As my flight to Montreal lifted off the deck at Dulles airport, I said my customary Act of Contrition and a prayer for safe return to my lovely wife. But temptation was just over the border. For me, the Province of Québec is a near occasion of sin.
Spanning the sacred through the profane, my sinful inclinations encompass an over-indulgence in the beauty of La Nouvelle-France‘s churches, basilicas, countryside, waterfalls, the St. Lawrence River, its food and wine, architecture and the population’s general air of insouciance amidst the English-speaking masses of North America.
There are a lot of pretty women there in trendy clothes inspired by Parisian fashion, although the colder climate, even in September, lends to the style and cut of their clothes a certain solidity which only a Canadian winter can infuse into a designer’s imagination.
Québec, je t’aime!
While Québec City is the jewel of North America and the foundation of French Canada thanks to the tenacity of the great man, Champlain, I do love Montreal, my destination on this business trip. I sometimes refer to it, in jest, as Chicago in French. It is the largest city in the province and the second largest in Canada. It is approaching 4 million people in its broader metropolitan area. The downtown is a forest of skyscrapers.
But what enthralls visitors, this one included, is Le Vieux Montréal, nestled alongside the St. Lawrence, with cobblestone streets and greystone structures all about. While one must dodge the usual assortment of tourist traps, the shops, restaurants and the crowds are great fun. The neighborhood, typical of old cities, was designed for the walker rather than an automobile.
Having arrived in town mid-day on a Sunday before my meeting, I was able to attend Mass at the gloriously gothic Basilique de Notre Dame with its twin towers, Temperance and Perseverance, towering over the Place d’Armes. Its altar is enveloped by a wonderfully sculpted polychrome wood with gold leaf.
The basilica’s acoustics are magnificent, and it has one of the largest and most imposing organs one can find anywhere in North America. At the conclusion of services, during and after the priest’s procession out of the sanctuary, the organist let it rip with an impressive baroque piece, utilizing the full range and volume of his instrument. He was rewarded by hearty applause from the congregation, something I normally do not approve of in church — but there are exceptions to every rule, oui?
To the left of the altar, there is also a small, charming statue of St. Joan of Arc, one of my heroines of choice, as she was for Mark Twain. One of the best books I ever read was the historical novel, An Army of Angels by Pamela Marcantel, based on the latest scholarship on one of the most remarkable persons in the history of Western Europe. It is a gripping, moving story of a young girl, a religious mystic and a leader of men, who turned the tide against the English, was betrayed, burned at the stake and, ultimately, canonized hundreds of years later. The author kindly provides a helpful note in which she reveals the few instances where she might have taken artistic license with the historical record or even the Saint’s description of events.
Actually attending religious services in a Catholic Church in Montreal was encouraging. My sense on past visits to the region was that the churches are more museums than thriving houses of worship. Québec is very much like Europe in this regard. A historic, even extreme clericalism has generated various stages of anti-clericalism and secularism. One must appreciate the salutary nature of James Madison’s First Amendment in avoiding the perverse dialectic of established churches yielding resentment and hostility to religion per se in the United States.
My wife and I once attended a sparsely populated Mass at an English-speaking parish in Québec City. The priest and the nuns in attendance fawned all over us as if they were waiters in a five-star restaurant. By that I mean, they were extremely hospitable and welcoming as if they appreciated the solidarity we displayed simply showing up. In fairness, being English-speaking may have been as much of a problem for that church as was the secularism of the age.
Seeing a living, praying congregation attending to the sacrament was an unexpected pleasure on this trip to Le Mont du Roi.
When I wasn’t praying or meeting, I was eating. This is, after all, French Canada. I will not bore the reader with a plethora of details as to my consumption habits. But it is hard to find a bad meal in Québec province unless you dine at an American chain restaurant.
There are reasons for my Francophilia. I grew up in St. Louis near the confluence of the nation’s great rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi. Captain Joseph La Barge (1815-1899), my ancestor, on my mother’s side, piloted steamboats between St. Louis and Fort Benton, Montana. The historian of the Missouri River, Hiram Martin Chittenden claimed that “He was on the first boat that went to the far upper river, and he made the last through voyage from St. Louis to Fort Benton.” The great Audubon, another person of French heritage, was among his many passengers. His tithe, so to speak, was in the form of free transport for the Jesuit missionaries heading for the territories.
The upper reaches of the great river are no longer navigable due to the many dams erected pursuant to the Flood Control Act of 1944. However, at Fort Benton, Montana you will find a promontory overlooking the river named after Captain La Barge.
The name La Barge seems to be an Americanized or corrupted form of a French name, convenient for a captain of riverboats. Nevertheless, the Captain’s father, had come to St. Louis from Quebec, by canoe, having portaged only eight miles of the journey. He followed the Ottawa River, through Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, to Green Bay, the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers, finally descending to St. Louis on the Mississippi.
Add to this, my father was taught by French nuns. After all, we grew up in a city named after a French king.
It isn’t that we liked everything French. Napoleon was a monstrosity, and their Revolution was the antithesis of ours in that it contracted liberty rather than expanding it. Yet, that word “insouciance” keeps coming to mind.
The libertarian scholar Charles Murray has described how surprised he was, after traveling in France, that he actually liked the French.
“The French are Europe’s Americans,” says Murray. “Describe the French, and you’re usually describing Americans.”
Consider how much they love their language and insist on using it (I think, however, the French Canadians are more willing to indulge Americans than do the French in France.). Moreover, they are “certain of the superiority of things French.” And they exhibit “a kind of pride that is rare in today’s Europe.”
“We complain that, in foreign affairs, the French go their own way ignoring the interests of everyone else when it suits their purpose,” observes Murray. “Well, yes. Like us.”
Murray’s assessment of the French and Americans may not be completely accurate. But it is more right than it is wrong. And our French Canadian neighbors are very, very French while still being Canadian, North American, and, again, a lot like us.