Before and after Confederation, the Catholic Church contributed to the fields of education, health care and charitable works across Canada. As Montreal prepares to celebrate its 375th anniversary, we remember that French Canada is also home to famous saints including St. Marie of the Incarnation, St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, St. Francois de Laval and St. Brother André for their contributions to the growth of the nation. Photo illustration by Michael Chen

Welcoming nation

  • February 26, 2015

A splendid idea percolated last month out of Montreal, where Archbishop Christian Lepine and Mayor Denis Coderre invited Pope Francis to visit Quebec in 2017.

The archbishop and mayor presented the invitation at the Vatican, where they reminded the Pope of Quebec’s Catholic heritage and urged him to come to Montreal for the city’s 375th anniversary. They suggested he also visit Quebec City. This is a wonderful proposal that should excite all Canadian Catholics. The Pope will visit the United States this summer.

Two years later feels about right for a return to North America. Who can object to Montreal’s wish to embrace the Pope in the cradle of Canadian Catholicism during its big year?

But — and this is not to steal Montreal’s thunder — a papal visit in 2017 is doubly appropriate because that’s when Canada turns 150. Just as the Church was central in the history of Montreal, it played an integral role across the rest of the country before and after Confederation. As part of Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations, it is appropriate for Ottawa to also welcome Pope Francis and in a very public way recognize the historical contribution of the Church in all of Canada.

In his invitation, the Montreal mayor referred to the important role of the Church in education, health care and “many other charitable works too numerous to mention” in Montreal. There is no denying the contributions of such founding figures as St. Marie of the Incarnation, St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, St. Margaret d’Youville and St. Francois de Laval, nor the 20th-century work of St. Brother André. All deserve to be honoured in Montreal’s celebrations.

But the case to acclaim the Church’s guiding hand extends far beyond Montreal.  The influence of the Church penetrates the social, religious and political fabric right across the country. Long before there was a social-welfare net, religious orders operated hospitals, schools, orphanages and soup kitchens, and embraced boatloads of impoverished immigrants who landed here.

The explorer John Cabot carried a crucifix and a papal banner when he arrived in 1497 in Newfoundland. Jesuit missionaries joined the first explorers of Ontario and St. Jean de Brebeuf and seven others were martyred in the 17th century. The Franciscans will celebrate 400 years in Canada this summer. The Oblates were western pioneers whose missionary work helped build a nation. The list goes on and on.

Coderre called the Church a “pillar in the founding of Montreal.” He is right, but that barely scratches the surface. Priests, sisters and brothers from countless orders have been pillars for all of Canada. So let’s celebrate them all when Montreal and Canada mark important anniversaries in 2017.

As the mayor said, no one is more fitting to lead that celebration than Pope Francis.

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