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Montreal church stands as mariners' rock

 

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A view westward, toward the core of downtown Montreal, from a tower of the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel in the Old Montreal district. The Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum is adjoined to the church. (Marcos Townsend for the Boston Globe)

 

 

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon, Globe Correspondents | May 9, 2007

 

MONTREAL -- Poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen was hardly the first Montrealer to gaze fondly on the chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours when he wrote "the sun pours down like honey / on Our Lady of the Harbour" in his pop hit "Suzanne." While the statue of the "Lady" wasn't erected until 1893, homecoming mariners have watched for the welcoming visage of the Old Port church since the first wooden chapel was erected on the spot in 1655.

 

 

 

 

Although the church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it is equally a monument to its founder, Marguerite Bourgeoys , who was born in France in 1620 , became known as "the mother of the colony," and was ultimately canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1982 . In an era when most women rarely left their villages, Bourgeoys crossed the Atlantic Ocean seven times in her mission to educate the women of Montreal and raise money in her homeland to support the Congrégation de Notre-Dame , the religious order she founded.

 

Just as Bourgeoys's legend became ever more expansive over the years, so did the church. She persuaded the community to rebuild it in stone in the late 1670s , and when that church burned in 1754 , it was replaced with the stone structure that stands today. In 1893 it sprouted a central tower topped with the nearly 20-foot-high open-armed statue of "Mary, Star of the Sea," flanked by two herald angels. The single-vault chapel's intimacy contrasts sharply with Montreal's more bombastic churches, and ship models suspended from the ceiling as ex-votos for voyages survived identify the church as the mariners' own.

 

With the rapid secularization of Montreal (the Catholic Church dominated education, health care, and social services through the 1960s), public recognition of Bourgeoys has declined. But she remains one of the rocks on which the city was built, and the Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum , attached to the chapel, memorializes her accomplishments.

 

The exhibits evoke an intimate vision of the early years of Montreal. Visitors can inspect the original foundations of the early chapels and view artifacts exhumed during archeological work here in the 1990s . Cracked blue and white porcelain cups and plates, discarded belt buckles, and broken pipes seem to conjure up their long-ago owners, who were determined to maintain the veneer of civilization in the distant wilds. They never stopped thinking of themselves as French, as the green glass wine bottles attest.

 

The tour winds up a 69-step staircase to the 19th-century tower. Walls along this level's open walkway are lined with images of the St. Lawrence River and the port of Montreal in 1685 . For a perfect juxtaposition of old and new, turn and look outside to see people strolling and cycling along the modern-day Old Port promenade while the grand geodesic dome of the Biosphère shines in the distance. Another 23 steps lead up to the belvedere, where visitors are suddenly almost face to face with the herald angels and the broad expanse of the modern city extends down the waterfront to the horizon.

 

By 1668 , Bourgeoys had moved her religious order from the center of the town to a rural farm on Pointe St-Charles near the Lachine rapids , a short bike ride or bus trip from Old Montreal. Bourgeoys originally taught the women of the colony to read, but soon expanded her activities to include schools for surrounding First Peoples villages and the care of the "filles du roy," the young women given dowries by Louis XIV and sent to the colony to marry and multiply.

 

The old stone farmstead, Maison St-Gabriel , now functions as a heritage museum of 17th-century rural life with a focus on the filles du roy, who still loom large in Quebecois legend. Often recruited among the urban poor, many of the women lacked even rudimentary skills for colonial life. Tours in English and French by guides in 17th-century garb focus on the transformation of the filles du roy into sturdy colonists. Their re-created period vegetable gardens underline the need for self-sufficiency. The property's 19th-century fieldstone barn holds temporary exhibitions, such as "An Iron in Time," which opens this month. It recounts the evolution of clothes-pressing, lest there be any doubt about the hard work of women in New France.

 

When Marguerite Bourgeoys died in 1700 , she was interred on the farm. But in 2003 , the 350th anniversary of her arrival in Montreal, her remains were placed in the left side altar of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours below the statue she had brought back from France in 1672.

 

Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum and Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel

400 rue St-Paul Est, Montreal 514-282-8670 marguerite-bourgeoys.com Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. May-October, 11-3:30 November-mid-January and March-April. Adults $5.10, seniors and students $3.40, family $10.20.

 

Maison St-Gabriel

2146 place Dublin Pointe-St-Charles 514-935-8136 maisonsaint-gabriel.qc.ca Tuesday-Sunday 1-5 p.m. April 15-June 23 and Sept. 4-Dec. 21, 11-6 June 24-Sept. 2. Adults $6.80, seniors $5.10, students $3.40.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers in Cambridge and authors of the "Compass American Guide: Montreal," can be reached at [email protected]. dingbat_story_end_icon.gif

 

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.

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