Northward Ho! A Slice of Quebecois History, Culture, and Catholicism

by Thomas More College on April 29, 2013

Editor’s Note: Easter lingers in the month of April…New life, new birth, new adventures. Here’s one from a student’s experience of Quebec: just one of the many opportunities available at Thomas More College.

quebecparkTraveling, says Hugh of St. Victor in his Didascalicon, is ideal for the student. It provides a different kind of education than formal study: first-hand experience of the world. Study is enriched by traveling; traveling is supplemented by study. These two kinds of education—study and experience—conspire together to form the whole person.

Neither, however, is for the pusillanimous. One should be careful of traveling if one is accustomed to view the wide world from the comfortable confines of an armchair. Like some fabulous wind, the traveler is picked up and hurled along, only to be deposited blinking and breathless in some corner of the world you’ve only seen in a picture.

Now, I’ll grant you that Quebec is not too far from Thomas More College. A good day’s drive will take you through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, through the northernmost of Vermont’s downs and dales, and past a friendly French-speaking border patrolman. Only a few hours, eh? Yet even a short distance is enough to instill in the adventurous a freshness of sight, attentiveness to the world. When enriched by a lively sense of wonder, one learns how to see again.

Of course, when I and three other Thomas More students decided to spend a few days of our Easter Break in Quebec City, none of this was immediately on our minds. I, for one, was looking forward to a baguette and a bottle of Bordeaux.

What we actually experienced, however, quite exceeded such modest expectations.

placeQuebec City stands on a formidable grouping of cliffs, capped by a fortress built by the first French explorers in the seventeenth century. The rough plains of Quebec were baptized by the Catholic settlers led, initially, by the missionary exploits of Jesuit priests such as Saint Isaac Jogues and Jean de Brébeuf. Despite the loss of Quebec to the English in the French and Indian War of 1759, the French Catholic heritage of the region remained largely unscathed.

Our first day in Quebec City, we four Thomas More students—three juniors and a sophomore—explored the Plains of Abraham, visited several grand old French-Canadian churches, frequented a small bakery in search of café and croissants, and capped the day off in a local pub. Being Easter week, we feasted in good fashion, toasting Our Risen Lord. The only cause of chagrin was the weather. Winter lasts longer up north.

SaintSaveur

During our time there, the remark was made more than once how European the city was. All of us had had the chance to go to Rome through the College’s semester abroad, and we couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Quebec City and other cities we had seen in Italy and elsewhere. Its cobblestoned streets, well-proportioned architecture, and beautiful churches provoked a number of conversations—perhaps the best part of traveling in good company—about the significance of a city, the place of the Catholic Faith in influencing culture, and the difficulties of modernity. Of course, these were only some of the subjects we discussed—often over a glass of wine and a pipe—while in Quebec. There was plenty of laughter, light banter, and traded wit as well.

While traveling about the city, we visited several grand old churches. Though there are an abundance of parishes in Quebec City, the number of practicing Catholics has sunk dramatically since the 1970’s. Nevertheless, the parishes that we visited showed signs of a once-flourishing Catholic culture.

The dramatic embellishment of the baroque Cathedral of Notre Dame in the heart of the old city, in particular, was a tribute to nearly four centuries of deep Catholic devotion. Here and there, one could discern specifically French-Canadian devotions: to the Sacred Heart, to Saint Therese and Saint Jean-Marie Vianney, and to the Holy Family.

SaintAnneWe also saw signs of hope in the midst of a rampant secularization. After attending a Latin Mass early one morning, offered by a priest of the Fraternity of Saint Peter, we drove out of the city to visit the shrine of St. Anne-de-Beaupre. This shrine was built in the 1920’s next to one of the oldest Catholic churches in America, and is dominated by n huge Romanesque basilica.

We entered the Church through the main portals. It was dark where we stood, dwarfed by the enormous vault. Overhead, shafts of light through the clerestory windows illuminated the vast length of the basilica. We signed ourselves with from the holy water fonts, and in the solemn interplay of light and shadow we made our way slowly towards the sanctuary. Affixed to the pillars there were a multitude of crutches, rosaries, and photographs left as tokens of thanksgiving to God for miraculous healings. As we knelt before a reliquary believed to contain the arm of Saint Anne, we remembered the intentions of those who had asked us to pray for them.

Quartet on the River (1)

Though it did not conclude our Quebec sojourn, visiting the shrine of Saint Anne was a climactic point in our visit, because it provided a chance of spiritual renewal during our Easter vacation. Although the architectural features of the city were impressive, they were still overshadowed by the spires and domes of the churches there. The shrine of Saint Anne shows the fruition of Catholic culture in Quebec: all the inclinations towards the production of beautiful things, all the tendencies of those arts that enrich life, were put to the service of God. The natural is crowned by the supernatural or, as Saint Thomas says, gratia elevat naturam.

As we drove away from Quebec City towards New Hampshire, we took the opportunity to reflect upon our experiences there. Like our Rome semester, our time in Quebec allowed us to engage in observation of the world: upon human action, upon the significance of art and culture, and upon the pursuit of the good life. Still imbued with the joy of the Easter season, and pleasantly satisfied with our adventure, we looked forward with high expectations to the remaining few weeks of the semester as we made our way back to Thomas More College.

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