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The International Writers Magazine: Quebec - Canada

Museums & Churches
of Quebec

Fred C Wilson III

I’ve always wanted to visit our neighbor to the north. At long last I was going to see Canada…the land of ‘Sergeant Preston’ that legendary Mountie (member of the Canadian Mounted Police or RCMP) of television fame who was so popular when I was a kid and his faithful dog King?

Montreal Photos:
© Sam North
“On King! Mush you huskies!” Yeah that guy. I was finally taking that great leap over to the heavily forested other side of Lake Michigan. Another childhood fantasy fulfilled.

Why Quebec? I didn’t speak French. The purpose of my trip was to experience religious life in another country, visit the museums, take a lot of pictures and mingle with the locals. I wanted to observe first hand how people live and go about their business in Canada; Quebec in close proximity by air to Chicago seemed a logical choice.

Montreal, Quebec is a city of magnificent churches living testaments to the vibrant Catholicism that once prevailed in the city.

Day One
Cathedral The metropolitan Cathedral of St. Mary Queen of the World, St. Joseph’s Oratory that sits high on a hill, Notre-Dame Basilica with its grand chapel of the Sacred Heart, along with many other lesser known but equally grandiose Catholic worship centers; all these treasures and much more awaited me in this predominately French-speaking city. Once I arrived and settled in, I made my rounds of the city’s shrines only to uncover the sad truth that that these splendid churches are sparsely attended even on Sundays. A number of people I spoke with informed me, along with a recent National Geographic article on Quebec that between 1960 and the end of Vatican Council II Roman Catholicism in the French speaking province died.

Quebec once the jewel in the tiara of Roman Catholicism did what many once Catholic countries fell prey to, they misinterpreted the true meaning of that council and ‘renewed’ themselves right out of the Church coming to the point of being anti-Catholic.

I met French Canadians who told me how they admired the Faith of American Catholics with our high church attendance and large numbers of Sunday and daily Holy Communicants. Not so in Quebec though on certain feast days churches are still packed.

Contrary to what many non-French speaking people may think about the French, I found the people north of the border exceptionally nice, talkative, and quite a few went out of their way to make me feel at home although I don’t speak a word of their language. Oh I studied it in high school and college but got booted out of class for low marks; not your Rhodes Scholar type.

During my stay in Montreal I’d stop in the downtown cathedral church of Marie-Reine-du-Monde. Originally named St. James the Great in 1894 but renamed after Our Lady in 1955, an interesting thing about this massive edifice is that it is an accurate model of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome down to its very last details both the exterior and interior though it was built on a slightly smaller scale. I say slightly because the city cathedral is huge. The Masses are French as expected. I had little difficulty in keeping up. I ‘borrowed’ a missal (Mass book) from my parish church in Chicago and took it with me.

Another grandiose house of Catholic worship is Notre-Dame Basilica and its attendant chapel. Built in 1823 – 1829 this Gothic Revival church is famous for its’ polychrome interior, elaborate ornamentation, hand carved high altar and pulpit, and its’ gigantic casavant organ installed in 1891. Staffed by the Supulcian Fathers who in the olden times were famous for their expertise in the training of priests, this church is well known throughout the world. Case in point; on the third (or forth) floor in Manila’s (Philippines) Megamall adjacent to the Shangri La Hotel one floor down before you get to the art galleries on the uppermost floor there is the Eucharistic Chapel. As you enter this tiny chapel there is a large poster of this Canadian church in all its’ splendor. It’s hard to paint a visual picture of this church. Use your search engine and see for yourself. The massive wooden main altar, the 10 or so side altars, pews, balcony pillars, statues are all hand carved to the minutest details. And those colored lights that highlight this total work of art make this church and adjacent chapel a must see experience for any pilgrim or serious art aficionado. As I sat contemplating the shear beauty of this grand church I mentally transported myself back in time to Pre-Vatican II days. How I wished that I could have attended the Solemn Pontifical High Mass (a Communion Liturgy with all the stops pulled out) of Christmas or Easter in this church before the changes. It must have been glorious!

Montreal is a city for lovers. Public parks, the small church bell tower I climbed while making pilgrimage are populated by couples holding hands, embracing, and in the various stages of doing some serious making-out something one rarely sees in emotionally colder American cities. What you’ve heard about the laize-faire attitude among the French regarding to sex is true! I spent some of my time hanging out among the local folks. Most were ordinary work- a-day people some of the more free spirited folks were something else; they had swinging down to a fine art; the French you just gotta’ love ‘em; pray or play they go all out; no half measures.

I went to a major league baseball game between the then Montreal Expos and the San Francisco Giants. The game played was the same as in other baseball loving countries though I had to seriously brush up on my French just to follow the announcer. The home team lost 4 to 2 if my memory serves me correctly. The Expos are now the Washington Nationals.

If you love food smothered in heavy cream and savory butter sauces French cooking’s right for you. I’ve traveled to many countries but the only food that has ever disagreed with me was French cuisine. Nothing personal but I can’t stomach the stuff, though my sainted mother, who was French Creole from New Orleans, used to spend her summers with friends in a small community outside of Quebec City brushing up on her French.

Day Two

montreal My Guardian Angel must have served as my personal tour guide. I didn’t know a living soul in that city. Hiking was my favorite hobby until my left leg went south. On Day Two I took a walking tour. After Mass and breakfast-right across the street from the cathedral there’s this truly international pancake house that serve the best American style breakfasts to a wide assortment of tourists from all parts of the world; I started my tour of the city. Early into my hike started I was befriended by a well dressed very articulate gentleman.

At first I was a bit weary if you know what I mean. He was genuine and showed me around the city, paid for my lunch though he didn’t touch a bit of food or drink himself, took me to the places where the locals ate, and give me a play-by-play historical description of Montreal’s public parks, civic centers, and palaces of education and commerce. This guy was a walking history book. When the day ended we shook hands. I thanked him for his time. When I turned around to see him off, the guy vanished from view; poof! He was gone! There were no crowds around for him to blend in; friggin’ weird.

Now some history: ‘Montreal was incorporated as a city in 1832. The opening of the Lachine Canal permitted ships to bypass the unnavigable Lachine Rapids, while the construction of the Victoria Bridge established Montreal as a major railway hub. These linked the established Port of Montréal with continental markets and spawned rapid industrialization during the mid 1800s. The economic boom attracted French Canadian laborers from the surrounding countryside to factories in satellite cities such as Saint-Henri and Maisonneuve. Irish immigrants settled in tough working class neighborhoods such as Point Saint Charles and Griffintown, making English and French linguistic groups roughly equal in size. By 1852, Montreal had 60,000 inhabitants; by 1860, it was the largest city in British North America and the undisputed economic and cultural centre of Canada, and it still is’ (source: Wikipedia). The city has suffered various political upheavals, Great Depression, two world wars but Montreal grew and prospered to become the cultural and economic giant it is today.

Day Three

St Josephs Mt Royal St. Joseph’s Oratory sits atop Mount Royal the highest point in the city. Founded as a small chapel by Saint Andre Bassette and like his contemporary Blessed Solanus Casey of Detroit, Michigan, Brother Andre was a humble door keeper or porter. Like the previous mentioned churches this white marbled monument to St. Joseph the Husband of Mary is huge and breathtakingly beautiful.

The main church seats 2,200 worshipers. The rest of the shrine is honeycombed with large numbers of lesser chapels and crypts all devoted to certain aspects in the lives of the Saints Mary, Joseph, and Andre. As with all divinely inspired ideas the shrine idea grew; the rest is history. The Oratory has a huge gift shop staffed by some really friendly people. Famous personages from Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, to the relics of the Little Flower or St. Therese Martin all paid visit to this now historic place of Catholic worship.

You can’t see everything on foot. I reluctantly signed up for a guided tour to the Shrine of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. The shrine is outside Montreal on an Indian reserve in the parish church of St. Francis Xavier in Kahnawake, Quebec. Our tour bus pulled up to the church. We got out and walked the short walk to the church where the saint was interred. Inside our guide gave us a lecture on the life and times of this Native American holy woman. When the lecture ended our group was feted with an Indian Pow-Wow before being permitted to tour the parish shrine on our own.

One of the disadvantages of visiting religious places is the high number of anti-religious types who tag along for the ride creating their own private whispering campaign to ‘stir the pot.’ I heard a lot of “those old bones could be anybodies…I refuse to support this nonsense…the Catholic Church uses this shrine to exploit these Indians just to keep them poor and dependant…Blah! Blah! Blah!” I say let folks believe (or disbelieve) what they want to without the ‘background noise.’

Day Four

After three days in this picturesque city it was time to mush on to Quebec City and its many historically significant museum-churches. Quebec City is about 100 miles from Montreal. It was built parallel to the St. Lawrence River. The original name Kebec is Algonquin for ‘where the river narrows’ hence Quebec. The city is one of the oldest European settlements on the North American continent. Mexico City, St. Augustine in Florida, Santa Fe, New Mexico, is among the few cities that predate Quebec. Founded by Samuel de Champlain on July 3, 1608, it is also the first non-Spanish European city on North America. But before the site became Quebec French explorer Jacques Cartier built a fort in 1535 to ‘winter’ before trekking on once the cold weather broke.

The world famous hotel Le Chateau Frontenac (See photo) is a well known landmark. Replete with stone towers, gables, copper turrets standing tall over the St. Lawrence River, the giant building is one of the finest examples of medieval stone masonry in the New World.

Whenever this writer is on holiday I always stay in hotels in non-touristy areas. Not only are they inexpensive but you get to know the people, the food’s better, inexpensive, and the locals ‘know where everything’s at.’ Why isolate yourself from the common culture and people staying in some overpriced tourist settlement when you can mingle with the ‘natives’ and get a feel for the culture of a place? Case in point when I was in Honolulu I stayed away from fancy tourist rip-off places with their overpriced food/souvenirs. I stayed in a smaller hotel on the oceanfront that was sandwiched between two large luxury hotels and I purchased my souvenirs from Sears.

I checked into a local hotel adjacent to a small church. Being so close to the Divine was pretty cool. Quebec City is hilly. I made my way around the city on foot. I hiked to the Citadel and took in the early morning ceremony of the Changing of the Guard. After that splendid military review it was off to Le Chateau Frontenac for more picture taking.

Old Quebec There was so much to see in Quebec City. Before my day ended I took many pictures: St. Louis Gate, the Military Drill Hall, the city Parliament Building, Old Quebec (the older section of this picturesque city), and continued the religious segment of my trip north by making a pilgrimage to the city cathedral and a few popular shrines.

I combined the very serious business of retooling my soul and taking as many pictures as I could. Reader I’m a photographer with a degree in Fine Art with special emphasis in Photography and Ceramics. I used rolls of Kodak. I no longer own a digital camera because my hand shakes. Tired and weary from my walking tour, I stumbled back my hotel, showered, and went back outside for a bite to eat. When I returned to the hotel I went to bed. I’m not much of a night person.

Day Five

I’ve heard so much about the legendary Shrine of St. Anne De Beaupre. I’ve seen pictures of the many votive offerings of crutches and other discarded tools of sickness that healed clients left at the shrine in living testament to the miraculous powers of St. Anne. I wanted to see for myself so I took a bus for the hour or so trip along the St. Lawrence River to the shrine.
St Anne

The shrine is a good 30 miles east of Quebec City. The city’s public transit system has a special bus for those traveling to the shrine. The ride was a tour unto itself. We went past Montmorency Falls a landmark of nature. Soon after we were in the town devoted to the Mother of the Virgin.

The shrine like many main churches in French Canada is huge. The place is lined with all sorts of religious goods shops that gave the holy site the feeling of being a religious Disneyland. Since 1658 there were five churches dedicated to the saint with the present one built in 1923 consecrated by Cardinal Maurice Roy on July 4, 1976 the day of our American Bicentennial. After touring the shrine and taking pictures, I purchased one of those larger than life sized Rosaries and other souvenirs for the folks back home. When I was finished I took a bus back to the city. I remained in Quebec City for two days after visiting St. Anne’s shrine.

At this point the religious aspect of my French Canadian holiday ended. I spent my remaining week mingling with a group of guys I had met, toured the cities of Hull and Ottawa the national capitol. I returned to Montreal’s airport and a few hours later it was home sweet home Chicago. In retrospect I had a great time. I made friends, ran my soul through spiritual boot camp, toured museums and Canadian cities, toured some of the surrounding countryside, and went to a ball game.

There were some negatives. I flew Air France from Chicago to Montreal. If you enjoy rude unsmiling flight attendants, don’t mind having your magazines, newspapers and food shoved at you by unsmiling matronly flight attendants who would better serve as camp guards in ‘Schindlers List’ then I recommend this airline. The polite, pleasant efficient staff of the Air Canada flight back home was the complete opposite except for a horrific storm we encountered over Toronto; that I won’t go in to. If you want to learn more about ‘Quebec la belle provence’ where to stay, group/individual tours, air lines, restaurants, please log into the various websites on the Internet. Happy flying! Better still take the train from Montreal to Quebec - free wi-fi and spectacular views.
© Fred C. Wilson III January 2014

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