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Un Paradis sans pommiers: Le jardin des Soeurs Grises

On June 3rd, 2016, we welcomed visitors to an ‘evening of enchantment’ in the former working gardens of the Grey Nuns Motherhouse, located in downtown Montréal, Québec.

All photographs above taken by Jin Kim.

For 135 years, the Grey Nuns or “Soeurs Grises” lived in this convent, caring for the sick and the destitute, feeding and sheltering orphans and the unhoused, and helping many people with no resources of their own. At one point, 1000 residents – mostly women – lived in this building. These working gardens were an important source of food, and were thus a living part of the community’s knowledge and culture of organized giving and care.

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Grey Nuns working in the garden of the Motherhouse beside the “kiosque” (1930). Photograph # AGSM L082_7Y11C. Courtesy of the Sisters of Charity/Grey Nuns Archives, Montréal.

Today this garden belongs to Concordia University, but unlike the convent on the property it is neither recognized nor preserved as a site of women’s heritage. The Association of Critical Heritage Studies conference (3-8 June 2016) provided an opportunity to ask how artists might make aspects of the site’s heritage tangible and visible.

For one evening, visitors were invited to enter this garden, which had never before been open to the public. Twelve site-responsive art installations and performances engaged with the history of the garden as a gendered space and site of women’s knowledge, as well as the fact that the Motherhouse to this day occupies unceded, Indigenous land.

The artworks ranged from lanterns that literally illuminated parts of the garden’s past, via historic photographs from the Grey Nuns archives, to the creation of ‘medicinal cocktails’ – tinctures steeped from plants that the nuns would have once grown on this land. Other artists took a more performative approach, exploring earth, water, and the ground of the garden itself to reach into its embodied histories of work, gender, and political occupation.

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Shauna Janssen (left) and Cynthia Hammond (right) testing the installation of Marisa Portolese’s large-format photograph titled Girls. Photo: Marisa Portolese

The title, ‘Un Paradis sans pommiers’ is taken from an interview with Sister Rose-Alma Lemire on April 21, 2016. She wrote a text about the meaning, for her, of the garden as a young novice and later as a nun living in the Motherhouse. We thank Phil Lichti, who led the interview, for sharing Sister Lemire’s words with us and inspiring several works in the exhibition. We also thank Concordia University’s Office of Research for supporting the project, and Dr Steven High for encouraging art and public curation as critical means to understanding heritage.

Erin Weisgerber’s thoughtful and elegant video documenting the event and artworks:


Credits: Cynthia Hammond & Shauna Janssen co-curated this event.

Artists: Liselyn Adams, Caroline Alexander, Sophia Borowska, Carmela Cucuzzella, Gabrielle Desrosiers, Jill Didur, pk langshaw, Phil Lichti, Satya Miller, Marisa Portolese, Mathilde Rohr, Corinne Spitalier, Swintak, Linda Swanson, Kelly Thompson, Angelique Willkie

Assistants and performers: Vanessa Ascher, Antoine Bensoussan, Micheline Chevrier, Jeffery Chong, Rihab Essayh, Sanaz Sunnie Hassanpour, Agustina Isidori, Raphaelle
Garcia, Jin Kim, Misca Birklein Lagasse, Ariane Legault, Hannah Materne, Kris Miller, Lauren Osmond, Andrea Pena, Anne-Flore de Rochambeau

Special thanks to: Micheline Chevrier, Jason Levy, Anna Waclawek