For Palm Sunday, I’m posting a photo of the window in Notre-Dame Basilica that celebrates Tekakwitha.
Tekakwitha was born in 1656 in what we now call upstate New York. At four years of age, her entire family died of smallpox. She also caught the disease, but survived.
(An aside that is particular pertinent these days: it is estimated that about 90 percent of the Indigenous population of North America — some 20 million people — died of the viral infectious diseases of smallpox, flu, and measles.)
Tekakwitha converted to Christianity when she was 19 and lived among the Jesuit missionaries at Kahnawake near Montreal. She had always been sickly, however, and she died at age 24.
After her death, the smallpox scars on Tekakwitha’s face were said to have disappeared. She was canonized in 2012 and is the first North American Indigenous saint.
There is one thing about Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal that jumps out at you almost right away, and that is its stained glass windows.
Stained glass windows have been used in churches since the Middle Ages to tell stories about Bible characters and the Christian saints. The windows of Notre-Dame Basilica also tell stories, but their stories are about Montreal.
This window, for example. My photo choice for the Fifth Sunday of Lent shows Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, co-founder of Montreal, lugging a cross to the top of Mount Royal in 1643. A large cross has stood on top of the mountain ever since.
Not many pulpits around the world were in use today, on what is the Fourth Sunday of Lent, so here’s a photo of the pulpit of Notre-Dame Basilica. The sculptor was Louis-Philippe Hébert, whose work is well known in Quebec. The two figures at the bottom are the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah.
I have a thing for pipe organs — I may have mentioned this before. The preeminent organ builders in Canada are the Casavant Frères (Casavant Brothers). They learned their trade in Europe and have been building pipe organs for Canadians since 1879. I’ve played a few of their instruments in my time.
In 1891, they built the organ at Notre-Dame Basilica. That work sealed their reputation as world-class organ builders. This magnificent instrument has 7000 pipes and four keyboards and is my photo choice for today, the Third Sunday of Lent.
Last week I showed you what Notre-Dame Basilica looks like on the outside. Today, for the Second Sunday of Lent, I’m taking you inside, where the difference from a grey stone exterior could not be more stark.
None of the European cathedrals I’ve visited come close to the unique wonder of the interior of this basilica. It is said that the priest and architect who worked on the design were inspired by Saint-Chappelle in Paris.
This year, for Lent, I’m taking you on a tour of Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica.
For the First Sunday of Lent, here’s a photo of the basilica taken from Place d’Armes, in the heart of Vieux-Montréal. The statue in front of the basilica is of Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, co-founder along with Jeanne Mance of the first colony of French settlers on the island of Montreal.
The first church on this site went up in 1672. The present-day building, designated a basilica in 1982 by Pope John Paul II, was built between 1824 and 1829. The two spires took an additional ten years and are modelled after Notre-Dame de Paris and Saint-Sulpice.
Notre-Dame Basilica is the first church in Canada to be built in the Gothic Revival style. The architect was an American from New York named James O’Donnell. He converted to Catholicism before his death and he is buried in the crypt.
I’ve written before about my summer in Quebec City — and how six weeks is a nice chunk of time to get to know a place. Even so, I was surprised last year during my visit to Vieux-Québec at how familiar the place was.
Still. After all these years.
I arrived from Montreal by train around midday, and the funny little man at my budget hotel offered to outline a nice walking tour for me on his map.
“Non, merci!” I said, smiling. I knew exactly where I wanted to go.
He looked up from his map, a little surprised and, I think, a little insulted. But he shrugged, handed me the map, and off I went.
Encircled by its original ramparts, Vieux-Québec (Old Quebec) is divided into an Upper Town and a Lower Town. I chose to stay in the Lower Town, just a few steps from the train station to make my arrival more convenient for me, but it turned out to be a serendipitous choice.
I was close enough to the action, so to speak, but far enough away that I had some enjoyable late evening walks back to my hotel through quiet streets.
The name “Quebec” comes from an Indigenous word meaning “where the river narrows.” That narrowing river is the mighty Saint Lawrence.
The first permanent European settlement at Quebec City was established in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain. Le Petit Champlain, the oldest quarter of Vieux-Québec, is named for him, and Rue du Petit-Champlain (shown in this next photo) is its main drag.
Vieux-Québec is filled with stone buildings dating back to the seventeenth century, with their characteristic French-style roofs.
Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, in Place-Royale, is the oldest stone church in North America. It was built in 1688.
At the edge of the Upper Town, Dufferin Terrace lets you walk from the foot of the Citadelle to Chateau Frontenac, and provides a magnificent view over the Saint Lawrence River, the Lower Town, and, on a good day, the Laurentian Mountains.
A sign of the not insignificant role of the Catholic Church in Quebec’s history are the many church spires scattered throughout Vieux-Québec.
And then there’s this grand building, the Séminaire de Québec, which takes you by surprise when you round the corner. The seminary was founded in 1663, and this building declared a national historic site in 1929.
Vieux-Québec is the only walled city in Canada or the United States.
I wrote above about how familiar Vieux-Québec was for me, even after all these years. For my mother, not so much. I happened to be with her on her first time back in Quebec City, some 40 years after her arrival by immigrant ship. I remember watching her as she leaned over the railing that lines Dufferin Terrace, intently scanning the waterfront below us. I could see how much she wanted to recognize something … anything.
Finally she stepped back and shook her head. It was no good; nothing about the port looked familiar to her.
I doubt it was because she was too young to remember — a child’s memories can be quite vivid, and I suspect that her first impressions of a new country were imprinted on her mind. What it does speak to is that there are parts of Vieux-Québec that have changed over the years, after all, and a port that greeted new Canadians for more than 200 years looks quite different from the port that now greets tourists arriving by cruise ship.
Vieux-Québec was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985. It is indeed a special place and should really be visited by every Canadian.
Six weeks, if you can. But if that’s not possible, then a couple of days will do nicely.
Some say that no one ever leaves Montreal, for that city, like Canada itself, is designed to preserve the past, a past that happened somewhere else.
— The Favourite Game, Leonard Cohen
I can’t leave Montreal behind without writing a word about Leonard Cohen. Because, even though the man spent much of his life living elsewhere, Leonard Cohen is Montreal.
You can’t avoid him when you are there. Stand on any street corner in the city centre and his face stares down at you. When the news broke of Leonard Cohen’s death in November 2016, an impromptu memorial sprang up on the doorstep of his Montreal home. Vigils took place in the square just opposite. Like a pilgrim, I visited both.
I also read The Favourite Game, his first novel, to prepare for my visit to Montreal last spring. The members of my book club were not happy — none of them enjoyed the thinly disguised autobiography. I thought it was laugh-out-loud hilarious.
I’m still making it up to them.
This was a rough year, on so many levels. Almost everyone I know is counting the hours until 2019 is over. All are hopeful that 2020 will be better. I myself had a pretty good year, more or less. But I find it tough to feel joy and gratitude when everyone around me is hurting and weary and sick. Some people call that empathy.
I call it exhausting.
And that’s before we even bring up the news cycle.
In times like these, some of us turn to prayer, some of us turn to poetry, and some of us turn to music. Leonard Cohen — poet, novelist, songwriter, chanteur — gives us all three.
To close out 2019 as well as my series of posts on Montreal, I’m going to finish with these words:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
May we all see more of the light in 2020.
After I had explored Vieux-Montréal to my heart’s content, I decided to walk the length of the Lachine Canal. This was solely to satisfy my curiosity about a canal I had read about when I was doing a degree in Canadian history (a long time ago) and editing history textbooks (much more recently).
The Lachine Canal was built across the southwest part of the island of Montreal to allow ships to bypass the Lachine Rapids on the Saint Lawrence River. The name comes from the French for China (La Chine) and reflects the original goal of those early European explorers: to find a route across the continent and on to China.
Digging 14 kilometres of canal and building seven locks took four years. Most of the work, completed in 1825, was done by Irish immigrants. After the canal was widened and deepened in the 1840s, its entire length became the centre of Montreal’s industry, and the city became the centre of Canada’s manufacturing and trade. Montreal soon quadrupled in size and remained Canada’s largest city until the 1970s.
Eventually though, after the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959 that could accommodate larger ships, the canal lost its significance. It was closed to shipping in 1970.
It reopened to pleasure boats in 2002 and a bike path lining the canal was also completed. The Lachine Canal was declared a National Historic Site in 1996.
The warehouses and factories that line the canal have been converted to residential lofts and condos.
I wanted to walk the Lachine Canal from one end to the other, but after taking the Metro to the end of the line, my starting point was somewhere around its mid-point. As I walked all the way back towards Vieux-Montréal, I realized a better option might have been to rent a bike in the Old Port area and cycle as far as possible before turning around.
Which means I already have my first activity planned for when I return to Montreal.