“This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window,” quipped the American writer.
That was in 1888. Today, as Montreal prepares to mark the 375th year of its founding, those bells would probably be silenced if left to the officials planning a year of celebrations.
As reported before Christmas, despite several proposals to honour Montreal’s religious heritage, anniversary planners will focus on secular events. That means scant recognition for not only the founding of a Catholic missionary outpost on the St. Lawrence in 1642, but a cold shoulder towards the contributions made by Catholic institutions and individuals to the political, economic, cultural and spiritual life of a city that, for much of its history, was Canada’s largest metropolis.
There will be fireworks, art exhibitions, light shows, concerts and other events to showcase the social and cultural vibrancy of Montreal. No doubt, it will be fun. But, officially, there will be few nods to Montreal’s deep Catholic roots or to the fact that the city owes its very existence to men and women of deep faith.
It’s up to “individual religious sects to decide how to deal with their religious heritage,” said a planning committee spokesperson. So this is no oversight. It’s a deliberate decision, and it seems petty.
Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine calls the founding of Montreal “a God-inspired” undertaking. The city began as a missionary outpost which, upriver in Quebec City, was regarded as a grand folly that would never last. But a small band of missionaries endured and, before their first winter ended, erected a wooden cross atop Mount Royal to proclaim their intentions.
Today it’s near impossible to wander old Montreal without encountering Catholic history. The Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, North America’s first hospital, was founded in 1645 by nuns from the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph. The original Notre-Dame Basilica dates back to 1672. Saint-Suplice Seminary, the oldest continuously standing structure in Montreal, opened in 1687. The remains of Canada’s first female saint, St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, who opened Montreal’s first schools, are buried in Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel. Visitors can pray in the room where St. Marguerite d’Youville, founder of the Sisters of Charity, served soup to the poor in the 18th century.
There is no harm in celebrating the city that Montreal has become. But to minimize its rich Catholic history, to downplay the Church’s enduring social contributions, to devalue its gifts of art, literature and architecture, is misguided. Montreal may have become a secular society but its heritage is Catholic.
That deserves to be recognized and celebrated.