The flare of the maples on the gold of the linden trees … The radiance of the shores of the St. Lawrence River transfigured by the autumnal light … The majesty of the waterfalls on the rapids … The squirrels dancing in the parks … and especially the warm welcome of the good people from Quebec … Who could have imagined such a trip?
This is madness! Such is the first reflection of Father Pierre when the thirty pilgrims mingle with the motley crowd of travelers at Roissy airport. Many are regulars of Roc-Estello but others go to meet Saint Joseph, or Brother André, or Léandre Lachance or simply New France. “The quantity of crazy in this world” … the promise made to Léandre during his last trip to France to come and see him in his beautiful country is held!
Seven hours of flight and a day of thirty hours. We gather at Horeb Saint-Jacques in a pretty borough in the North of Montreal, an imposing spiritual healing home built in 1979 from the desire of the sisters of St. Anne to turn their convent into a retreat for Christian groups. The welcome is warm and all smiles. At Sunday Mass, celebrated at 19:00, the Christmas Gloria is sung … because it is midnight in France! Commenting on the episode of the rich young man (Luke 16, 1-13: “Jesus set his eyes on him and he loved him”) Father Pierre invites us to be friends, to look at each other with love during these few days of pilgrimage for such is the will of Jesus.
The first three days are shared between the retreat preached by Léandre each morning, prompting us to become aware of our condition as Chosen ones of Jesus and the discovery of the “Beautiful Province” through its holy places. Léandre invites us from the first day to “give our absolute and definitive yes”. The example of his life, his warm presence and his joyous humility, help us to free ourselves from our preoccupations and to let ourselves be led from place to place sanctified by the Lord who wants “the happiness of His Own, His Chosen Ones”. Those who did not know Léandre are conquered: his humility in the service of the message entrusted to him can only inspire confidence. The “little messenger of Jesus” is at the service of the Gospel and puts himself at our disposal with all his heart: he lives the word that he proclaims: “Because Love loves you and you let yourself be loved, you become love “. We will talk again about this teaching which renews our approach to the Gospel (next issue). Let’s go now to discover the beautiful country exalted by the sweet autumn sun. The Indian summer begins and the “blaze of colors” will increase during these days.
First blessed place: Saint Joseph’s Oratory. Majestic sanctuary whose dome is emblematic of the city and visible for tens of kilometers around. It was built in successive stages between 1924 and 1956; it dominates the city of Montreal due to its location on the north side of Mount Royal, hill which gave its name to the city. It was built on the site where Brother André (1845-1937) canonized in 2010, had established a small wooden chapel dedicated to the spouse of Mary. Appointed in 1870 and then professed in 1874 in the congregation of the Holy Cross, Brother André was first the humble gatekeeper of Notre-Dame College then the extraordinary guardian of the place of prayer that developed on the mountain. He welcomed thousands of people suffering or seeking hope, urging them to pray to Saint Joseph, whom he wholeheartedly trusted. Many miraculous healings are attributed to his intercession. Today, Saint Brother André is revered worldwide.
A city tour allows us, despite the traffic jams, to feel the atmosphere of this cosmopolitan capital where many communities coexist as a result of successive migrations. As soon as you leave the business center where American-style buildings have been built, the streets are wide, the houses made of wood or brick do not exceed two or three storeys. The hill that is Mount Royal is a lush green area that is a joy for Montreal families. We discover some emblematic places: the Olympic stadium with a capacity of 65,000 people is a masterpiece of modern architecture built for the 1976 Games. Sainte Hélène Island welcomed 50 million visitors during the 1967 Universal Exhibition. The pavilion of France’s vast metal and glass structure is still standing. The day ends with a Mass at the Cathedral “Mary Queen of the World” built in the late nineteenth century on the model of St. Peter of Rome. At the top of the façade, the statues of the patron saints of thirteen Montreal parishes dominate the square instead of those of the twelve Apostles as in Rome. Inside, the canopy is also copied on that of Bernini. We participate in the evening Eucharist and animate Mass with our songs of praise.
The third day is bucolic with a walk in the glowing undergrowth of Dorwin Falls Park. We are immersed in the splendor of Quebec’s autumn and each one observes, meditates, and botanizes. After taking our fill of sensations, we are welcomed at the nearby Rawdon parish by municipal and religious authorities. The town is proud to group on its territory a “part of the whole world”. In fact, more than 40 communities live side by side and give an image of cultural mosaic. The visit of the cemetery and the Russian Orthodox chapel (in wood) makes us understand the assimilation model of Canada, which does not exclude a dose of communitarianism well understood.
Thursday, we go to Sherbrooke, in the Eastern Townships, 150 kilometers from Montreal. We are welcomed by the Marie-Jeunesse Family, which thus states its charism: “For the beauty and joy of God, to live the whole Gospel with Mary in unity, fraternity and joyful charity”. And it is truly joy that illuminates the faces of 135 engaged members or “watchers”, all under 35, and 13 priests. The main mission of this new community is to welcome and evangelize young people, and to respond to the needs of the Church where it is located. Beautiful Mass with spiritual and sweet liturgical songs. Fraternal sharing during the meal. During dessert, Father Pierre demonstrates to us masterfully in what we are “Chosen Ones of Jesus” and the call that ensues from it for us to be priests, prophets and kings for humanity. The choir sends us on a mission with a song inspired by the words of Saint Bernard: “Look at the star, invoke Mary,” and we return to the bus; “It’s like children walking their parents out,” says Geneviève, a community member. Really, this encounter full of hope will remain engraved in our memories, and we will remain in spiritual communion.
Not far from there we find Léandre’ sugar shack, deep into the forest. This is where he makes his maple syrup. The sap is harvested in the spring, when the temperature difference between day and night is important. Then the maple sap is transformed into syrup using a system of kettles and vats where the sugar concentration increases with each boil. It is the occasion of festive “sugar parties” during which the syrup is consumed, either as a seasoning of very caloric dishes (“baked beans” for example), because the weather is still very cold, either in the form of maple taffy, concentrated syrup placed on the snow to make it compact. The reception of Léandre, Élisabeth and a family of their children is very warm and welcoming, in this “cabin in Canada”.
Friday, we leave for Quebec. First stop halfway is in Trois-Rivières, a port city that was founded in the late sixteenth century, before Montreal, and was an important site for fur trade with the native populations. It is an opportunity to evoke the exploits of the first French explorers and evangelizers of New France, who left Quebec by canoe to join New Orleans. In 1949, Jean Raspail and three companions embarked from Trois-Rivières to reproduce their adventure. We admire the stained glass windows of the cathedral, considered the most beautiful in the country.
We then reach Notre-Dame du Cap, a place of pilgrimage along the St. Lawrence River; we are welcomed by Brother Thierry-Joseph, Carme, whose convent is nearby. First Marian shrine in North America, the place is very popular with Canadians and Americans. Mass is celebrated in the old chapel of the early eighteenth century, dedicated to Our Lady. The Virgin realized several wonders there: the winter of 1878, the Saint-Laurent did not freeze, and the inhabitants of the southern bank of the Saint Lawrence could not bring the stones necessary for the construction of a new sanctuary … At the end of winter, in March, a passage of ice forms from one bank to the other of the river, allowing the transport of the materials. Another wonder, the day of the dedication of the sanctuary to the Virgin, in 1888, the statue of Our Lady, special because she is pregnant with Our Lord, opens her eyes wide before the praying people. After lunch, Brother Thierry-Joseph, former Prior of the Convent of the Carmelites of Montpellier, shares his enthusiasm for the spiritual rebirth of the province that had moved away from religious practice during the “quiet revolution” of the 1970s. He testifies to us in particular of his apostolate with families. We arrive in the evening at the shrine of Sainte-Anne de Beaupré, on the estuary of the great river. The grandmother of Jesus has been venerated since 1658. This place of pilgrimage welcomes more than a million pilgrims each year. The current basilica, consecrated in 1976, majestic, is decorated with beautiful paintings, mosaics and sculptures. It welcomes our devotions for two days. In the evening, an exchange with three nuns of St. Christian makes us perceive the extent of the dechristianization of the sixties and the problems that this poses to their congregation, hit hard … but reborn on the African continent.
Saturday begins in nature. First on the site of the majestic Montmorency Falls; its 83 meters of height make them higher than Niagara Falls by 30 meters; the power of the waterfall lets out a haze of mist where a rainbow shines; the bravest climb up to the belvederes that also dominate the St. Lawrence and Île d’Orléans. It is on this island that we then peregrinate; this little paradise has been made famous by the poet Félix Leclerc who sings it like this: “Forty-two miles of quiet things … summer, winter, around the island, the Île d’Orléans … Wooden houses, stone houses, pointed steeples, and in the fields, pastures of silence. “
We then reach Quebec City, the provincial capital. It was founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, its architecture makes it the bridgehead of old France on the new continent. The Lower Town is the old quarter, with its royal place, located at the very place where Champlain built his home. The Upper Town dominates the majestic St. Lawrence Estuary, caught in the ice in the winter. Château Frontenac, a hotel built in the early 20th century, is emblematic of Quebec City. At his feet, the boardwalk leads the straggler to the Plains of Abraham, where the British general James Wolf defeated the meager troops of the Marquis de Montcalm who died there. It was September 13, 1759, and so faded the dream of “New France”. Voltaire had his share of responsibility in this incoherent abandonment, he who demotivated his compatriots by describing this vast and magnificent territory as only “a few acres of snow”. The French elites were then sent back to France or deported to Louisiana and leaving behind only the small people, at the boot of the English … The scars remain deep in the French Canadian community, indisposed by the emblem of “Queen Elizabeth” on banknotes!
We are welcomed at the Basilica of Notre-Dame Cathedral by Bishop Gérald Cyprien Lacroix, Archbishop of the city, himself. Everything in the building is reminiscent of the memory of Bishop Laval, who became the first bishop of the place, having been appointed in 1658 vicar apostolic of New France. Everything also evokes the expanse of this immense territory stretching from Hudson Bay to Louisiana. We are impressed by the missionary dynamism of this prelate … which warms our hearts! “The key to my cathedral, as the key to our faith, always and in everything, is the risen Christ! ” he proclaims.
Sunday Mass is celebrated in the Chapel of St. Anne’s Basilica, after which we head for the Huron Indian Village of Wendat. Traditional dwellings are reconstructed, lifestyles evoked. This Indian tribe was allied with the French, while the Iroquois were allied with the English. It was scattered like its protectors. We then return to Montreal by taking the Road of the King, the first road built in 1708 in New France; it connected the various seigneuries along the St. Lawrence River where the majority of the inhabitants resided. The route between Quebec and Montreal then lasted four to six days. Alas, no king of France came to visit it, but we take advantage of a little free time to linger in the heart of the old villages with the beautiful houses and the typical churches, along the river.
Last day in Old Montreal, we spend the morning at Notre-Dame Basilica, on Place d’Armes. Built in the late nineteenth century by a French architect in neo-Gothic style, its interior decoration is largely inspired by the Sainte-Chapelle of Paris. This is where we participate in our last Quebec Mass. In the afternoon, everyone disperses in the neighborhood, some to the city hall – it is on this balcony that General de Gaulle pronounced his famous “Vive le Québec libre! – a few others on the port docks … not to mention “shopping”. Ultimate stop before the airport, a moment of prayer on the tomb of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized, in 2011, by Pope Benedict XVI. The church is held by “natives” Indians, isolated in this suburb of Montreal, once lost in the heart of the forests. An moving goodbye for many, humble kiss of a decimated people to its visitors …
I still have a country to tell you, I still have a country to love … it is in the depths of you … sings Gilles Vignault. Yes, we all returned, besotted with the Belle Province, particularly in this beautiful Indian summer. The bonds of friendship mentioned at the beginning of the pilgrimage really deepened, each one lived a beautiful spiritual journey, guided by Léandre Lachance and our dear Father Pierre … Finally, it wasn’t so much madness to come to visit our distant cousins!