January 27, 2020 — “We are recalibrating the project,” summed up Fr. Leonard Altilia, S.J., director of Projet Nouveau Gesù. As you might recall, the mission of this apostolic initiative is to turn Gèsu into a meeting place that corresponds to the needs of the residents of downtown Montreal and neighbouring areas within four main areas of focus, or modules: arts and culture, education, social justice, and spirituality and religious practices. Following new developments with the City of Montreal, the scale of the project has had to be revised and new avenues have now been envisaged in line with the Universal Apostolic Preferences. Through this interview with Fr. Altilia, we will learn how things have changed.
How has Projet Nouveau Gèsu evolved over the last year?
Originally, in the Feasibility Study[MD1] produced by Projet Nouveau Gesù (PNG), we outlined our desire to construct a 22-storey building next to the church by reclaiming a plot of land which today belongs to the City of Montreal. This land was ceded to the City by the Jesuits in the 1970s for $1. The building would have been multi-use, in order to bring to life the PNG’s vision to fulfill all four modules to their fullest extent. In the building, we envisioned that almost half of the floors would be reserved for lodging (social housing, for artists, for a Jesuit community) and the other half would house offices or useful spaces for our partner organizations, such as the St-James Drop in Centre, Centre Afrika, the Orchestre Metropolitain de Montréal and others. Indeed, these NPOs work, in one way or another, within our apostolic dimensions. However, our conversations with the City let us know that they did not wish to give us back the land unless we bought it at market price, which is impossible. This is why we now have to reimagine the project, while still respecting its original intentions and the Feasibility Study.
In October, we came to the realization that the process with the City was not going to move forward any further and since then we have started to have the necessary conversations and reflections to discern the way forward for the future. We have to find a way to not only incorporate the four apostolic dimensions (spirituality and religious practices, arts and culture, education, and social justice) into the new vision of the work to be done at Gesù, but also integrate the Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAP) into this apostolic plan. Our four modules and the four preferences go together easily, but we have to keep the UAPs in mind at all times because they form the apostolic foundations of all the Society of Jesus’ work across the globe. Building on this foundation, we are now trying to make the preferences into something concrete in the current situation at Gesù.
Who is involved in the PNG’s process of discernment?
There are several people involved in the process. Obviously, the Provincial and his team are involved because the PNG is an initiative coming from the Jesuit Province of Canada. The Board of Directors of the PNG are also involved in the discernment, as well as the Creativity Centre at Gesù and the church’s Prefect. We also want to bring several partners with interests in the larger project into the process of discernment. I am currently preparing a meeting where we will explain to them that the situation has changed and that we need to recalibrate the project to fit within the installations that are already there.
It’s a process of imagination and exploration where we have to ask ourselves many questions. What do we have right now that we can make use of and develop for the future? How can we fulfil the desires of the Feasibility Study with these activities? It’s a slow process and one which needs to respect the history of the church and the Creativity Centre.
What other possibilities have been envisaged?
Now that a new building has begun to be built next to Gèsu—on the land of the former college—we can start to imagine something a little bigger. A group of different insurance companies is building an apartment block on the lot, and we are currently in talks with them to determine if it would be possible to have two floors in the building to serve as residences for a Jesuit community or even as offices for the Jesuits or for our partners. If the Jesuit community moves there, it could even free up some space at Gesù for more apostolic activities!
We also want to soundproof the floor between the church and the Creativity Centre, which is absolutely essential. At the moment, nothing can take place in the church at the same time as in the Creativity Centre due to the noise. We have to breathe some life back into the church, and to do that we need to set up a space that we can use to better effect.
We might also perhaps begin talks again with City about the land, but right now we can’t wait for a change on their part: we have to move forward with what we have.
By the way, I encourage our companions to support the project through their prayers and to send me any suggestions they may have on ways to improve the Jesuit presence in downtown Montreal.
What is your greatest consolation in this process?
My consolation is the energy and the devotion of the people involved in the process. There are many people who believe in this project, who are confident in it and want to contribute to its success. That gives me a lot of comfort, because it’s not a task that I’m working on alone, but one with lots of other committed and involved contributors. I might be organizing the project, but the work itself relies on a large group of highly involved people.
Finally, how do you intend to revitalize the presence of Gesù, of a church, in a secular society?
We have to establish relationships with people who live in Montreal, most notably students, and work with them to determine their needs, or what they want to get out of a place dedicated to the personal formation of people in Montreal in accordance with the historical perspectives, traditions and ways of proceeding of the Society of Jesus. Theatre, arts and culture, spiritual Exercises, education and involvement in social work and justice are all part of our tradition.
We could, for example, offer sessions on personal lives, not necessarily in a religious way, but more spiritual: the respect for silence, for the transcendence that exists in the human experience. We could explore the connection with this transcendent experience in an individual’s life. What can we offer from our tradition of education, anchored here at Gèsu or elsewhere? We could think about the formation of a whole person— a moral training dedicated to helping the poor and marginalised, or an education directed towards enriching human society.
We have to establish relationships with people who live in Montreal, most notably students, and work with them to determine their needs, or what they want to get out of a place (like the Gésu).
In my experience, there is a real desire for this transcendental experience among young people, who want opportunities to personally try this kind of experience which touches on a spiritual life. Young adults are looking for something which gives their lives meaning. They know that material objects can’t offer them this, and that they need something more significant. We want to move forward bit by bit, without pressure, force or demands…and we can imagine that their desire will deepen and that they will see that the religious tradition—distinct from the spiritual tradition—could offer important answers to their needs and desires. The desire for a community, for example, a community which shares a faith, the celebration of the existence of God and God’s love in a human life. But at the beginning, they are looking for something less defined, less religious. We can therefore offer them an experience of a community through meditation or conversation, which will push them little by little towards the realization that this community could celebrate the existence of God together. That’s our hope.