The recent trip to Canada included many wonderful experiences but one that rises toward the top of the list is my visit to the Rideau Street Convent Chapel inside the National Gallery of Canada.
The chapel, designed in 1887 by Rev. George Bouillon (who, interestingly, was not a trained architect), was part of the Convent of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart on Rideau Street in Ottawa. It was consecrated in 1888.
In 1972 the Roman Catholic “Grey Nuns of the Cross” or Sisters of Charity of Ottawa sold their property to a developer. The interior of the chapel was rescued from demolition by a coalition of government and community groups, including the National Gallery of Canada. The chapel was deconsecrated and dismantled. In 1988 it was rebuilt, as it had existed in 1972, inside the National Gallery.
I knew the chapel was inside the museum but I was not expecting the experience of seeing it. I imagined a museum gallery space featuring an alter and screens and display cases housing ornate gold and silver objects of Catholica along with tasteful signage conveying interesting historical factoids. I was so wrong!
Entering the chapel, one feels it is a separate building. The installation is in a windowless, interior, gallery space but the chapel’s walls and ceiling, as well as the artificial light behind it’s simple stained glass windows, removes all sense of the museum surrounding it.
Most of the pews have been removed and replaced by two backless benches in the center of the chapel. In a circle around these two benches are 40 small, free-standing, speakers; each projecting one voice of Thomas Tallis’ 40-part motet “Spem in alium”. One might imagine the introduction of visible technology in the neo-Gothic space might be jarring or distracting but that, surprisingly, is not the case. And the music, literally being surrounded by the music, is overwhelming. I am not religious and was I raised as a Southern Baptist. I can appreciate the beauty of a chapel and the artistry of music but I’ve never had the experience of being emotional affected by it before. For some reason I found it incredibly moving. I am not sure why.
In preparing this post I stumbled across one tidbit that is as bizarre as it is ironic. “Spem in alium” is included in the score of the recent film adaptation of “50 Shades of Grey”. I have not included a link to the piece. It is nine minutes long but those wishing to sample it can find it on iTunes on the “50 Shades of Grey Seductive Soundtrack”. I’m glad I did not know that before visiting the chapel. I don’t think an allusion to the “Grey Nuns of the Cross” was one of the ’50 shades’ intended by E.L. James when she penned her trilogy of soft-core potboilers. I will certainly strive to remove the image from my mind. And I sincerely hope there are not poor French-Canadian nuns somewhere spinning in their graves.