It was the Sunday of the Montreal Worldcon, August 2009. The con was pretty much to all intents and purposes done and cooked; a long and lazy Sunday stretched out before me, and a friend – Canadian West Coast novelist Donna McMahon – and I decided to go for a wander in the cobbled alleys of Old Montreal.
I’d done a “ghost walk” thing in the same area, the night before or perhaps the day before that, and I had a memory of certain landmarks which were pointed out by that guide. Donna and I kind of wandered around following a few of these, and finally washed up on the stone steps of the chapel known as Notre Dame de Bon Secours.
You could enter directly into the gorgeous church itself, full of gilt and glory and stained glass, or you could tiptoe past all that along a narrow corridor to the side of the place, leaving the chapel itself till last, and buy tickets (at the counter of the inevitable giftshop, of course) for the attached museum as well as access to the chapel’s tower which promised views of the river and the rooftops of the Old City.
So we did.
Ascending to the top of the tower was accomplished via a narrow twisted stair whose one wall was stripped down to expose the ancient stonework; along the uneven and creaking stairwell, signs popped up exhorting patrons to tread carefully on the “antique staircase” (although I have to admit that the “escalier patrimonial” concept was by far the more endearing than a mere antique stair…)
The top of the tower was a narrow little balcony guarded by two angels green with age, one on each side:
The roofs and alleys of the old city, lying revealed beneath us, and the river glimpsed across treetops a little futher away were a view worth the careful climb up the “escalier patrimonial”. The place inspired at least one subsequent short story (look it up, if you like – it appears here).
The view was fantastic because this edifice was built on top of an ancient promontory over the river, once a campsite for the native tribes who lived in this area before the first European settlers arrived, and subsequently the heart of one of the very first suburbs of the city founded by those settlers, the city beneath the mountain which was named Mount Royal, Mont Real. Once you descent the tower (via a different staircase to the one on which you climbed up, I might add – this is an odd little place) you can make your way to the crypt of the chapel where you can look at the history of the chapel whose foundation helped build this great city, laid out and dissected for you – traces of an old camping ground which dates back more than two millennia, and the remnants of the original stone chapel first built by Montreal settlers three hundred years ago. There is a deep sense of history that’s wrapped up in the stones of this building, something that you can’t help but take in, by osmosis, through the air that you are breathing, looking at stones centuries old which were laid here by human hand and around which a whole city began to grow.
And when you make your way to the actual museum area, you discover that much of the history of this place is inextricably tied to one woman, Marguerite Bourgeoys, who lived in 17th-century Montreal.
If you had gone into the chapel first you would have seen two cameo paintings on the back wall. One of them shows the founder of Montreal, a gentleman bearing the ponderous moniker of Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, who donated the land on which the original chapel was raised. The other is of Marguerite Bourgeoys herself, the founder of the original Congrégation de Notre-Dame on this site. Back in 1655 it was Marguerite who rallied the Montreal colonists to build a chapel dedicated to worship and pilgrimage outside of the original settlement – a chapel which was finally completed in 1675, twenty years later. Marguerite brought back from France a wooden statue of the chapel’s namesake, Notre Dame de Bon Secours, the same one now living in the reliquary on the left side altar of the chapel, the wooden statue which was the only thing found unharmed amidst the smoking embers when fire destroyed that original chapel in 1754. Just one of the miracles associated with this place.
It is Marguerite, one of the founders of this chapel and the first teacher at the associated school, who is being commemorated in the small museum housed here. Marguerite, born in France in 1620, and was only 20 when she experienced the call to a lifelong vocation of service and the foundation of a devout faith which would last her whole life. She had a remarkable ability, it would seem, to be the tie that binds, to gather up people and focus them all on a single goal, towards the achievement of a single cause.
She was recruited to the new colony of what was then Ville-Marie in 1653, becoming nurse, friend and confidante to the new colonists who arrived to triple the population of proto-Montreal. She was still a relatively young woman but she joined Montreal’s founder, Maisonneuve, and the hospital administrator of the settlement as an equal – she understood right from the start that the role of women in the new colony would be significant, and she started workshops and classes where ordinary women could learn skills which enabled them to earn a living. Once the chapel was built, Marguerite was instrumental in establishing a school where the settlement’s children could be taught such things as counting, reading, writing, and of course catechism; the older girls also learned the domesic skills they would need to become wives and mothers and managers of their own households. She returned briefly to France – yet another perilous ocean voyage! – to recruit and bring back companions with whom she could share her vision and her work. This was not a nunnery – the women were not cloistered – and although the community, the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, survived and flourished and did lots of good works the approval for such a community by the Church was not actually granted until as late as 1698, only two years before Marguerite’s death. But Marguerite herself was a doughty soul, a woman with a mission, and she neither asked for nor needed such approval (from Bishop or from King) in order to continue doing the work she saw as her duty and her destiny. She might have been a bit of a rebel back then – but she has long been held up by the very Church she initially flouted as a model for our times. In fact, she was canonized in 1982, and her remains were brought home to Notre Dame de Bon Secours in 2005, to rest in a crypt in the stone chapel which she had helped raise as a beacon of her faith.
The chapel also became a place of pilgrimage, then, as the faithful came to lay their troubles at the foot of a saint. One of the side exhibits of the small museum is devoted to pilgrimage, the act of it, the motivation of it, the practical aspects of it – and much of this is instructive and almost awe-inspiring, as and of itself. The display includes objects associated with pilgrimate – staffs, worn-out shoes, images and relics which were succour and reward – and is a serene and powerful insight into the human mind and spirit.
But it is the museum rooms devoted to Marguerite’s life, not the aftermath of it, which is fascinating. It is… oddly childlike. There is a room which is devoted to envisioning the time-line of the colony and its chapel and its school and the woman who ran it all with a gentle but firm hand; this is done in a series of dioramas populated by dolls, and the effect is rather like a very large and very busy and very detailed dolls-house, one into which you might walk and become immersed in its subject matter. But you also feel as though you are invited to be playful as well as admiring, simple and child-like as well as seeing it all through the lens of the centuries that have passed and your own adult point of view. It takes you back to another day – both literally and metaphorically – and it’s a strange and oddly refreshing feeling, as though you’ve just been offered a cool glass of lemonade on a hot summer day. Another room features shadow boxes where similar scenes are depicted with the aid of images and holograms; you have to go and duck your head into a hood-like overhang, almost like one of those old-time photographers who covers his head with a cloth when taking a picture, and then the thing comes alive in front of your eyes. More playfulness; more invitation to learn from the simple things, the simple faith, the simple beginnings.
When we were done with the museum and finally made our way back into the chapel, I confess to feeling rather strange – I had just learned a great deal about this strong and gentle and pious woman who worked so hard to build a community and educate its women and children, and now I was in a position in which I had never been before, in that I was standing in her presence. In the presence, at least, of her mortal remains – the Church would have her spirit up there at the right hand of God, where the saints get to go when they die. It was the first time – and probably the last – that I stood in the presence of a saint.
This is not my faith, or at the very least not my branch of the larger river that constitutes Christianity as a whole. These actual beliefs, this particular dogma, this way of worship, they were not mine. They belonged to a different breed of believer. To somebody who might come into this place on reverent and shoeless feet to give their respect and their devotion to the saint who lies entombed within. And yet… and yet… there’s an awe here, and a respect, and although this was not my place to do pilgrimage that museum showing me Marguerite’s life and times and works had made it easier for me to stand here and believe in her.
I did not pray TO her – we of my own denomination wouldn’t – but somehow she had made it easter to catch a small glimpse into something that was much bigger and vaster than both of us. It suddenly seemed very appropriate that I had been up in the tower and had looked out over the world – because that’s what had happened here, my vision had been allowed to roam freely from a higher place. I did not come to worship. But apparently I did come to learn. And Marguerite, the teacher of Montreal, was still at the job.
One thing I didn’t know, back there at the chapel – that certain lyrics in Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” are apparently descriptive of this very chapel – the lines “And the sun pours down like honey/on our lady of the harbour” refer to the statue of the Madonna which adorns this particular church.
Here’s the whole song:
It occurs to me that the concept of faith and the poetry of Leonard Cohen have a great deal in common, really. If you examine them closely, rationally, empirically, they make no real sense whatsoever – but put it all together, in a song like “Suzanne” or a chapel like Notre Dame de Bon Secours, and a bigger picture emerges, something that you understand with instinct and heart and spirit rather than with mind. With faith, you don’t KNOW. You BELIEVE.
And sometimes – even for someone like me, who isn’t steeped in the deep faith of someone like Marguerite Bourgeoys – that makes sense, too.
And it takes an odd little museum in an ancient stone church with an “escalier patrimonial” to remind you of that.
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