Tenders for the Cartage to Town ... of from 25 to 30 Cubic Feet of Stone, to be used in the foundation of the New Catholic Parish Curch, will be recieved at the office of the Fabrique.
– Gazette, Saturday, June 12, 1824
Construction of Notre Dame Church, the magnificent neo-gothic structure that looms over Place d’Armes, at last was under way. When completed five years later, in 1829, it was the continent’s largest church building north of Mexico City.
Limestone blocks for the magnificent structure came from quarries at Mile End, much of it under a contract with two Scottish immigrants, John Redpath and his partner, Thomas McKay.
There is something uncanny about their having won a contract on so prestigious a project, for they were barely out of their youth. McKay was 31 when work on Notre Dame began, and Redpath just 27.
Like McKay, Redpath had trained as a stonemason in his native land.
But work was hard to find in the economic depression that followed Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, and the following year he decided to try his luck in Canada.
Redpath sailed to Quebec City, accompanied by his brother, Robert, a nephew and a friend. Yet there was no work on this side of the Atlantic, either, and the young men were almost out of money. Perhaps they’d have better luck in Montreal, but because they couldn’t afford passage on a river steamboat, they’d have to walk – all 160 miles of the way.
“They are reported to have walked at least part of the way barefoot in order to save their shoes from wearing out,” Redpath’s biographer, Richard Feltoe, records, “for no one would hire, or even trust, a supposedly skilled worker who appeared in bare feet when applying for work.”
It was a graphic sign of the stuff Redpath was made from.
Sure enough, he soon found work as a mason, and not long after he gave another sign. A devout Presbyterian, Redpath joined the St. Gabriel St. Church and rented a pew. But not just any pew: it was an expensive, first-class one, costing £3/15 a year, and was prominently placed in the centre of the church’s new gallery.
“John’s strategic expenditure … would have been recognized by other parishioners as a clear indication of the determination of the pew holder to make his mark,” Feltoe writes.
By 1818, young Redpath had his own contracting business. He built garden walls, small buildings, a dairy barn and even an ammunition magazine for the fort on Île Ste. Hélène. But work on the Lachine Canal, which began in 1821, would be something on a much bigger scale. Fortunately, he had met McKay by then, and their new partnership won a contract for some of its sections. By the time the Notre Dame Church project came up, the two men were sufficiently well established that taking on its stonework would not be to spread themselves dangerously thinly.
The church’s foundation walls, nine feet high, were laid in the summer of 1824, and on Sept. 1 the cornerstone was set. But of course Redpath and McKay’s work was far from over. Only by the end of the building season two years later did the limestone walls reach their full height.
Already prosperous, the two men now stood on the brink of considerable wealth. That started to come in with their work on the Rideau Canal, which was completed in 1832. McKay, settled in Bytown since 1827, deepened his involvement in many enterprises and later built a villa for himself and his family that he called Rideau Hall. Today it is the residence of the governor-general.
Redpath, meanwhile, remained based in Montreal. He had a Midas touch, his investments in banking, real estate, insurance, mining and shipping adding steadily to his fortune. By 1854 he was ready for his greatest venture, putting up £80,000 of his own money to establish Canada’s first sugar refinery on the banks of the Lachine Canal.
The refinery, which for years was one of Montreal’s largest industries, closed in 1980 though another Redpath refinery, in Toronto, continues as part of the Tate & Lyle empire.
An old ledger from John Redpath’s Rideau Canal days contains a page covered with nothing but his signature, repeated several times. Feltoe imagines him “writing his name in a variety of styles and scripts in order to create a signature he felt would properly reflect his growing affluence and position.” Little could Redpath have imagined that a stylized version of his signature would become part of what is today the oldest food trademark in Canada..................................................................and of course now you can buy a Condo in the old building ,- Les