Churches, sanctuaries and presbyteries are opening their doors this weekend as part of the Journées du patrimoine religieux (Religious Heritage Days).

Across Quebec, 215 places that once had a religious vocation, or still do, are welcoming the public to help them discover the rich history of these establishments.

The sixth edition of the event kicked off on Friday and runs until Sunday. "It's an opportunity for people of all faiths to discover the province's religious heritage," said Caroline Tanguay, chair of the board of directors of the Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Québec.

"There's really everything, depending on people's interests. There are concerts, lectures, exhibitions and guided tours. Of course, all (of the sites) offer self-guided tours and activities aimed at young audiences."

While many of the sites are traditionally Catholic, others are Anglican, Orthodox or Jewish, for example.

Tours are also being offered in several regions of the province to enable people to discover the religious heritage to be found in their area. As well as the traditional churches, participants in the Religious Heritage Days will be able to discover gardens, museums, cemeteries and archive centres.

"It's a real opportunity to see the richness of this religious heritage, with the works of art inside and the lectures on offer," said Tanguay. "It's a way to discover and love religious heritage more."

The Religious Heritage Days began in 2018 and, at the time, included 28 participating venues.

"It was, in fact, a pilot project that took place mainly on the island of Montreal," said Tanguay. "But in 2020, the Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Québec coordinated the opening of 138 places at that time, and we're up to 215 in 2023."

The opening of places of worship is coordinated by volunteers, who have voluntarily chosen to help members of their community discover these historic buildings. All activities are free of charge.

On average, between 100 and 150 people are expected to visit each building during the Religious Heritage Days, according to Tanguay.

According to the Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Québec, "of the 2,751 places of worship inventoried in 2003, 4 per cent now exist only in archives and memories and 18 per cent no longer belong to a religious owner or are closed, reused or in the process of being reused."

As a result, the Religious Heritage Days programme also includes places that have been transformed for non-religious uses.

According to Tanguay, conserving religious heritage in Quebec is "a challenge" that involves restoring sites as much as transforming them.

"Sometimes, with the various difficulties that the religious community that owns the building may have with the financial burden, it will often pass into the hands of the municipality, which will use it as an open space, transformed, that can host different activities inside," she said, adding that this makes it possible to conserve "symbolic" places by giving them another use.

You can consult the Journées du patrimoine religieux programme by region on the event's website.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Sept. 9, 2023.