Manon Blanchette, here inside Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica, is the first woman appointed to head the corporation that administers the downtown basilica. Photo by Alan Hustak

Notre Dame Basilica makes history by naming first woman to run its operations

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • November 10, 2016

MONTREAL – After being run exclusively by men for 360 years, Montreal’s oldest and most historic Catholic parish has become possibly the first in Quebec (and perhaps anywhere in Canada) to name a woman to manage its day-to-day operations.

Manon Blanchette, a career diplomat with a degree in art history, has been appointed head of the corporation which administers Notre Dame in downtown Montreal.

She will be responsible for running historic Notre Dame Basilica, its museum, two chapels (Notre Dame de Lourdes and Notre Dame de Bonsecours) as well as Canada’s largest cemetery, Notre Dame des Neiges on Mount Royal.

“I anticipate with absolute joy dealing with the challenges which I face,” Manon said.

Unlike the rest of Canada, parishes in Quebec are corporate entities (or fabriques) unto themselves and are run at arm’s length from the archdiocese. The Notre Dame properties are owned by the Society of Priests of St. Sulpice, more commonly known as Sulpicians, who once held title to the entire Island of Montreal.

Founded in 1656, Notre Dame has a storied history. In recent years, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and hockey legend Maurice Richard were buried from the basilica, Celine Dion was married there and Luciano Pavarotti and Gerard Depardieu performed in the church.

In addition to its place at the heart of Montreal’s religious history, the basilica is also an important cultural venue in the city. An estimated 750,000 people visit the church each year.

“Just because people don’t go to Mass as often as they once did, doesn’t mean they are any less religious, any less spiritual,” said Blanchette.

“The challenge here is to take advantage of the architectural and the historic significance of the church and promote it as a place of reflection, of spirituality, as well as a house of prayer. We need to satisfy people’s hunger for spirituality.”

Blanchette will be responsible for programming events to mark the founding of Montreal 375 years ago.

A former cultural attaché at the Canadian Embassy in Paris, Blanchette has also worked at Montreal’s Museum of Archeology and History and is a member of the Montreal Arts Council.

Senator Serge Joyal, who sits on the board of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, called Blanchette’s appointment significant in more ways than one.

“Notre Dame parish has had a big impact on the city for centuries,” he said. “Historically, the downtown parish is bigger than the archdiocese itself. It is a showcase of what a parish should be. “Her appointment is also another example of the fact that the Church in Quebec is much more open, much more inclusive and much more tolerant than it is in the rest of Canada. We don’t adopt as doctrinaire a position as some parishes, particularly in Western Canada, do.”

Others in the parish point out that as the number of priests continues to decline, qualified women like Blanchette will be engaged to relieve pastors of the job of running the financial and administrative details of various parishes.

Notre Dame’s liturgical duties will continue to be conducted by  Fr. Miguel Castellanos, who was recently made pastor of the basilica and is chairman of its administrative council.

Castellanos is from Chiquinquirá, Colombia. Concerns had been expressed that as a Montreal newcomer he might not appreciate the importance of the shrine or its place in the hearts of French Canada.

(Hustak is a freelance writer in Montreal.)

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