
Gerald Trottier’s sculpture, Manna From Heaven. Photography: Marc Fowler

“If you live long enough, you see what happens to some buildings that you’ve done,” says Murray, who, with his late brother Patrick, launched an architectural dynasty in Ottawa with Murray and Murray Associates. “It rooted something in us.”

Photography: Marc Fowler
Photography: Marc Fowler

I’d been curious about the church and the rest of the campus since stumbling upon it in winter a couple of years ago. It’s only three blocks from my home and across from a community centre I’d frequented. Set back from the road and tucked into greenspace, it had been invisible to me for years. I returned in summer, peering through windows, trying to figure out what the buildings were and why they’d been abandoned. The space was silent and empty, elaborate and puzzling. Its story turned out to be archetypical Ottawa: a brief, mirthful genesis and then 40 years of federal government occupation.
Designed in 1963 for the Sisters of the Congregation de Notre Dame (CND), a religious order founded in 1658, and built by M. Sullivan and Son of Arnprior, the distinctive, copper-sombrero-roofed church is part of a 21-acre campus on Heron Road, just east of Alta Vista Drive. It cost about $4 million in the 1960s and included Catholic high schools for girls and boys, residences for nuns and novitiates (nuns in training), as well as a theatre, gymnasium, and cafeteria, all connected by glassed walkways and underground tunnels. The nuns honoured Murray by calling the place “Campanile” for the belfry in the central courtyard, a piece of urban furniture Murray was fond of sneaking into commissions.

Photography: Marc Fowler
Photography: Marc Fowler

Campanile replaced the 19th-century convent and boarding school on Gloucester Street that the sisters had occupied for nearly 100 years. Campanile was a modern, purpose-built space for learning, worship, and meditation. But Ontario didn’t yet fund Grades 11 to 13 in Catholic schools, and private tuitions had to cover the many lay teachers’ salaries, as well as convent operations. And it was the 1960s: fewer women were becoming nuns. By all accounts, money was tight. Only eight years after they moved in, the sisters sold it. Murray was devastated when he heard. “It was an abysmal failure for the poor people,” he said. “It was so sad. They loved it.”

 The lattice-brick pattern of the hallways leading to the sanctuary allowed nuns late to mass to arrive unnoticed. Photography: Marc Fowler
The lattice-brick pattern of the hallways leading to the sanctuary allowed nuns late to mass to arrive unnoticed. Photography: Marc Fowler

During a period of infrastructure expansion in the mid-1970s, the federal government bought the campus, and for the next 40 years, Campanile was known as the Federal Study Centre, complete with on-site lounge. The Canadian Emergency Management College ran courses there until 2012 when the feds declared it surplus. It has been vacant ever since, except for a small part used by St. Patrick’s Intermediate School next door. It will soon be in the hands of the Canada Lands Corporation, which plans to sell it.

“It was just a lovely, lovely space,” says Sister Rosemary Brosseau, a CND spiritual director in Kingston who, at 77, gives massages to homeless people in her spare time. “It was a wonderful dream come true and it didn’t last all that long, but it was part of a renewing of new life. … When I think of it, I think of so much laughter.”

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Photography: Marc Fowler
Photography: Marc Fowler

The Maniwaki-born Brosseau taught Grade 9 and 10 math, science, and religion at the campus in 1965 and again from 1970 to 1973. She remembers the light from the roof water on the church ceiling and how tranquil it was to watch cows grazing from her sixth-floor residence. She remembers a sister’s sister getting married at the church and students putting on plays in the quaint 300-seat theatre. And she remembers discussions among the superior nuns on how to keep the place going.

Brosseau’s brief time at Campanile was transformative, but she’s not nostalgic. “The memories stay, no matter if it’s there or not,” she says. Some young CND alumni, herself included, took posts abroad after Campanile, teaching and helping the poor. Campanile was like an incubator. “It captured a spirit of community and a spirit of joy,” she says. “It rooted something in us. And then we took flight.”

Among the church’s many features is a 300-seat theatre where Sister Rosemary Brosseau recalls hosting plays. Photography: Marc Fowler
Among the church’s many features is a 300-seat theatre where Sister Rosemary Brosseau recalls hosting plays. Photography: Marc Fowler

Architecture: A social art

Murray, too, took flight after Campanile. He was 33 when he designed the campus under the direction of the CND’s Sister St. David, whom he grew to respect and admire. She died in 2015. Murray would later design commercial and institutional buildings around the world as well as in Ottawa — the former city hall on Sussex Drive, the Elgin Street courthouse, and buildings at Carleton and Ottawa universities. He was the architect of record for the Canadian Tire Centre — fortuitous because Murray, a hockey fan, says he noticed on the initial drawings that the American architect hired to come up with the concept had forgotten the Zamboni garage. At one time, he and his brother employed more than 80 people in Canada, Africa, and Britain. But in the 1960s, Murray was just an ambitious young expat.

A Dublin-born Catholic artist, pianist, and rugby player with degrees in architecture and urban planning, Murray is a teller of tales — not all printable. Despite half a century in Canada, an Irish lilt lingers in every “Know what I mean?” and “Don’t quote me on that,” both of which punctuate stories during conversations that span decades, continents, and philosophies in his Rockcliffe home office. The shag-carpeted space is crowded with books, newspaper clippings, file folders, toy trucks, sharpened pencils, a telephone from the 1980s, and photos of him with star-chitect Moshe Safdie and British football icon Sir Stanley Matthews. When we sit at his original Murray and Murray drafting table to look at old photos, he grabs a pencil, maybe out of habit or maybe because he might have to draw something, which he often does because he speaks in shapes sometimes.

Tim Murray looking up at Gerald Trottier's sculpture, Manna From Heaven. Photography: Marc Fowler
Tim Murray looking up at Gerald Trottier’s sculpture, Manna From Heaven. Photography: Marc Fowler

Murray has three children, two of whom became architects. His architect daughter married an architect, and the in-laws are both architects. Murray’s architect brother Patrick had an architect brother-in-law. It’s in the blood. So what makes a good architect? Knowing things about space and human nature, he says. But good architects have to be keen observers and listeners — salespeople, in other words. He says it with pride. They have to take a client’s vision, mesh it with their own, and then sell it back to the client, with diplomacy and persuasion.

Murray is analog. He still gives directions to places and spells out names as though it’s pre-Internet. (The CND sisters have a Twitter account, but he hasn’t seen it.) Murray worked until he was 75. He travelled the world and loved what he did because, he says, clients of architects are full of optimism and ideas. Different from those of a dentist, he says.

“Architects do tend to have a broader horizon in terms of what they observe because it really is a social art — the environment, how people behave. Just like playing with the water in the church, you’re trying to make a connection that’s beyond them, know what I mean?”

In 2005, the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office formally recognized the Federal Study Centre for its “architectural and environmental values.” It’s unfortunate they didn’t recognize it as Campanile, which sounds better. The woman who called Murray to deliver the good news said it was refreshing in her line of work to find an architect who was, well, still alive.

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Famed architect, Tim Murray, walking with writer Lisa Gregoire. Photography: Marc Fowler
Famed architect, Tim Murray, walking with writer Lisa Gregoire. Photography: Marc Fowler

The recognition likely won’t save Campanile, but the “heritage characteristics of the buildings must be considered as part of any proposed redevelopment,” notes Public Services and Procurement Canada. What that means, in practical terms, is uncertain. Time will tell who shows an interest and what the City of Ottawa allows. Until then, a little ghost town, including an intact and fully functioning theatre, lies fallow on the edge of central Ottawa, its history long forgotten.

Thousands of people drive by daily and most probably don’t know it’s there. In the sweat of summer, between infrequent lawn-mowing, Campanile’s sunken planters, intimate courtyards, and clinker-brick facades are commandeered by cicadas and tree-sized thistles. Teenagers smoke pot in the private nooks where nuns once prayed.

Murray glances around Campanile’s church/bar, glasses smudged, lips parted, knowing this could be the last time he sees it. “Feels like a time warp,” he says. We stroll around. When asked if he would have changed anything, he nods to his new walker. “I would have put in more ramps,” he says. He pulls a camera from his pocket and snaps a few photos. We talk about what he would do if Sister St. David were here today. “I’d give her a big kiss,” he says with a laugh. “On the cheek, of course.”