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The Old Québec Seminary, a cultural and heritage treasure

In the heart of the historic quarter of Quebec’s capital city, the buildings of the Old Québec Seminary—built between 1675 and 1868—are a magnificent example of French roots in Canada. This institution, founded by the first Canadian bishop, Mgr Laval, whose initial goal was to train the Catholic clergy, has expanded over time. It led to the establishment of a college of classical studies, the first French‑language university in North America (Laval University), a museum and an archive. In the end, the Québec Seminary turned into a tremendous resource of cultural, historical, institutional, architectural and archaeological heritage, all the while continuing to be full of life, since a secondary school and the Laval University School of Architecture still teach students there. Its very visible legacy lies in its stunning architectural complex that visitors can admire from its square courtyard or explore in greater detail by taking a guided tour offered by the Musée de l’Amérique francophone.

 

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Remarkable built heritage

The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recognized the Old Québec Seminary as a site of national historic significance in 1929. The three main wings surrounding the square courtyard—Aile de la Procure, Aile des Parloirs and Aile de la Congrégation—were classified as heritage buildings in 1968 by the Quebec Department of Culture and Communications. It would take too long to describe how this complex of great architectural homogeneity changed over the course of its many expansions, fires and reconstructions. What bears noting, however, is its strict stylistic continuity since the construction of its first four-storey structure in 1675. The plan of the Old Québec Seminary is akin to those of 17th‑century French colleges and convents, with its shallow wings arranged in a quadrangle around a square inner courtyard, accessed through a carriage entrance. These buildings of four to six storeys are also reminiscent of French‑style urban Canadian architecture, with their walls covered in white plaster, S‑irons, gabled sheet metal roof and raised firewalls with massive chimneys.

The kitchens of Mgr Laval, to which visitors have access during the guided tour offered by the Musée de l’Amérique francophone, are in the original foundations of Aile de la Procure, erected between 1678 and 1681. The sundial above the entrance door dates back to 1773. Visitors also have access to the private chapel that Mgr Briand had built in this wing in 1785, appointed with beautiful altarpieces, wainscoting and woodwork crafted by carpenter Pierre Émond.

As night falls, the beauty of these historic buildings is accentuated by strategically placed lighting, installed in 2006.

A repository of memory

The Québec Seminary archives, which date back to the early decades of New France, are so rich that they were added to the prestigious register of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme in 2007. They are a unique source of information on the historical evolution of Quebec and even North America, as they recount the provision of religious and non‑religious services (in education and health care) and the evangelization of the Francophone and Aboriginal inhabitants who had settled in the Diocese of Québec, an immense territory that extended from Acadia all the way to the Canadian Prairies and the Gulf of Mexico until 1836.

The collections compiled by the Seminary’s priests were also used to found some of Quebec’s first museums in the 19th century. More recently, the Musée du Séminaire established in the early 1980s (later the Musée de l’Amérique francophone) showcased these varied collections, including an Egyptian mummy and precious Japanese objects. Since the Québec Seminary is also the founding institution of Laval University, in 1852, it holds objects that illustrate the evolution of higher education in Quebec.

As for archaeological discoveries, the Seminary excavated the house of Guillaume Couillard and Guillemette Hébert located in the square courtyard, in which the Petit Séminaire opened in 1668. This is the oldest private residence from the time of New France, built around 1625. Its location is marked on the ground of the square courtyard by light-coloured lines.

Historical summary

François de Montmorency-Laval founded the Québec Seminary in 1663 to train priests from New France. This very pious yet highly pragmatic man of power from a French aristocratic family arrived in Quebec City in 1659. He established his seminary on a solid financial footing from the very beginning, notably by acquiring in 1668 the very well-placed land and home of a couple named Couillard‑Guillemette. Seminarians studied at the Jesuit College right next door and were boarded at the Seminary. In 1675, Laval had a large four-storey stone building built to replace the Couillard home. Three years later, he began building the much larger Aile de la Procure. At the time, the Seminary was a residence for priests who served the entire colony as missionaries, without being assigned to a specific parish. It was therefore the temporary residence and headquarters of actively working priests, as well as a residence for priests who were still in training.

In 1692, Mgr de Saint-Vallier replaced Laval as bishop and changed the Québec Seminary’s role. From that point forward, the institution would be solely responsible for training priests. Despite this setback, construction of the even more spacious Aile des Parloirs, with an inner chapel, began that same year. Then, one after the other in 1701 and 1705, two major fires destroyed a large portion of the Seminary, which was immediately rebuilt in identical form. When Laval, for whom the Seminary was a life’s work, died in 1708, the buildings had already regained their magnificence.

The complex took on its current shape, with its four wings surrounding a square courtyard, at the time of New France. In 1765, after the British Conquest and the expulsion of the Jesuits, the Québec Seminary took over the teaching of classical studies from the Jesuit College. Secondary school courses are still taught today in the adjacent buildings. The Laval University School of Architecture has taken up much of the Old Seminary since 1988. The complex is located within the Old Québec heritage site, designated by the Government of Quebec.

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