Despite Montreal's roots as a mission dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the city's 375th anniversary celebration will mostly focus on secular events. Photo courtesy of Joanne Lévesque, Wikimedia Commons

Religion takes back seat in Montreal’s birthday party

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • December 21, 2016

MONTREAL – With Pope Francis declining an invitation to attend Montreal’s 375th anniversary celebrations in 2017, the city is left with modest plans to recognize the important role of the Church dating back to Montreal’s founding as a Roman Catholic colony in 1642.

Several submissions of a religious nature were made to city organizers of the official celebrations, but rather than recognizing Montreal’s beginnings as a mission dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the city’s focus will be on secular events.

Mayor Denis Coderre has described the city’s founders as “courageous and visionary entrepreneurs and pioneers” without acknowledging that the founding mission was the conversion of the Indigenous people in New France.

At least 11 submissions dealing with religious themes, including one as simple as creating walking tours, were submitted, according to source on the executive of the 375 committee.

Although some submissions came too late to be considered, a proposal to celebrate Montreal’s 375th and Canada’s 150th anniversaries with a religious heritage trail never got off the ground due to of a lack of support.

“Normally we wouldn’t reveal the projects that were rejected, said Isabelle Pelletier, a media spokesperson for the Society for the Celebration of Montréal’s 375th Anniversary. “We are responsible for managing the events that have been approved, like the lighting of the Jacques Cartier Bridge and the fireworks shows. It would be up to the various boroughs, the city or the individual religious sects to decide how to deal with their religious heritage.”

By contrast, in a pastoral letter released on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception Dec. 8, Archbishop Christian Lepine pointed out, “it was in the name of Jesus that men and women set out to found the city of Montreal on May 17, 1642.”

Lepine called the founding of Montreal “a God-inspired” undertaking.

“The actual vision that led to the founding was motivated by the profound desire to proclaim Jesus Christ and to offer a model of community life and of educational and health care services,” he wrote.

“We can believe, without a doubt, that the founding of our city was the result of a great mystical force that sustained these young people’s devotion to prayer, trust in the presence of God, and strength of courage.’

He pointed to the rise of a “faith-filled people” due in part to “several religious communities of men and of women (who) bore witness to God’s eternally gracious love.”

Pelletier said it is left up to individual museums to interpret Montreal’s history through their own perspective.

“I can understand why they don’t want to recognize the church’s role in the history of the city, but ignoring it does not make it right,” said Fr. Joe Sullivan, a well known retired diocesan priest in Montreal. “It is the white-washing of history. It is not right.”

Sr. Sheila Sullivan, a member of the Congregation of Notre Dame, says a project with Parks Canada is in the works to build a monument near the waterfront to recognize the contributions of the major religious orders who influenced Montreal. A design competition for the project is expected to be announced but the monument won’t be unveiled in 2017.

Lepine will celebrate Mass on Jan. 15 at the Bonsecours Chapel, in honour of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, one of the city’s early pioneers. Bourgeoys opened the colony’s first school and in 1671 founded the Congregation of Notre Dame.

An exhibition, Coup de théâtre: I founded Montreal!, will open at the Chapel’s museum on April 27. In May there will be a two-day symposium on the role of the young pioneers who settled in Montreal.

A second symposium is being planned for the fall. It will focus on women who helped build the city: Jeanne Mance, who established the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital in 1645; St. Marguerite d’Youville, who founded the Order of Sisters of Charity of Montreal, commonly known as the Grey Nuns; Jeanne le Ber, a pious recluse who used her family fortune to provide for the poor, and Bourgeoys.

A photo exhibition by Ari Bayuaji will pay homage to not only the Catholic but to the Protestant, Jewish and Muslim influences on the city’s spiritual life. Le Pelerins, a spiritual community, is also planning a series of seminars at St. Joseph’s Oratory as part of the anniversary.

(Hustak is a writer in Montreal.)

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