Sisters and spooks: Grey Nuns and different Montreal haunts

In a historically rich city like Montreal, the past is much more present than you might realize.

The city’s violent past might be one reason behind its haunted reputation, said Donovan King, a professional actor and local paranormal expert, citing pre-colonial aboriginal warfare, British-French infighting, and violence linked to the FLQ.

“For the totality of these reasons of history, I think that’s probably why Montreal is the most haunted city in Canada, if not all of North America,” he says.

Whether or not you believe in ghosts, the stories of some of Montreal’s most infamous spirit sightings are enough to send chills down your spine.

Concordia’s Gray Nuns Building at the corner of Guy Street and René-Lévesque Boulevard is one of those haunted places in Montreal, according to King and other sources.

Built in 1871 as the congregation’s motherhouse, this imposing structure once housed more than 1,000 nuns, while also serving as a hospital and an orphanage.

I find it quite creepy.– Gray Nun’s resident Kayla Fanning

In 2007, Concordia University purchased the motherhouse and converted it into a residence for undergraduate students.

Concordia renovated much of the historic site, except for the basement crypt, where 232 nuns are interred.

The nuns’ remains must stay there for health reasons, since many died of highly contagious diseases, says King.

“Students moving into the residence are literally sleeping above a cemetery, literally a few meters below,” he says.

“A lot of students get creeped out by this.”

King traces the ghost stories’ origins to a 1918 fire on the building’s top floor, which then housed the orphanage.

According to media reports from the time, more than 50 children were trapped and perished in the blaze.

‘The ultimate Canadian ghost story’

Donovan King of Haunted Montreal Tours tells the story of 18th century fur trader Simon McTavish and his hauntings of Mont Royal.

Students have reported “hear[ing] the trampling and crying of children above their heads,” King says.

Although she hasn’t experienced anything paranormal, Gray Nuns resident Kayla Fanning says she still feels something eerie in the building.

“I find it quite creepy. I feel like it’s kind of like a ghost hospital.”

Another resident, Melissa Harrison, adds that she’s heard these stories often. “It’s all that anyone was ever talking about…. It’s a lot more of a thing than I thought it would be.”

Ghost stories scare up real business

King adds that the stories elicit different reactions.

“Some people get very upset when you suggest that there might be a ghost in their building, especially if they’re a business.”

He cites an incident in front of Le Cinq nightclub, on the corners of de la Montagne Street and Ste-Catherine Street while he was leading a tour.

Le Cinq used to be a funeral home, and the club’s supposed hauntings are already well documented. A popular ghost story is that of a faceless woman with a Y-shaped scar on her chest, haunting the basement bathroom.

Still, the club’s valet told tour participants that King’s stories were just tall tales.

“I had to take him aside and say, ‘Look, this is actually good for your business. I’m advising these people who are obsessed with hauntings to go have a drink after the tour.’ And it was only then that he realized that if something’s haunted, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Concordia, meanwhile, has tried to downplay the ghost stories out of respect for the dead.

While Montreal has a long list of notorious deceased inhabitants, some consider the tales as just that.

“I don’t even believe in ghosts. I think they’re mostly a myth, or hallucinations, or things like that,” says Mozes, who often passes through the allegedly haunted Dorchester Square after dark.

“They’re a construction of the mind,” he says.

Whether these ghost stories are fact or fiction, they certainly add even more color to an already storied city.

MTL After Dark is a collaboration between the Department of Journalism at Concordia University and CBC Montreal.

Undergraduate students and graduate-diploma students in a graduate-level multimedia course found and produced original stories on the theme of Montreal after dark.

Working in small teams, they spent the winter semester developing their stories in text, audio, video, photography, infographics, and maps.

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