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Historic Bon-Pasteur monastery in downtown Montreal catches fire

Firefighters respond to a five-alarm fire at the former Monastere du Bon Pasteur, a 19th-century heritage building, on Friday, May 26, 2023 in Montreal.  (Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Firefighters respond to a five-alarm fire at the former Monastere du Bon Pasteur, a 19th-century heritage building, on Friday, May 26, 2023 in Montreal. (Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Read the latest on this developing story here.

The Monastère du Bon-Pasteur, a monastery in Montreal that dates back nearly two centuries, caught fire on Thursday and firefighters continued to battle the fire on Friday morning.

A spokesperson for Montreal's fire service says emergency services were called Thursday at around 4:30 p.m. More than 100 firefighters were called to the scene.

The five-alarm fire is mainly burning in the roof but it is difficult to fight because of the size and complexity of the building, Émilie Barbeau-Charlevoix, a spokesperson for the Montreal fire department, said in an interview.

An Urgences-Santé spokesperson said two people were treated for minor injuries, a firefighter and a man in his 80s, who was found overnight in a part of the building that was not on fire. He was suffering from hypothermia, according to Barbeau-Charlevoix.

It's not clear yet how extensive the damage will be to the monastery, but the fire department said they believe the building will not be a total loss.

Smoke could still be seen from around the city on Friday morning. The historic building is located on Sherbrooke Street between de Bullion and St-Dominique streets.

WATCH | Watch crews work to extinguish the fire:

Environment Canada issued a special air quality statement, warning of increased pollution in Montreal because of the smoke.

"Individuals may experience symptoms such as increased coughing, throat irritation, headaches or shortness of breath," the agency's statement said.

"Children, seniors, and those with cardiovascular or lung disease, such as asthma, are especially at risk. People with lung diseases, such as asthma and COPD, can be particularly sensitive to air pollution."

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante urged people to avoid the area on Twitter. "It is still too early to see the damage to the precious heritage building," she said.

The monastery was built in 1846. The freestone building has a central body that is crossed by three perpendicular wings. A presbytery was added in 1896.

It was built to accommodate the activities of the sisters of Notre-Dame du Bon-Pasteur d'Angers. According to Héritage Montréal, the monastery, like McGill University a little further west, was among the first public institutions established along Sherbrooke Street. Héritage Montréal also has its offices in the building.

The monastery retained its religious vocation until the 1960s.

Benoit Gagnon/Radio-Canada
Benoit Gagnon/Radio-Canada

It was designated a heritage building in 1979. It was then acquired in 1984 by the Société immobilière du patrimoine architectural de Montréal (SIMPA).

The monastery now serves as a multi-service centre that includes a seniors' residence, a housing co-operative, a daycare and condominiums. About 20 people are being cared for by the Canadian Red Cross.

Héritage Montréal spokesperson Anthony Payá said organization employees were in the building when everybody inside was ordered to clear out.

"A lot of smoke. We saw the firemen coming," he said. "We feel very sad because at Héritage Montréal we work with heritage every day and we see buildings on fire, like the one in Old Montreal, every week."

Watching the very building they work in catch on fire is a tragedy, he said.

Eileen MacKinnon lives in the building. She said she was shopping when she saw smoke coming out of the centre of the structure, and then it travelled along the roof.

Sharon Yonan-Renold/CBC
Sharon Yonan-Renold/CBC

"Now it has spread and it is coming out the main vents," she said on Thursday, indicating the fire appeared to be working its way over to some of the residential units.

She said it is sad to see the historic building damaged. It's a lively space, she said, with music in the chapel regularly and an art gallery.

"There are no words," MacKinnon said.