SÉNÉCAL, JOSEPH-AZARIE, architect and contractor; b. 14 Nov. 1841 in Saint-Marc on the Richelieu, Lower Canada, son of Jérôme Sénécal and Éloïse Martin; m. 18 Oct. 1869 Philomène Pepin in Belœil, Que., and they had six children, two of whom outlived him; d. 20 March 1917 in St Boniface, Man.
Joseph-Azarie Sénécal attended the local school from the age of nine to eleven and then worked on a farm. In his twenties, however, he turned to his father’s trade of carpentry, and during his apprenticeship he developed a passionate interest in the study of architecture. In 1870, after he had started working on his own, he began his long association with religious orders as an architect and contractor, initially in Belœil, where he built and decorated the chapel in the convent of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. Around 1874 his success in the construction business enabled him to become part owner of a factory in Hochelaga (Montreal) that produced building materials.
After a few years Sénécal retired from business, a victim of the depressed economy. At the invitation of Father Albert Lacombe, he moved to Manitoba in 1877, where he took up a parcel of land in Baie-Saint-Paul (St Eustache). Three years later he settled in St François Xavier, earning a living from his store and from farming. In 1887 he had an opportunity to resume his original vocation. In June he left with his son Tancrède for Fort Macleod (Alta) to build the house and enlarge the store of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s chief factor, Édouard-François Gigot, who had been the mp for St François Xavier.
On his return from Fort Macleod, Sénécal continued to keep busy with his store and his land, but in 1891 he moved to St Boniface to devote himself full time to construction as an architect and contractor. The Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary immediately offered him a contract for enlarging the first St Mary’s Academy, in Winnipeg. This major project established Sénécal’s reputation and made him the architect and contractor most sought after by French-speaking religious institutions, not only in Manitoba, but also in what would become Saskatchewan and Alberta.
In Alberta Sénécal divided his attention between Calgary and the Edmonton area. After consolidating and enlarging Holy Cross Hospital in Calgary, run by the Grey Nuns, in 1894 he built a presbytery in Edmonton for the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Grey Nuns’ General Hospital there. Misericordia Hospital, begun in 1905 for the Sisters of Miséricorde, would not be completed until 1910. Although nothing remains of these works, the church at Morinville (1907), designed by Sénécal, illustrates well the link between the architecture of French-speaking westerners and that of Quebec.
In Saskatchewan, where Sénécal was less active than in the other prairie provinces, two of the three churches attributed to him there remain standing. The one in Willow Bunch (1906), which had baroque features, was demolished, but the neoclassical church in Wolseley (1900) and the modest one in Duck Lake, which was begun in 1908 from plans signed by Sénécal et Hudon, continue to testify to the prominence in western Canada of this Manitoban architect.
It was in his adoptive province that Sénécal designed and erected the most buildings, which still bear witness to the contribution French Canadians made to the architectural heritage of western Canada. On the strength of the reputation he had gained among religious congregations after completing the wing of St Mary’s Academy in 1892, he was commissioned to prepare plans for and construct numerous convents with boarding-schools, in St François Xavier (1892), St Jean Baptiste (1897, 1910), St Pierre (St-Pierre-Jolys) (1900), Brandon (1903), and Letellier (1903), and the normal school in St Boniface (1903). Two works still attract attention because of their neoclassical style and their imposing appearance: the second St Mary’s Academy (1902–3), which he built from plans by Samuel Hooper, and the St Joseph convent (1912), erected in St Boniface for the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. But of the hospital buildings for which Sénécal prepared the plans or supervised the construction – two wings of the Hôpital Saint-Roch (1899, 1904), three-quarters of the General Hospital (1893, 1905, 1914) in St Boniface, and the Misericordia Hospital (1900, 1907) in Winnipeg – nothing is left but one wing of the General Hospital and the central part of Misericordia Hospital. The Asile Ritchot (1912) in St Norbert also survives.
Although Sénécal had specialized in convents and hospitals, he also prepared plans for and even built a great many churches in Manitoba, including those at St Leon (1895), Gretna (1897), and Ste-Anne-des-Chênes (1896), and Holy Ghost Church (1899) in Winnipeg. His most famous work (even though he was the contractor, rather than the architect) is still the cathedral in St Boniface (1906), built from plans by Jean-Omer Marchand* and Samuel Stevens Haskell of Montreal. Nothing is left of it now, after the fire of 1968, except the façade and the side walls.
Joseph-Azarie Sénécal was well regarded by the religious orders and the populace, who appreciated the excellence of his many buildings, both public and private. As for the community, his commitment and integrity won him key positions in the life of St Boniface. He was president of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste in 1901; having been chairman of the school board in 1896 and a member of the municipal council, he was elected mayor by acclamation in 1901.
Information on Joseph-Azarie Sénécal’s achievements as an architect and contractor is found in the Arch. des Sœurs des Saints-Noms de Jésus et de Marie in Longueuil, Que., and St Boniface, Man.; the Arch. des Sœurs Grises in St Boniface and Edmonton; the Arch. de l’Archevêché de Saint-Boniface; the Arch. of the Archdiocese of Edmonton; and the PAA.
ANQ-M, CE1-46, 16 nov. 1841; CE1-49, 18 oct. 1869. Edmonton Bulletin, 14, 21 March 1895. Le Manitoba (Saint-Boniface), 3 sept., 13 oct. 1887; 25 août 1915; 21 mars 1917. Winnipeg Free Press, 29 Sept. 1973. Winnipeg Tribune, 29 Sept. 1973. Gilles Cadrin, “J.-A. Sénécal, architecte et entrepreneur,” in L’Ouest canadien et l’Amérique française; les actes du huitième colloque du Centre d’études franco-canadiennes de l’Ouest . . . (Regina, 1988). Catholic centennial souvenir, 1812–1912; a sketch of the achievements of the Catholic Church in western Canada (Winnipeg, 1912). Hélène Chaput, Histoire de la congrégation des Sœurs de SS. NN. de Jésus et de Marie; mère Marie-du-Rosaire . . . (Saint-Boniface, 1982). Priscille Cormier, “Cathédrales de Saint-Boniface,” Les Cloches de Saint-Boniface (Saint-Boniface), 72 (1973): 274–75. Lionel Dorge, Le Manitoba, reflets d’un passé (Saint-Boniface, 1976), 169. La petite histoire; paroisse Saint-Mathieu de Belœil, 1772–1972 (Richelieu, Qué., 1972), 151–52. Clovis Rondeau, La Montagne de Bois (Willow-Bunch. Sask.); histoire de la Saskatchewan méridionale (Québec, 1923), 163–69. Short sketches of the history of the Catholic churches and missions in central Alberta, comp. É.-J. Legal ([Winnipeg, 1914?]), 28–30, 82.