Montreal Archbishop Christian Lepine celebrates the 400th anniversary of the first Mass on the Island of Montreal on a birch bark canoe altar June 24. The Mass, held at St. John the Baptist Church, included a re-enactment of explorer Samuel de Champlain and two Franciscans, Frs. Denys Jamet and Joseph le Caron, who came ashore during one of his journeys to the New World Photo by Alan Hustak

Montreal marks 400 years since Champlain’s first Mass

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • June 27, 2015

MONTREAL - Montreal Archbishop Christian Lepine celebrated Mass on a birch bark canoe altar June 24 to mark the feast of St. John the Baptist while at the same time commemorating the 400th anniversary of what is widely thought to be the first Mass ever celebrated on the Island of Montreal.

The historic church of St. Jean the Baptiste in the city’s Plateau district played host to the anniversary Mass and was packed to the rafters for the occasion as parishioners and dignitaries, including Liberal MP Stephane Dion and Plateau-Montreal Borough Mayor Luc Ferrandez, filled the pews, aisles and side balconies for the two-hour service.

It began with an interactive pageant staged by students from the Centre Benoit Lacroix before a giant video screen. The presentation, Portrait in Motion, depicted explorer Samuel de Champlain and two Franciscan priests, Denys Jamet and Joseph le Caron, coming ashore during one of his remarkable journeys at Ahunstic on June 24, 1615, where they were welcomed with astonished enthusiasm by a crowd of curious Hurons and Algonquins.

The scent of sweetgrass filled the church as an aboriginal purification ritual was performed and the story of the first Mass was re-enacted. A choir from Kahnawake participated and clergy representing various religious orders surrounded the altar.
In his diaries, Champlain tells us that the Mass that day was “chanted on the border of the back river in the presence of all the people who were amazed at seeing the ceremonies observed and the ornaments which seemed to them so handsome. It was something which they had never seen before for these fathers were the first to celebrate here the Holy Mass.”

In spite of Champlain’s assertion, 80 years earlier Jacques Cartier travelled with two priests when he explored the island on his second voyage to America. They may have celebrated a Mass on Oct. 6, 1535, although there is no record of it. At any rate, it doesn’t matter, as Lepine said in his homily. The commemorative Mass presented “an occasion for us to reflect on our past,”

Lepine described Champlain as a major figure in the history of Canada, Quebec and Montreal, who came not just to explore New France, but as “a spiritual presence, someone who was spiritually motivated to spread Christ’s Gospel.” The faith which the early explorers brought with them, he said, continues to be handed down from generation to generation.  

The Mass ended with baskets of petits pains benits being distributed at the door in keeping with an age-old French Canadian tradition.

The Mass was described as “a precursor of the celebrations that will mark the 375th anniversary of the founding of Montreal as a Roman Catholic religious colony in 1642.

(Hustak is a contributing editor at Ville Marie online.)

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