The Pigeon’s beautiful ornate porch on their house at 195 Cathcart Street is pictured above. The house is decked out for one of the many religious celebrations held in the neighbourhood. This was likely for Fête Dieu (Corpus Christi) as it was a popular tradition for Lowertown families to decorate annually on this occasion in May. The man sitting on the right side of the porch is probably Omer Jourbarne, a long time neighbour.
For those of us who live around or near Bingham Playground in Lowertown, we know that there’s a certain comfort and sense of security around here. The area is far enough away from the Byward Market and homeless shelters to avoid the more negative impressions of noise and poverty that are sometimes attributed to the area. The neighbours know each other. There are a few colourful characters among them. Some families have lived here for generations. While the old population of Lowertown is fading away, it’s still here in many ways living on through descendants and people that have adopted the neighbourhood as their home.
In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, while walking in this area, I often would see a short old man with a mustache. I would notice him for a few reasons. He was quite short – probably only about five feet and five inches high. He wore a very baggy and worn out dress suit with tie and a fedora hat. He was always smoking a large pipe like Sherlock Holmes. I wondered at who he was. There are others like him…
Like any real neighbourhood, you hear stories about your neighbours. As you might have guessed, due to my interest in historical photographs and stories of Lowertown, I often ask people if they have any. On at least two occasions, I had heard of a man named Adelard Pigeon. The story was that a Monsieur Pigeon had a vast collection of photographs he had taken of Lowertown. I had never had a chance to follow-up and try and find this famous Monsieur Pigeon.
The “Kidnapping” of Mr. Pigeon
In 2012, I dropped into the Friendly TNH corner store at Cathcart and Dalhousie, one of the oldest corner stores in Ottawa and one of the last serving this corner of Lowertown. Gilles, a resident who lives on Cathcart Street, was working. We chatted and it’s through this discussion that I discovered an elderly neighbour of his was taken away by social workers. His name was Mr. Pigeon! I also learned that a large dumpster was placed in front of his house and most of his life’s belongings were thrown into the trash. The neighbours were not told why Mr. Pigeon had been taken away, though they suspected he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. They were horrified by the way his home was being ransacked.
Finding Mr. Pigeon
I was angry. How could the government treat an old man like this? As president of the Lowertown Community Association at the time, I had some modest power to inquire about what was going on. I contacted the public guardian and they explained that Mr. Pigeon had no direct family and that he had been taken away for medical reasons. For privacy reasons, they couldn’t share much else with me. I wrote a letter to them and described the famous photographic collection that Mr. Pigeon owned and recommended that they consider donating it to the municipal archives. I was worried all of it had already been thrown into the trash with the rest of Mr. Pigeon’s life.
This was certainly not the end of my investigation. I wasn’t willing to give up that easily. Through word-of-mouth, I was led to believe that Mr. Pigeon was living at a senior’s residence at the Montfort Hospital. It was time to visit poor old Mr. Pigeon and find out what happened to him and his famous photographic collection. When I arrived, I entered and indicated to the staff that I was visiting and they told me his room number. He wasn’t in his room – it was empty. As I walked down the hall of the residence to leave I saw a withered old man sitting in a walker-type stool. He was Mr. Pigeon!
He was shaking from whatever ailment he had. I said hello but he didn’t take notice. It was too late. Mr. Pigeon’s mind was gone… I left the residence saddened and without hope that the memories of one of Lowertown’s long-time residents would ever be recovered…
Hope for Mr. Pigeon
A couple of months passed. I continued to try and press the public authorities for more information and insist that they should be doing more to preserve the history of people under their care. There was no interest in such things from them. Like so many big institutional machines of government, they had lost sight of their original mission – preserving the dignity and celebrating the awesomeness of the people in their care. I was very saddened…
An unexpected phone call came one day. Her name was Ruth Cloutier. She was the great-granddaughter of Mr. Pigeon’s uncle Alphonse (brother of his mother Josephine) and periodically visited him at the seniors’ residence. Ruth had his photos, or, as we both later discovered, she had part of this famous photographic collection.
Ruth and I met to review the photographs and talk about Mr. Pigeon’s life on Cathcart Street. She talked about his parents and sister who lived in the very same house at 195 Cathcart Street and how he and his sister continued to live in the house after their parents’ death.
His sister Marie-Reine was moved from her home when she broke her hip, spending her recovery and last years at the Gary G. Armstrong Facility on Porter’s Island. Her brother Adelard was very dedicated to his sister Marie-Reine and visited her almost daily; having lived together their whole lives, they were their own best friends.
Mr. Pigeon’s care became the responsibility of the Trustee’s office and they ensured that he received medical attention and proper care in a senior’s residence. Unfortunately, as is the case when the elderly have no close family, the home and personal property are liquidated. Personal property, such as family photographs, are held in trust until the estate is settled.
Looking carefully through a lifetime of black and white and colour photographs, it was obvious that they told the story not only of the Pigeon family but of Lowertown in the 20th century:
There was Mr. Pigeon as a baby with his parents in an earlier house on Bruyère Street across from the old general hospital… his dad must have been in a silly mood and spooned an egg in front of his little boy to smile for the photograph…
Put that away, his wife must have said for this second photograph while trying NOT to smile!
Mr. Pigeon had a particularly focused interest in the celebration of Fête Dieu… He took photos of the honoury houses at which the religious procession would stop for a special blessing… and photos of the marches…
He photographed the rise and fall of parts of our neighbourhood, such as the construction of a wing of the Sisters of Charity Convent and the demolition of the old St. Charles Hospital…
The great fire at the convent of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd on St. Andrew Street… now the Chinese Embassy on new St. Patrick street….
I have seen dozens of private family photographic collections from the people of Lowertown, but none has ever been quite like Mr. Pigeon’s collection. His family and him recorded the life of the neighbourhood in a very honest and human way. In looking at the photographs, you can feel the life in the people that were here and their surroundings. The Pigeons seem to have had an exceptionally strong sense of their presence and surroundings and shared some of those intimate observations through these photographs.
Ruth and I both agree that the photographs she has are only a piece of what was likely a very large photographic collection. There were no negatives. It was our theory that they, along with a large part of the photographic collection, were disposed of. Sadly, this is a story that repeats itself everywhere in our country where there are vulnerable elderly people left to big government institutions. Don’t these people deserve more dignity than having their lives thrown into the trash and their lifetime neighbours – their tribe – left blinded as to what happened to their dear friends?
Saying Goodbye to a Family Friend
As a tribute to Mr. Pigeon, I made a special mention of him and his family at a meeting of the Lowertown Community Association. I wanted it be recorded in our minutes of the meeting that he had passed away and with him an entire generation that had been Lowertown in the 20th century. I also included a short tribute to him in our monthly newsletter.
A year later, I was invited to attend Mr. Pigeon’s funeral at Notre Dame Cemetery where most of Lowertown’s former residents are buried. There were about two dozen distant relatives of Mr. Pigeon in attendance, including Ruth. With that, I thought it was the end of the story of Mr. Pigeon…
A few weeks later, I was flipping through some old photographs that I had scanned from my own family’s photographic collection. There was one photograph showing the graduating class of 1935 from the old Academy De La Salle on Sussex Drive. There were sixteen people in the photograph and my grandfather had also taken the time to write down all the names on the back. There, on the list, and in the photograph, with my grandfather, was Adelard Pigeon…
I was profoundly touched by this moment where I realized how much everything is connected. Though it had been over ten years since my grandfather had passed away and he had never mentioned his old friend, I happened to come along years later and tried as I might to save the memory of a man who turned out to be a good friend of my family. This episode reinforced in me the awesome power of community and how much we really are a part of each other’s lives. In caring for others, we are caring for ourselves. I only wish that this was not lost on the big educational, medical and other institutions that have grown up over the past half century in our country. They often act as distant benevolent dictators when, really, they are extensions of our community and should be here to serve rather than separate us.
Adelard Pigeon was born in Lowertown in 1916. His father, Adelard Senior, came to Ottawa around 1911 and married Josephine Brousseau whose family had lived in Ottawa a very long time. Adelard, his parents, and sister, Marie-Reine, lived in several houses until they finally settled at 195 Cathcart Street towards 1930. After their parents passed away, Adelard and Marie-Reine lived out the remainder of their lives in the same house. Adelard had a long career in the public service and passions for gardening and photography. He is well remembered by his Lowertown neighbours and distant relatives. Marie-Reine passed away in 2011 and Adelard followed her in 2013 at the age of 96.
Having lived his entire life in Lowertown and most of it on Cathcart Street, Adelard joins the many ranks of former residents whose only home had ever been this beloved neighbourhood. The photographic legacy left behind by the Pigeon Family will ensure they remain vividly and forever a part of our community’s humble history.
Written by Marc Aubin
Special thanks to Ruth Cloutier, the Brousseau Family, and the Pigeons