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Heroic Early Catholic Women Who Shaped Montreal

By Teresa Bergen

As a travel writer, I’m fortunate to often have tourism professionals help me devise itineraries. My contacts at Tourism Montreal were especially helpful in routing me through a bunch of religious museums and churches in 2 ½ days. But I was a novelty to my tourism hostess, who said travel writers never ask to go the places I wanted. And I was the first to ask her to schedule Mass into my itinerary.

Quebec has a rich Catholic heritage, but centuries of Catholicism resulted in a backlash against the church. My informal research is based mostly on talking to museum guides, Uber drivers and tourism professionals, but here’s what I learned: 

After a few hundred years of Catholicism dominating French-speaking Canadians while the Anglos got all the good titles, positions and money, the French were tired of such an invasive Church influence. Several people I talked to mentioned that priests pressured women to produce a baby per year, and would publicly shame those who didn’t.

This all led to the so-called “Quiet Revolution” of the 1950’s and ‘60s. “In the ‘60s, people started leaving the church because they said the religion is too severe,” said Nancy Prada, director of the Museum of the Sisters of Providence. In the 1960’s, some museums even tried to soften the artwork, to make early church figures seem friendlier and less intimidating. But it was too late. By the end of the ‘60s, Quebecers had abandoned the Church in droves.

I was surprised when one of my Uber drivers told me that many words from Catholicism are used as swear words. This was later confirmed by my tour guides and by Wikipedia.

Reclaiming Important Quebec Catholics

I quickly deduced that the non-religious locals considered me a bit of a freak to be so interested in their Catholic past, but in a friendly and tolerant way. So I quietly made the rounds of Catholic attractions, appreciating the rich history and art. I couldn’t get to all of Montreal’s museums and churches. But here are a few that I visited and found intriguing. I was especially interested in early women’s contributions to Quebec.

Musee des Hospitalieres

This museum records the history of the Hospitallers of Saint Joseph, an order founded in LaFleche, France. It’s a good place to get a feel for Jeanne Mance, one of Montreal’s founders. “She was very exceptional for the period,” my guide, museum volunteer Carolyn Grant, told me. Mance was a pious Catholic, but neither married nor a nun. Born in 1606, Mance served as a volunteer nurse during the Thirty Years’ War, honing her skills on the battlefield. In 1640, she heard a cousin speaking about Canada. “It awakened her vocation,” Grant said. Angelique Faure de Bullion, a rich French woman, gave Mance the money to establish a hospital in Canada.

Mance started dispensary inside Fort Ville-Marie (Montreal’s original name, after the BVM) in 1642. In 1645, she opened the first hospital outside the fort. It had five rooms, including one six-person sick ward. Mance had come to care for the “savages” indigenous to New France. Instead, she tended to colonists wounded by unhappy Iroquois.

After ten years, Mance was ready for some help. In 1658 she sailed to France to bring the first three Hospitaller sisters back with her.

This museum is fascinating if you’re interested in early Quebec, the lives of nuns, and/or medical history. My favorite part was the display of relic artwork. The nuns practiced a craft of rolling up gold-edged papers and making intricate 3-D art pieces with them. They’d insert relics into these paper rolls. The relics were displayed annually for the Feast of Relics. This was a double indulgence day. If you bought an indulgence, you got twice as much for your money. This practice lasted into the 1950s, Grant told me.

Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum

Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys, who was canonized in 1982, founded the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal. This was one of the first uncloistered religious communities. As Bourgeoys wrote, “The Blessed Virgin was never cloistered. She did indeed withdraw to an interior solitude, but she never turned away from any journey where there was some good to be done.”

Bourgeoys is credited with being the first teacher in Montreal. She taught native children, white settlers’ children, and the famous filles du roi, or king’s daughters. These last were young women, mostly orphans, who Louis XIV sent from France to make wives for the white settlers.

The museum has a lot to see. The first room is full of doll dioramas depicting Bourgeoys’ life, made by nuns in the 1940’s. It’s almost like reading a 3-D comic book. I took a 20-minute guided archeological tour, where you can still see ashes from the fire that destroyed the old chapel in 1754. The rebuilt stone chapel is also called the Sailors Church. People came to the chapel to say prayers before crossing the sea. Visitors can climb many stairs up to the tower, where you get a close-up look at the pair of 1892 angels perched atop the chapel.

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