A monastery in Canada’s Laurentian Mountains that needed an economical source of power has developed a modern, efficient 415-hp hydro plant to produce electricity for the orders self-contained electrical system. By the Apostles of Infinite Love

Authors Note:

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the August 1993 issue of Hydro Review (Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.A.). Our original version, presented here, contains some interesting local history that would not ordinarily be included in a trade periodical.

Editors Note:

The story of how an old sawmill site on Black Creek 80 miles north of Montreal, Quebec, became a highly efficient hydroelectric plant serving the Apostles of Infinite Love is both spiritual and secular. A generous dash of local history adds lively color to this narrative of the Apostles persistence, hard work and ingenuity. – W.B.

Way back

Way back in the 1870s and 80s, the famous French Canadian priest, Curé Antoine Labelle, undertook the herculean task of colonizing the North Woods of Quebec. At 6 foot 3 inches, 333 pounds, the “King of the North” cut an imposing figure as he tramped about, sparking a migration of 40,000 pioneers into the Laurentian area. In the 1880s he persuaded the Clerics of St. Viator, a teaching congregation, to open a summer camp for deaf-mutes near the village of St. Jovite, 80 miles north of Montreal.

To keep their students busy in an enjoyable and useful way, they set up a water wheel atop a rumbling cascade on Black Creek and ran a sawmill: remnants of the wooden supporting structure still exist some 20 feet below water level.

Today, the Apostles of Infinite Love, a religious order of monks and nuns, operate their 300-kilowatt Magnificat hydro facility on the creek 2 miles east of St. Jovite, Quebec.

In 1893 the Canadian Pacific extended the railroad to St. Jovite; it later became the famous Lil North Train. The track borders the property on the way to St. Jovite Station, a little settlement a mile north of the village.

The Clerics of St. Viator sold the property to Joseph Van Chesteing in 1905. He built a dam on Black Creek, installed a wood stave penstock and set up a bigger sawmill. In 1912 Van Chesteing purchased the generator and power lines that provided electrical service to St. Jovite from a facility on another stream. He bought them from a country doctor named Dr. Eugene Gervais, last in a series of individuals who had been frustrated in their attempts to provide hydroelectric service to the growing community. Dr. Gervais son Gaston, now 94 years old and still clear as a bell, tells the story…

Electrical service for St. Jovite (1906-1931)

“In 1874 Jacques Léonard, St. Jovite’s first settler, built a small dam and sawmill down on Clear Creek, just before it flows into the Devils River, backing up the water all the way to the bottom of the hill, over half a mile. His was one of the first sawmills in the whole area.

“Around the turn of the century, two brothers-in-law, Gosselin and Lagacé, bought Léonards dam and sawmill. They began providing electrical service for St. Jovite village and station in 1906. Gosselin and Lagacé didn’t have enough water to produce electricity 24 hours a day as their contract called for. They could only provide service at night and had to use steam the rest of the time. For that they needed lots of wood, and it was just too much work to keep the boilers going…”

So around 1908 they started building a much bigger dam on the Devils River several miles to the north. But they never did produce electricity there. It took almost two years of hard work to build, it was practically finished – and then the dam broke up in the spring thaw of 1910.

“Three or four men went bankrupt over the deal,” says Gaston. “That’s how Dad (Dr. Gervais) got involved in providing the electrical service himself; he had been backing them. He didn’t want the village to be deprived of electricity, so the contract and all the equipment fell into his hands. Dad also owned a sawmill, but it didn’t produce enough waste to heat those boilers. More slabs had to be bought and carted in by horse from another sawmill in Brébeuf, seven miles away, and it turned into a monstrous chore. Dad kept providing the electrical service for a while, but he was a doctor and it just wasn’t his line.”

1928. Original dam at St. Jovite.

1928. Original dam at St. Jovite.

Transfer of Power

“Dad finally sold everything to Joseph Van Chesteing in the summer of 1912. Van Chesteing had enough water at his place on Black Creek to meet St. Jovites electrical demand 24 hours a day, and he bought the whole kit: generator, power lines, transformers – the entire system. He already had his sawmill, so he installed the generator in the mill and used the same dam and penstock to make the electricity. Then he connected his new plant to the existing system and took over the electrical service for St. Jovite village and station.”

Joseph Van Chesteing passed away in 1916, but the operation was carried on by his widow and son Zephirin. They increased the height of the rock-and-mortar dam in 1918; but the dam failed ten years later, during the heavy spring flood of 1928, obliterating the sawmill/power plant. Zephirin’s daughter Anne (Mrs. J.P. Meilleur) and son Roland, born and raised on the property, were 8 and 5 years old at the time. They were getting ready for school when they heard the roar from inside the house the morning the dam breached.

Anne describes the scene: “It made a terrible noise like thunder and the ground shook like crazy. We thought it was the end of the world! The water came all the way up to just below the house. When we got up enough courage to look outdoors, it was a sea of churning water everywhere.”

Roland goes on to relate: “Dad bought and installed a diesel-powered generator as fast as possible and resumed electrical service for St. Jovite very quickly. The dam had to be rebuilt from zero. More than 30 men worked on the project: they constructed the new dam, built a turbine building on the other side of the creek and dug by hand to put in an iron penstock. It took them only a few months to build the dam and throw the switch, and by fall we were operating our new hydro plant.

“That winter we built a new electric-powered sawmill a little lower down. We did some logging and cut lumber for our own use; local farmers brought in their logs, and we sawed for them too. On the second floor of the turbine building we set up a woodworking shop, run by belts and pulleys off the main shaft of one of the turbines. Next to the shop we added a large building for drying wood. We prepared lumber and made furniture, coffins, doors and windows.”

The Black Creek Hydro Plant Goes Private (1931-66)

However, as the use of electrical appliances became common, demand for electricity in the village increased, and the plant could not keep up with the growing need. The Van Chesteings sold the St. Jovite electrical rights and distribution system to the Gatineau Power Company in 1931. They kept their hydro plant, which continued running the family sawmill and woodworking shop. Fire ravaged the woodworking complex in 1936, and only the turbine room could be salvaged. The Van Chesteings rebuilt part of the shop, but after that everything slowed down. They had no insurance, the Depression was in full swing, and furniture making came to a dead halt.

“I was old enough to be helping out by then, concludes Roland. We maintained the sawmill and planing operation until I shut it down in 1962 and went to live in the village. My folks came to stay with us, but they still spent summers in the old house. So we stopped using the generators in the wintertime; then one spring when we started them up, the windings burned due to excessive humidity. Dad passed away in 1966, and no one lived on the place after that.”

Enter the Apostles of Infinite Love

The Apostles of Infinite Love are a missionary order of monks and nuns founded at St. Jovite in the late 1950s. Monastery life runs on three currents: prayer, work and discipline. Reviving a bygone monastic tradition, they do all their own work. Their motherhouse, the Monastery of the Magnificat, was built exclusively by community members, starting in 1962. The Brothers wear brown and work in many fields: plumbing, carpentry, electricity, mechanics, printing, agriculture. The Sisters wear a blue and white habit. They work in the kitchen, laundry, sewing room and craft shops, maintain an active clerical staff, care for the elderly, make home visits. Many Brothers and Sisters also labor in home and foreign missions. Others, preserving another age-old custom, are sent out to beg for all community needs.

Magnificat Minihydro Is Born (1970-76)

The monastery expanded rapidly in the 1960s, prompting the Apostles to seek an economic alternative to their independent diesel-powered electrical system. In May 1970, the Apostles of Infinite Love acquired the old Van Chesteing place, three and a half miles west of their home, with its run-down hydro plant, two Francis turbines and two generators with burned windings. They named the new mission Mère d’Youville, after Saint Margaret d’Youville, the foundress of the Sisters of Charity (Grey Nuns) in Montreal in the 1700s. She had constructed a dam and water-powered gristmill for her own community at Châteauguay, Quebec. This woman did so much good during her lifetime that she is called The Mother of Universal Charity.

The Apostles neighbors graciously granted rights of way for power lines connecting the monastery with the plant. Then the Brothers began the task of rebuilding the hydro facility. As some monks started rewinding the generators and repairing the powerhouse and penstock, others completed the power line and set up the distribution system at the monastery. The first Magnificat hydro system was up and running within six months. It remains a relative rarity in North America: a totally independent electrical system unconnected to any public grid.

On June 26, 1976, fire destroyed the Magnificat mother house and put its 400 members out of house and home. As a chartered non-profit religious corporation, the Apostles of Infinite Love are entitled to beg for material help of all kinds. And beg they did, as the undaunted community staggered back to its feet, caught its breath and started all over again.

Surprisingly enough, this reconstruction period was also one of prodigious missionary expansion, and the Apostles soon found themselves spread across Canada and all the way to Florida, the West Indies, Guatemala, Ecuador, France and Italy.

Looking for the Right Turbine (1976-81)

About this time, the limited size (70 kilowatt) and poor efficiency (25 percent) of the hydro plants old Francis turbines had become a serious limitation. The monks set out on a long, futile quest for used machines to serve as replacements. In one instance, learning that Hydro-Québec had just decommissioned three Francis turbines, they hurried over to the scrap dealer but arrived a little too late. The turbines had already been smashed for scrap.

After three years of searching, the Brothers came to an unavoidable conclusion: the fluctuating loads typical of their independent system and the limited average flow of only 40 cubic feet per second on Black Creek made the efficiency curve of most used turbines woefully inadequate for their needs. In a word, as one monk puts it, Searching for a used turbine to fit our particular situation was like looking for a good-fitting used set of false teeth.

The ideal machine, they determined, would be a brand-new Kaplan turbine. But buying one was out of the question, so the monks decided to build one. And for this they would need help – professional help. So they began writing letters, making phone calls, visiting turbine manufacturers and engineers. Some of these volunteered help, but not a single Kaplan design turned up.

Two more years went by. Finally, in May 1981, following a lead obtained at the Canadian Water Resources Association convention in Ottawa, the monks met with David De Montmorency of Rapid-Eau Technology in Cambridge, Ontario, a man who was eager to help. De Montmorency volunteered his services and wound up becoming the Apostles unremunerated consulting engineer. He supplied them with Kaplan turbine assembly drawings and provided the technical assistance and instruction they needed to make the detailed designs and begin construction.

In July 1982 the Apostles Superior General, Father John Gregory of the Trinity, gave the go-ahead and the new turbine project moved into high gear.

Reconstruction Begins (1982)

The fact that the Apostles of Infinite Love employ no outside help was a major factor in keeping construction costs down. Another was the Brothers practical utilization of makeshift means and methods. A third, and the most important, was the generous response of many firms to the Apostles requests for assistance.

The monks first design task was to determine the materials they would need to beg. Later, they had to redesign many elements of the project, adjusting their preliminary drawings to the materials donated.

The main intake structure of the hydro plant was made of poured concrete and covered with thick wooden planks to prevent freezing. It houses a steel trashrack with the exposed section made of wood to inhibit ice formation. The entire penstock was buried to avoid freezing problems. The first section is horizontal; the monks made it from two old railroad tank cars (each 35 feet long x 7 feet in diameter) welded end to end. It took two Brothers three days of hard work cleaning them out with scoops and pails in preparation for welding. Despite the relatively rapid valve closure time (4 seconds) needed to prevent overspeed, water hammer presented no problem in this section due to the low velocity – 2.8 feet per second – in the large pipe at maximum power.

The valve building was constructed just below headwater level. Here the penstock, reduced to 54 inches, enters a mechanically-actuated butterfly valve obtained from a decommissioned Hydro-Québec plant at Wilson Falls. The Brothers retrofitted this valve with a hydraulic cylinder and counterweight system that would close it rapidly without the use of power. To open the valve, they use AC or battery-operated hydraulic pumps for both normal and power-out situations. Downstream of the butterfly valve, the penstock is vented through a float valve the monks made out of foam-filled PVC pipe fittings.

The rest of the penstock consists of 85 feet of 48-inch diameter steel pipe, contributed by Stelpipe (a subsidiary of Stelco, Inc.) and by Cappco Tubular Products, both of Hamilton, Ontario. This pipe descends on a 30 percent grade. It had to be offset 14 degrees to the right at midpoint following unforeseen construction problems with the foundation of the turbine building.

Draining the Powerhouse Swamp

The powerhouse is situated on a small swamp flat at the base of a steep 80-foot slope that runs parallel to the stream. In the building there is a gradual transition of the penstock into a slightly unorthodox but very functional homemade scrollcase. To enable the monks to manufacture many parts, Erwin Hecker, a used-machinery dealer in Montreal, gave them the use of several pieces of valuable machinery he had on display; he also donated the gearbox they installed with the generator. On the bottom end, the monks scaled up a steam fitters concentric-reduction technique, applying it in reverse to fashion the draft tube with nothing more than torch, welder and grinder.

To guard against cavitation, the monks positioned the center of the propeller shaft at tailwater level. Thus the floor of the turbine building had to be situated 20 feet below grade, in the swampy area at the base of the slope. The excessive groundwater at the site posed serious construction problems. It was impossible to dig a hole more than 6 feet deep without it turning into a veritable slough.

One day, while looking into a hydraulics manual for a solution to an unrelated problem in drilling a well at a mission, one of the Brothers discovered that wellpoints would be just the solution to their powerhouse construction problems. The following day, the Sisters contacted Griffin Dewatering Corporation in Montreal, and that firms Connecticut office agreed to donate the use of equipment for dewatering the site; the company’s representative also provided manuals and a short course on the installation and operation of a wellpoint system.

Wellpoints are common practice in dewatering construction sites. The system loaned by Griffin is composed of multiple self-jetted wells, which are installed by the eroding action of a high-pressure jet of water boring a hole into the ground as the jetting pipe is lowered. The wellpoint itself, positioned on the lower end of a 1.25-inch casing, consists of a screen set above a nozzle/checkvalve: screen and casing are both washed into place in one operation.

The monks placed the wellpoints about 3 feet apart around the perimeter of the site. Each was connected by a hose to an 8-inch diameter header – an aluminum pipe with quick-disconnect fittings – that descends toward a vacuum pump at a gradual slope. They attached the header to the combined vacuum and centrifugal pump and began sucking water out of the ground. As digging progressed, another tier of header and wellpoints was installed at a lower level in order to reach the necessary depth.

Scrambling Averts Disaster

The digging was done, and the first section of foundation was poured by November 12, 1982. That night, however, one of the suction header joints came apart. The wellpoint system shut down, and the entire slope turned into slop and started sliding down into the hole. The monks rushed to the spot and worked frantically through the night to save both hill and hole, cabling the sliding trees on the lower level to some solid trees further up the slope. Fortunately, they were able to get the system functioning and the hill stabilized again by daybreak.

Unfortunately, they lost the hole. It was now packed full of trees and mud. The Brother in charge summarizes the situation: It would have been a huge job to keep the foundation where it was, so we moved it 15 feet, necessitating the 14-degree angle in the penstock. Then the Brothers reset the wellpoints and started digging again. We had to set up day and night shifts to meet the cutoff date, December 17, when the local cement plant was to shut down for the winter. The monks finally poured the powerhouse roof in 30-below weather the very day of the deadline.

The Heart of the Matter: The Monks Build a Turbine (1983)

Two years passed before the plant was commissioned, because the Brothers also built the turbine themselves. They made the blades out of 316 stainless; the hub is an aluminum-bronze alloy. Hub castings were donated by Aluminum Foundry and Pattern Works of Montreal, whereas the monks made the pattern for the hub.

Blade positioning is controlled by a hydraulically-actuated pushplate in the coupling between the turbine and generator. The monks fabricated the wicket gates out of flat stainless plates and rods. Correlation of the wicket gate opening and propeller blade angle is regulated by a cam-operated valve ported to the actuating cylinder. The main propeller shaft bearing is a water-lubricated rubber bearing normally used on boats; the shaft has a Tyton mechanical seal donated by Safematic Canada of Pointe Claire, Quebec.

The Brothers found a 1958 Woodward hydraulic governor to install as speed control. Their 1800-rpm generator, contributed by ABB of Lachine, Quebec, was a prototype for a diesel generator set; when driven by the turbine at 800 rpm, it required a normally expensive speed increaser. The monks improvised a solution by installing the donated reduction gearbox as an increaser, accepting the resulting losses for the time being.

Testing and Fine-tuning the System (1984)

David De Montmorency told the Brothers they could obtain optimum wicket gate/ propeller correlation if they determined the flow angle immediately downstream from the propeller. So they installed a plexiglass window in the section between the throat ring and draft tube, with a string attached at the upstream edge of the window. By observing the position of the string, an operator could establish the power curve. Roughly, a 15-degree string angle turned out to be the optimum for maximum power. In a word, they found that with their little string, they were able to make do without complex instrumentation.

To produce a constant load on the machine for testing purposes, the monks made a dummy load from a series of surplus electric duct heaters. A blower was used to dissipate the resulting heat. This dummy load was later utilized in system operations as an element of overspeed control.

The Brothers also had to determine the sizes of the hydraulic cylinders, the amount of force it would take to move the propeller blades, and a whole host of other factors. A major consideration until the turbine was commissioned in January 1985 was the prevention of overspeed.

New Generator Sparks Major Modification

Because of its unconventional orientation, the gearbox was creating a loss of power. To resolve this problem, the monks did some testing and determined that turbine speed could be increased from 800 rpm to 900 rpm with no adverse effects. If they could only find a 900-rpm generator and operate it direct from the turbine, they could eliminate the gearbox. So the Apostles contacted Dr. Peter Tsivitse of Reliance Electric in Cleveland, Ohio, who agreed to donate a 300-kilowatt, 600-volt, 900-rpm synchronous generator rated for 2500-rpm overspeed. The generator was fabricated by its Kato Engineering Division at Mankato, Minnesota, under the direction of James H. Holdrege and was in operation by August 1990.

Operating an Independent Electrical System

The improved Magnificat hydro plant produces 300 kilowatts at just under 90 percent efficiency, around four times the power output of the original plant. The Apostles have worked out their own measuring system to interpret the economic effectiveness of their plant. The monk in charge of electricity explains: If I speak to my superior in terms of kilowatt-hours, Ill be wasting his time by obliging him to convert that information into something meaningful in his sphere of activity. But if I tell him we have to run the diesel at 6 or 7 gallons per hour when we don’t have enough water to run the turbine, he knows exactly what that entails. That is our `monastic standard’ of plant efficiency.

Running Parallel

Because they could not afford sophisticated control systems, the monks had a few harrowing experiences with the original plant in several attempts at parallel operation of the turbine with the diesel generator set. That is why they made the new turbine large enough to handle the entire load. The monks do run them parallel for short periods of time, however, when transferring the load from one unit to another, to avoid interrupting service to the monastery.

Frequency Control

No one with a totally independent system would dream of attaining the frequency control of an electrical grid. To achieve sufficient stability and match the new generators overspeed capability, the monks fabricated a 42.5-inch diameter, built-up steel flywheel that weighs 3,200 pounds. Due to the amount of stored energy in the flywheel, the resulting frequency control (roughly plus or minus 1 cycle per second) is very reasonable for the system.

A Fruitful Blessing

The Apostles plant modifications from 1982 to 1985 cost less than $35,000. This very modest figure was made possible by the generous donations of many individuals and companies, and by the fact that the community has no labor costs to deal with.

With its new Kato generator, the Magnificat hydro plant operates more efficiently than ever. It does, of course, require a monk at each end of the power line: one directs the turbine operation, while the other manages the diesel generators at the monastery when the water drops too low in the reservoir. The second monk also runs the monastery’s economical heating plant, which burns bark and sawdust from local sawmills and is quite a story in itself.

The turbine has run over 50,000 hours since being commissioned in 1985. It has been a constant source of savings for the Magnificat community and has enabled it to keep up with its ever-expanding electrical needs.

Those needs are great, due to the many and varied activities of the Apostles of Infinite Love, a spiritual family that believes God gave us hands not only to join in prayer, but also to use in work. Developing and maintaining their hydro plant has involved a lot of hard work for the Apostles of Infinite Love. But it is an essential service that gives them earth-bound power to perform tasks of all kinds, helping the Magnificat community to fulfill its spiritual goals in every realm.

 

1928. Original dam at St. Jovite

 

Heavy spring floods broke through the original dam at St. Jovite, Quebec, in 1928, destroying the sawmill and powerhouse. A crew of 30 men went to work almost immediately, building a new dam, powerhouse, and metal penstock. The new hydro plant, which was owned by the Van Chesteing family, was generating power by the fall of 1928.

 

Refection work on the dam.

Dam in 2000

Dam in 2000

Working on a new propeller for the turbine.

2014. Maintenance work on the turbine.