Catholic Montreal lives

By 
  • October 24, 2012

Within 20 minutes of my house are shrines to Canada’s two newest saints. To the south, visible across the St. Lawrence, is the spire and façade of St. Francis of Xavier Mission in Kahnawake, the simple little church that honours St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Heading in the opposite direction for a few minutes brings into view the unmistakable dome of St. Joseph’s Oratory, the imposing shrine to St. Brother André Bessette.

Both, of course, have been elevated to sainthood in the past two years — St. Kateri on Oct. 21; St. Brother André in October, 2010. I wish I could say this fresh and welcome bursting forth of sanctity has had an immediate beneficial effect on the city of Montreal, or even my neighbourhood. That might be hoping for too much too soon. Perhaps the power of the communion of saints obliges dutiful patience at least equivalent to that required for the process of sainthood itself.

What has been notable is the attention paid to both canonizations in a city that normally prides itself on its smirking, cynical secularism and its contempt for all things related to the Church. With Brother André’s elevation, particularly, there was a genuine buzz that was amplified by official civic and media interest. The interest in St. Kateri, the Lily of the Mohawks, was more muted. Her church, after all, is on the city’s south shore across the rickety Mercier Bridge, not in fashionable Outremont.

Still, significant attention was paid in quarters that might have been otherwise expected to ignore it. It was, if nothing else, an opportunity to flay the Church yet again for its sins against the aboriginal population. There was also the irresistible attraction of working in pop culture references to Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel Beautiful Losers, in which Kateri is the object of a character’s obsession.

The enduring appeal of at least local saints, even if only as a morbid fascination with the Church’s purported eccentricities, confounds the authorized Quebec attitude toward Catholicism and, indeed, Christianity itself.

For generations now, Quebecers have been taught to regard their historic, foundational faith as if it were grandmother’s corpse in a rocking chair in the attic: if we ignore it eventually the smell will go away. But what ho! It turns out there is plenty of life in the old girl yet.

Recognition of that life would unquestionably have a salutary effect not just on the future of the Church as an institution, not to mention the souls of the faithful yet-to-come, but also on Quebec’s connection to, and understanding of, its past. Research being done by a young scholar I know provides a sense of how clouded that understanding is, and the larger cultural damage that is the result.

The researcher has become fascinated by the role of religious women, particularly the Ursuline nuns, in the development of early New France. While popular depiction smothers the landscape of that era with Jesuits in black robes, he is discovering how much even cloistered women religious were able to contribute to the establishment of the settlement and, more importantly, to peaceful interaction with indigenous peoples.

His research is in the early stages yet so he is shy about attention, but the evidence is starting to show that the first Ursuline teaching and nursing sisters were a focal point for the exchange of knowledge in arts such as weaving and basket making as well as in botany and chemistry. He has found a treasure trove of personal letters and official reports revealing that pivotal role. It has turned up not in Montreal or Quebec City, where one might expect to find it, but in archives in Paris and other French cities.

What’s fascinating is not just that the French archival material has gone untouched for so long, but why it has been ignored. Quebec academics, he says, don’t like to go outside Quebec to research their own history. And if it involves the Church? Well, they’d rather tiptoe past the door to the attic than enter and find out how grandmother’s doing in her rocking chair. Why not? It’s what they’ve been taught to do for generations. Yet if all history is ultimately local, as a wise man once said, what happens to a people when the very institutions that shaped its locale are declared verboten?

All we can do then is pray that the saints in the neighborhood will preserve us.

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