Monday, September 13, 2010

The French Canada

Measured by distance from New Jersey, Quebec province of Canada is the closest region and is easily reached by car where one can experience a distinct culture and language.  In fact, Quebec and some of its neighboring areas including Nova Scotia, Newfoundland of Canada and Maine of U.S. were explored and occupied by French as a part of the New France from mid 16th century to mid 18 century.  Till today, 250 years after the British take-over, the vast majority of Quebec people continue to speak French, the official language of Quebec, and secession remains a top political agenda which gets voted in referendum once in a while.  The last vote took place in 1995 and the referendum was defeated by a narrow margin of 49.42% "Yes" to 50.58% "No".

While it might be hard to imagine how Quebec was like prior to the Quiet Revolution of 1960 when the dominance of Roman Catholic Church was suddenly and quickly replaced by the state, traces of the influences of Roman Catholic Church can still be seen in numerous historical sites throughout the province, not to mention so many of the roadways and streets are named after some of the 10,000+ recognized Saints.  When Mark Twain first visited Montreal in 1881, the largest city of Quebec, he was quoted to have made the observation that a person could stand on any street corner in Montreal, throw a stone and it would hit a church.

It wasn’t the case in 1534 when Jacques Cartier, the first French explorer to reach Quebec in an effort to find westward route to reach Asia, four decades after the first European explorer Christopher Columbus landed in Bahamas on behalf of the Spanish Court.  What he and his men saw were aboriginal people, vast land and resources.  He planted a cross in Gaspé Peninsula at the mouth of St. Lawrence River and claimed the land in the name of King Francis I which became the first province of New France.

When Jacques Cartier returned in his 2nd voyage in the following year, he sailed up the St. Lawrence River and found over a thousand native people at the village of Hochelaga which is today’s Montreal (the name was derived from Mont-Royal, the highest hill of the city).  Nearly a century later, Paul Chomedey sieur de Maisonneuve, a French military officer was hired by the religious organization Société Notre-Dame de Montréal to lead colonists to set up a mission on the Montreal Island which he did in late 1642.  Montreal city was thus born which was called Ville-Marie then.

The first church, the Notre-Dame Church of Montreal was built between 1672 and 1682 and served briefly as the first cathedral of the Diocese of Montreal from 1821 to 1822.  Both the church and the bell tower can no longer be seen as they were torn down to make room for the construction of a new church, the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal or Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal, beginning in 1824 to serve the needs of the congregation that was experiencing a rapid growth. 

Today, Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal is the most visited churches in Quebec.  It was also the largest church in North America before the St. Patrick’s Cathedral was built in New York City decades later.  The basilica is a Gothic Revival architecture designed by James O'Donnell, an Irish-American Protestant from New York.  If you had been to the world famous Notre-Dame de Paris built 500 years earlier in Gothic architecture, you can clearly see their similarity in architecture.  For the interior, the brilliant choice of the color in combination of deep blue and gold gives the basilica a glorious and grand appearance yet with a surreal and peaceful feeling.  The place has served many significant events over the years, from the state funeral of Pierre Trudeau, the 15th and the most admired prime minister of Canada (from Montreal)  to the wedding of the super star singer Celine Dion. 


Further northeast of the Basilica in Old Montreal, you will find the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, or the “Sailor’s church”, one of the oldest churches in Montreal.  It was first built by St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, the first teacher in the colony of Ville-Marie in 1655. The current structure was built in 1771 after it was destroyed by a fire in 1754.  The church is small in size and simple in its interior decoration.  There is no pretence and one can picture sailors of those days came into the church to pray and get help from the harsh and death-ridden journey.  One can go up to the spire to get a panoramic view of the St. Lawrence river and the Old Port of Montreal. 

Southwest of the Notre-Dame Basilica in downtown Montreal lies the Cathedral-Basilica of Mary, Queen of the World (Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde) that is the seat of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Montreal.  The Cathedral was completed in 1894 and is literally a miniature version of the Late Renaissance Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.  It is a one-third model of
the St. Peter’s that is 730 ft long by 500 ft wide by 452 ft high, completed with a 137 ft high dome.   If you have visited St. Peter’s
before, the following photos will probably jog your memory although as a scaled replica, it is not nearly as sophisticated or artistic.  Nevertheless it is a far cry in terms of the luxury from the “Sailor’s Church” where we had just visited. 

From the very beginning, the catholic settlers placed the city under the protection of Virgin Mary for her compassion.  With the risk and difficulty of sea journey of those days, it is understandable that the sailors and colonists turned to her for comfort and blessing.  That reminds me of Guan Ying
in East Asia Buddhism.  For her compassion and unconditional love,  she is the most popular Goddess of Mercy (and her manifestation Mazu) for east Asia Buddhists and in particular, the fishermen and travelers alike in southeast China sea.  Here is a photo of the altar the altar of the “Sailor’s Church”.  Their figures and gestures may be very different but they both brought the relief that the believers seek.

Driving northeast along the St. Lawrence River of Montreal, one reaches Quebec City, 160 miles away at near the mouth of St. Lawrence River.  It is the capital of Quebec province and one of the oldest cities in North America.  The tiny Old Quebec where all tourists congregate is the only city north of Mexico where you can still see the city walls.  It was founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, the Father of New France.

Old Quebec is a charming and pleasant place to visit.  It is small enough that you can stroll up and down the streets at ease while changing elevation in hundreds of feet between the upper and lower towns and enjoy the scenery at different angles and time of the day.  Below are two photos we took
during the trip that would give you some ideas of the views.
When in Old Quebec, you would not miss the Château Frontenac, the majestic castle hotel built in late 19th century and the most visible landmark of Quebec City.  Situated at the end of a street in the Upper Town and bordered by the Terrasse Dufferin, the Chateau’s overwhelming presence overlooks the St. Lawrence River from top of a cliff, making it appear taller than it really is.  No wonder it is the most photographed hotel in the world according to the Guinness World Record. On the terrace, a large statue of the founder Samuel de Champlain looks to the west towards inland instead of the ocean.  Does it symbolize the French ambition for the new colony then?

A stone-throw away of the Chateau, one finds the Cathedral-minor basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec (see photo to the right).  Founded in 1647, it is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Quebec, the oldest in the New World north of Mexico.  Its odd asymmetric appearance is rare and intriguing.  Some say it is due to the need to balance the weight of the structure as the cathedral sits on a slope.

In the Lower town, there is the lovely Notre-Dame-des-Victoires church that was initially built between 1687 and 1723 and restored in 1816.  The church got its name of “victories” after the weather sunk the invading British fleet in 1711.  Together with previous victories, there was a strong belief that the prayers at the church were answered in the wars between French and the attacking British forces. 

Of course we know from the history books that French’s luck ran out in 1759 when British launched a surprise attack after 3 months of bombardment and siege of Old Quebec.  British and French forces of less than 10,000 men in total from both sides met and fought on the Plains of Abraham, right outside of the old city wall.  In 30 minutes, the decisive battle of the Plains of Abraham was over and French was defeated.  The battle while small in scale marks the beginning of the end of French colonization in North America and the later day unique cultural and political issue of Quebec.  When the Seven Years' War (of which the Battle of Quebec or the battle of the Plains of Abraham is a part) was concluded with the treaties of Hubertusburg and Paris in 1763, France ceded its territories in Canada (and several others) to British who in return promised the religious freedom of its new Catholic subjects.  Since then Great Britan became the most dominant colonial power for the ensuing two centuries.  One can only wonder if the outcome would be different if French won the battle of the Plains of Abraham?  What would America and Canada be like today then? 

Between the Plains of Abraham and the Château Frontenac is the impressive Citadelle, home station of the French speaking Royal 22e Régiment of the Canadian Forces.  Built initially by French in 17th century, the star-shaped fort we see today was built by the British between 1820 and 1831 against potential attacks by Americans!  The 40 minutes long changing of guard ceremony at 10 a.m. in the summer is a colorful tourist attraction.  What attracts most attention was not the band or the parade but the fabulous four-leg goat mascot of the regiment who went through the long ceremony in restrain and discipline.  The goat also entertains endless photo shot requests from and with the tourists!

Driving back to Maine along the scenic Quebec Route 173, aka Route-du-President-Kennedy next to the beautiful Chaudière River, one can see church spires appear frequently in the horizon and then disappeared into the tranquility at your back. Occasionally, the Quebec flag (photo to the right is published by abdallahh on in French Blue with white Lilies and a cross reminded people the protector Virgin Mary, the catholic church and the fact that we are in the French Canada.  Immigration and settlement, once restricted to Catholic French in early days of New France by the order of the King is now open to the world of diverse population.  The romantic notion of the colonization and missionary to convert the aborigional people to Catholicism was long gone, replaced by separation of the state and church and a democratic system.  What are left for the visitors are the legends, the history-filled stone structures and cobble-stoned streets.  For the residents, of which more than 60% of Quebec people today are catholic and more than 80% are French-speaking, some of them unquestionably find it hard to cut the umbilical cords no matter how long it is and how dry it has become.  At the same time, Quebec Sovereignty Movement, tempered with increasing economic and globalization pressure continues to adapt its formats and proposals.  The kings and physical buildings may have been gone but the struggle and negotiation between the collective memory and reality will stay for a very long time.  Talk to you soon!

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