26 Jul 2022

Time 11 minutes

7 Unabridged Stories of Old Montreal and Other Anecdotes

7 Unabridged Stories of Old Montreal and Other Anecdotes

Both on stage or waiting in the wings, Old Montreal is a district brimming with anecdotes and history that can be found outside of tours and behind closed doors, ready to reveal itself through unabridged anecdotes. We asked some of our Gens du Vieux to share their secrets with us that have been passed down or that they have seen on these streets and buildings.

Pierre and the Secret of the Diamonds

Once there was a great treasure hunt. This was not a hunt for pirate treasure, but one involving a guide’s help, who gives you historical context as the true treasure! Pierre Tomaszewski, Montreal tour guide with Guidatour, is one of the few that knows the historic neighbourhood like an old friend, yet even he was surprised when his other colleagues started talking to him about diamonds. So he started looking… and found them!

“After much research, I found the work of Alexis the Diamond Merchant and his artistic method which he used in many cities, including Montreal. It’s always gratifying and a true honour to have one or more works from an artist who has decorated your city or neighbourhood. What’s more, his method works so well with the history built here.” And for Pierre, this history has been the main contributor to his love for the city, which has given him this second career. “I have been a tour guide for Montreal since 2016 after mandatory training at the ITHQ and optional training at UQAM with a minor in urban history. As a kid, my parents would always frequent downtown and Old Montreal religiously, and from then on I’ve always loved this area. Finally, after a career in industry, the thought of being peoples’ guiding star fulfilled me.”

So, do you also want to know where the diamonds are? Pierre has shared his list with us, but we will only reveal 3 of the 10 that are in le Vieux:

  • one diamond is hiding on Cours Le Royer in the East Gate

  • another adorns Pub St-Pierre (on the north wall)

  • a third is on St-François-Xavier Street near the parking lot (south of St-Sacrement)

Do you know where the others are? If not, ask Pierre at Guidatour, proud guide and enthusiastic storyteller of his favourite city, like many of his colleagues in the Professional Association of Montreal Tour Guides!

Eda and the Phantom of the Theatre

In 2017, when she took over the Centaur Theatre on St-François-Xavier Street, Eda Holmes, fresh to the post, never thought she would have to live with… a ghost in the building! “It’s true! We have a ghost, and our facilities manager, Layne Shutt, had a direct encounter with it. It seemed to be a man haunting the basement. One evening, Layne told me that he made sure to lock all the dressing room doors after a show. That’s when he heard something, and when he came back… all the doors were wide open!” Eda recalls.

“The 122 year old building sits where the old Stock Exchange used to be, so we have deduced that it must be the ghost of a trader from back in the day.” But far from frightening her, Eda decided to take the bull by the horns and the spirit by the feelings. “In order to honour the ghost, I commissioned Michaela Di Cesare to write a play that we could show in the basement that would directly feature the ghosts of Centaur. She created an absolutely exquisite play that ends, of course, with the lamentations of our ghostly trader, fallen and in despair at having dedicated his life to money. We presented the play during the gala organized for the 50th anniversary of Centaur in 2018. The guests enjoyed this trip to the basement and into the past of our institution!” Eda warmly remembers.

Was the ghost touched by her attention? …Well in any case, Eda is still there!

Line and the Divine Concert at the Chapel

Line is a Montreal native, cultured and impassioned by art, literature, music, and history, and is the communications and marketing director at the Marguerite Bourgeoys Historic Site. In other words, stories and anecdotes from le Vieux is kind of her thing! “There is one concert in particular, however, that struck me,” she confides. “The magnificent Rufus Wainwright concert with his sister Martha, played in homage to Canadian composers like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. It was very emotional to hear Rufus’ magnificent interpretation of “Suzanne”, and be right in the place that inspired Leonard Cohen to write the lyrics of this song.”

We also really wanted to see this concert and the interpretation delivered in the oldest chapel in Old Montreal - so we found a video on Youtube! “For the story,” Line reminisces. “It was around 40 degrees in the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours chapel that day!” The concert was part of the festivities highlighting the 375th anniversary of Montreal.

But to our heroine’s great surprise, the adventure with this singer didn’t end there! “After the concert, Rufus’ agency in Los Angeles invited me to come on stage during a show he was putting on at the Place des Arts with his friends and family members, to sing one of his favourite songs. They were celebrating 25 years of his career. What an opportunity that was!” When you think of le Vieux, these are the kind of improbable yet very real encounters you might have…

Claire and the American Upper Crust

“Our sales receipts tell some amazing stories,” Claire tells us. She has been a bookseller for many years at Bertrand Bookstore, which has just celebrated 70 years in business!

“The door opens and the bell rings, letting us know that a new customer had just entered. I was in the middle of working in the offices that take up the open space in the back of our store. Sitting in front of my computer, I saw a gentleman with broad shoulders, dressed in a black suit, wearing an earpiece, crossing his arms, and bearing a serious expression on his face. He stood planted across from me, in front of the swinging doors to the bookstore. He stayed there, fixed, observing the office and his surroundings. Thinking that he might be a customer, I asked if I could help him. He replied “No.” But he continued to stand there.”

Like us, you might be thinking that this is like the start of a suspense novel opening up in Old Montreal, but just wait till you hear the end… Claire then “snuck discreetly through the closed office to the window, which gave a good view of the bookstore. I watched my coworker Élise at the till, while four other men in suits stood posted at different strategic points in the bookstore. I would learn later that they told Élise not to worry about them, and as I looked through the middle of the aisles, I saw a head of gray hair, then as I saw the profile… I recognized him as Bill Clinton!” Aha! We bet you weren’t expecting that. Bill Clinton in the neighbourhood bookstore with bodyguards in tow… a scene right out of a summer blockbuster. So what was the former American president reading? “He was taking his time making some purchases; his basket included some books for his grandchildren, a book of poetry by Leonard Cohen, a political thriller, and even a history book on Canada! We’ve kept his sales receipt to this very day - proof of his trip through our bookstore!”

“Sometime after that, we were also visited by Owen Wilson and our coworker Anita was the one to receive him. That worked out perfectly, as she’s a big movie buff, and happened to be a big fan of his. She told me about having recognised him by his voice, before she even set eyes on him. And then(…)” If you want to hear the pulse-pounding finale of this story, you should drop by and see your booksellers to learn the details of this absolutely Hollywoodian tale…

Justine and the Enchanted Dress

Justine Dewavrin, owner of Dream It Yourself has always had her fellow human first and foremost in mind. Her cute boutique, which is entirely dedicated to the institution of marriage, offers a unique concept for future married couples that like the bohemian style, and of course, they serve as a great source of precious advice. Since the beginning Justine wanted to make her store a safe and caring space – a kind of cocoon for future wives. This is how the magic works and sometimes, certain advice comes as a revelation.

“I once welcomed a wife-to-be with a touching and very complicated story,”Justine says. She told me at the beginning of our conversation that she had a breast reduction surgery scheduled before her wedding, because throughout her whole life she had found it very difficult to accept her bust size. Together, we ended up finding a wedding dress that was perfectly adapted to her form and which made her look stunning. She glowed with joy! After she said YES TO THE DRESS, she admitted to me while she was in the dressing room that this was the first time that she felt truly beautiful. She cancelled her appointment with her surgeon after that. Today, she is comfortable with her body, and even wears shirts with some pretty necklines from time to time.”

Sometimes, when we look to get married, it can start with loving oneself! “During dress trials, we sometimes confront the problems of the wives-to-be that visit us, and we help give them back their confidence. It’s one of the most beautiful things about our job,” Justine emphasizes.

Want to know more? Here is a flurry of smaller stories that you may not know about the historic neighbourhood!

The Historic Speech Revealed

Nelson Mandela gave a galvanizing speech in Montreal during his world tour against the Apartheid, on June 19,1990 on Champs-de-Mars. Montreal wasn’t supposed to be a stop along the route of the South African leader, who was released from prison in February of the same year, but he wanted to thank the Montreal people for having supported the boycott of South African companies’ sale of the old government. Four years later, he became the first black president of South Africa! It’s only been 32 years, surely some of you remember this? If so, share your memories with us!

A Café That Counts

There’s an old bank turned café, and not just for a film set? That’s actually the new destiny of the building at 360 St-Jacques Street, built in 1928 which now houses Crew Collective Café. In the interior, you will still see the old furnishings like the counters from Banque Royale which moved its offices in 1963, but you will also be able to enjoy coffee, viennoiseries, and even rent out spaces where you can work.

A Haunted Castle

Fans of the paranormal, did you know that there is a phantom in Château Ramezay? No one has seen it, but the legend exists to this day… This building, first to be classified as a historic monument in Quebec, has lived for epochs since its construction in 1705 for the Montreal governor at the time, Claude Ramezay…

The Elder of the Chapels

Did you know that the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours chapel is the oldest chapel in Montreal? It was built on land ceded by Chomedey to the intrepid and persuasive Marguerite Bourgeoys. Why do we say intrepid and persuasive? After seven trips across the Atlantic in that time period, and as a woman no less, everyone knew that she was unstoppable, and it would be better to give in to her demands… Oh, and no, the Virgin atop the roof did not come to life to protect the city. That’s just an urban legend.

The Controversial “Free” Speech

The speech given by General Charles de Gaulle, then president of the French Republic and particularly famous for his line “vive le Québec libre!” (long live a free Quebec!), took place on July 24th, 1967 at town hall. Maybe some of us have forgotten the place, but it’s impossible to forget the impact!

As in Paris

There is a veritable entourage of Parisian-style Metro station accesses, which employ the architecture typical of the “Art nouveau” style – including Square-Victoria-OACI! Offered by the Montreal RATP - the Autonomous Operator of Parisian Transports (FR: Régie autonome des transports parisiens) as a reminder of its part in the conception and construction of our city’s metro, it’s a one-of-a-kind entry to be found here!

An Almost Secret Passage to the Museum

Did you know there are sewers here you can visit without getting yourself dirty? Beneath the foundation of the Pointe-à-Callière Museum, you can see these drawings and even walk through them, as you discover traces of some of the city’s first fortifications.

N.B.: Do you have a story that could be mentioned here, but is not yet included? Don’t hesitate to write to us at info@sdcvieuxmontreal.com and we would be happy to add it in.

1- Guidatour

2- website of Théâtre du Centaur

3- Librairie Bertrand

4- website of Marguerite Bourgeoys

5- website of Dream It Yourself