qwuThe perseverance of the saints in La Côte-de-Beaupré, Québec
“The richest man in the world,” my aunt murmurs, turning away from a photograph of Pope John Paul II kneeling at the miraculous shrine of Saint Anne.
Among my many aunts, she’s the most easy-going–her disgust is rendered more acute. It surprises me. I follow her eyes toward the altar; the crucifix within it is barred by a thin brass gate and a sign that reads “Privé,” brandishing a red hand.
That, she explains, is what bothers her–that a few men interpose themselves between people and the thing they believe, compelling them to conduct business with the church, rather than have a relationship with God.
I went to my first Catholic mass a few weeks ago. It struck me also as a great fabrication, but not in a bad way. There was something so earnest in the elaborateness–all man’s art and device trying to describe something that reason can’t quite reach.
That’s how I feel as we walk into Saint Anne’s basilica. Like any Catholic church, my eyes are immediately drawn upward–first to the stained glass window over the stairs, a piece that looks more folk-arty than church, then to the mosaics illustrating the life of Saint Anne and her blessed daughter, and higher still into the vaults of the ceiling over the nave, where the gilt and pastels are swallowed by their own shadows.
My uncle points out the flowers chiseled in the cornice stones of the niches that surround the apse, and the carvings of animals into the pews’ shoulders; each one is different, meant to represent the timeline of creation. The wood carvers in this part of the province, he tells me, are legendary, and their donation is part of what makes this church a national showpiece.
I put my fingers into the ripples of the lion’s mane, and the grooves in the ram’s horn. The craftsman had it good–how close to God a person must feel, during the hours spent making something for His house. This is the kind of thing I would do, if I knew how, and it seems like that must connect me to those who did.
When my aunt and uncle first came to Québec, people were suspicious of them. But the climate has changed significantly in the last twenty-five years. People are now intrigued, they tell me, even eager to listen. “What kind of church?” they ask, when my uncle tells them he is a pastor. And they don’t let it fall when he says “Protestant”–they want to know which variety, and how it’s different from the others.
It’s kind of astonishing, a turn-the-other-cheek reversal, because no one has ever much listened to the québecois themselves. English Canada controlled their national identity, while provincial government was in bed with the church.
In those days, the priest would make the rounds of homes in his parish, seeing that the lady of the house was pregnant and the children were going to school. Most families had anywhere between eight and twelve children, at least one of whom would be sent to a church school specifically for grooming as a future member of the clergy. That was their reasonable service; going beyond it wasn’t encouraged.
In the 1960s, the Revolution Tranquille began making changes, but by virtue of its tranquility, those changes were slow. The onset of Vatican II began to shake things up within the church, but the real seismic shift began with the revelation of the priesthood’s sexual abuse. (My aunt tells me they found out about it in Canada way before it hit the US.)
Combined with the increasing agitation of the Separatist party, the new generation of québecois has become dismissive of religion and defensive of patrimoine. At the same time, their better established identity makes them more disposed to listen to outsiders.
It makes a missionary’s job at once easier and more difficult.
It’s not only the field that’s changing, for my aunt and uncle; it’s the structure of how they follow their call. Mission fundraising has shifted from corporate church support to individual donations–something they feel very uncomfortable soliciting. It was one thing to make a pitch and give a slideshow on Sunday morning, and wait for the collective to decide on a number. The individual model, my aunt says, makes her feel like she’s selling vacuum cleaners.
Their parent organization, historically very conservative, is trying to maintain its footing; the new evangelical missionary is more avid than ever, but a lot less concerned about things like drinking and cussing. Pastors and missionaries walk a treacherous line between offending the old guard and alienating the younger generations; it doesn’t leave much room for being honest with their own convictions.
This presents a problem in Québec, where hospitality starts with a cork getting popped. My aunt and uncle were both raised in families that regarded drinking as a sin; their organization required them to sign a charter that guaranteed against it and all other dissolution. But as my uncle’s fellow pastor says, a belief in Jesus is a big enough barrier to relationship…why make another one out of taking wine when a friend offers it?
But things are changing, even within the organization. My uncle tells that their organization president, accosted by another missionary distraught over this issue, answered succinctly, “Not everything has to go into prayer letters.”
Saint Anne was enjoying a vogue in France when the early colonists crossed the Atlantic. In 1650, a group of Bretagne sailors built her a shrine in thanks for their safe passage through a storm. Eight years later, while the chapel was being built, a man laid three stones on the foundation and was instantly cured of either rheumatism or kidney disease–accounts differ. Word spread, and they soon had to build a bigger church.
In 1892, a piece of Saint Anne’s forearm was sent by ship from the Vatican. It cured an epileptic when it reached New York City, and the trend of pilgrimage spiked again.
A fire destroyed the basilica in 1922; the subsequent rebuilding combines the dizzying loftiness of Gothic architecture, the iconic details of the Roman tradition, and startlingly modern Art Deco interior details created by Auguste Labouret.
Half a million pilgrims visit Saint Anne’s shrine every year. The columns at the entrance of the church are stacked with canes, crutches and orthopedic shoes that healed pilgrims have left behind. Masses are held throughout the day, all week long. As they end, two of the priests hold out a little box containing a fragment of Saint Anne’s body, wiping the surface of the box before and after each devotee makes contact.
Downstairs from the sanctuary is the Immaculate Conception chapel. The pearlescent ceiling encroaches like the shell of a giant oyster. A statue of Mary anchors the room, arrayed round by organ pipes that look like gleaming rows of teeth.
The wall frescoes here are disturbingly modern–begun in the 1980s by one artist and finished less than a decade ago by another. One seems to have undergone an even more recent change–I wonder, looking at it, whose head used to be there and what he did to get it pasted over.
Behind the pipe organ is a recess for the luminaries, where they are brought to burn out when there are too many upstairs. The room radiates heat like a sauna. At the back is the tomb of Venerable Father Alfred Pampalon, who has been the favorite of supplicant addicts ever since he offered his life in exchange for an alcoholic man’s conversion.
In this room, people move through in closer proximity to each other, less devoutly isolated. They take pictures of each other as tourists, smiling. Those who pray begin almost involuntarily–I watch as a woman doubles back with moth-like quickness as she passes a shrine, her knee buckling onto the hassock as if someone knocked it out from under her. She remains for a moment, tucking her head tightly between her sternum and her fists. When she gets up, she averts her eyes resentfully, fixing them on the ground.
When I tell people I have family who are missionaries in Canada, they look at me quizzically. “Aren’t there lots of churches in Canada?” they ask. In spite of my aunt and uncle’s having been here for 25 years, the question still sometimes gives me pause. Even more so, since I’ve turned against my youthful indoctrination that you can’t a real Christian if you’re Catholic.
It’s the new Catholics I’ve met, that changed my mind–many of them expats from mainline Protestant churches, where they grew up playing foosball and learning guitar over three repetitive chords. They struggled to find a personal relationship with something entirely immaterial–the rich symbology of the Catholic church finally gives them something to hold onto.
The priest swipes the last devotee’s kiss from the surface of the box as I approach, and holds it out to me. Inside it is an even tinier recess, inscribed in Latin around its perimeter, cradling a flat and waxy fragment of bone, about the length of my first knuckle.
I want to bend forward and look closer, but I’m afraid he’ll think I want to kiss it and Saint Anne will end up giving me a bloody lip. Instead, I put my fingers against the glass and wait.
The priest looks a little bit like a slighter version of Tony Hale; I want to look at into his eyes and ask if anything’s happened, and if I don’t feel it because I wasn’t worthy or because it’s beyond gross sensation. Instead, I drop my hand and move to the side. People are moving with somber deliberation from one locus to another, except for a few elderly, who lodge in the pews like rocks in a current.
The last people in line were an Asian couple with a baby and an eight-year-old boy. The husband touched the relic, the wife kissed it, and the priest bent forward to offer it to the little boy. Even across the room, I could see his father’s hand prodded him forward, but he stiffened against it.
It’s not so much Catholicism that my aunt and uncle are fighting here. It’s the unthinkingness that it represents–if they stay another fifteen years, as they plan to, they’ll be fighting unthinkingness in the form of irreligion, instead.
There’s something in us that wants something to fall back on, something that offers the comfort of truth and belonging, when we’ve reached the limits of where thinking can take us. My friend Diane, who grew up Catholic, said she feels that way in nature.
For me, nature can be overwhelming; it’s too much like how I think of God–beautiful, strange, and other. I’m more comforted by high, shadowy ceilings that turn footsteps into echoes and vault an old man’s warbling into ethereal plainsong.
They’re very firm, the Protestants, that the church isn’t a building. But the building has the most powerful to make me feel like I belong. You understand how it got there; it gives you a place to put your effort, a way to mark time. It unites you with a lot of different people who, for one hour, are all doing the same thing together, for all their different reasons and from all their different motivations.
Tradition is good for that; it protects you from being entirely alone. But that’s also the bad side–tradition can rob you of your individuality. It can silence those screams of overwhelm when they ought to be voiced. It will often tell you who you are without asking any questions.
Also, here’s more on the folks who helped build Saint Anne’s…because I’m a nerd like that: