Ile d'Orleans

MARIUS BARBEAU September 15 1934

Ile d'Orleans

MARIUS BARBEAU September 15 1934

Ile d'Orleans


PEOPLE of a different sort; a vernacular that tantalizes the ear; buildings redolent of Normandy or Spain; churches, priests and nuns that smack of Rome—that is what the tourist finds on the Island of Orleans.

The serenity of Sainte-Famille (the parish of the Holy Family) twenty miles southeast of Quebec City, is like a magic spell. It is as if this small village which we have entered were asleep in the sunlight, like the princess in the folk-tale awaiting a kiss to waken. No one moves in the landscape. The lawn in front of the church is empty ; so is the road that runs east and west. Sainte-Famille is not really a village, in spite of its cluster of houses. It is a rural community that toils the whole week in the gardens and the fields, and becomes a social body only once a week, on Sundays, when the church bells toll their call and the parishioners gather in their best clothes for prayer and gossip.

The stone church, whitewashed outside, sits sideways to the road and faces the West, as all Quebec churches do. \\ hy the West, 1 have never learned. Perhaps a lost symbol. Lombard poplars stand alongside, like pious attendants holding candlesticks, within the graveyard wall that surrounds the nave, the transept and the choir to the rear. On the high front gable, five saints, carved out of wood and weatherbeaten, stand in as many niches well spaced out between doors and arched windows. Two massive towers rise on each side, and their graceful belfries beside the higher central spire crown this royal front and glitter in the midday light. One feels like speaking in whispers here, out of reverence for something unseen but felt that eludes full comprehension.

Two substantial stone houses, also whitewashed, with French mansards, face us, one nearer than the other. They are surrounded by lovely orchards that cover the whole slope below the church and lead gently all the way down to a fringe of tall trees, where the slope leaps the cliffs two or three hundred feet down to the bottom lands of the tidewaters.

Beyond, there opens up a wide vista—the north arm of the river and the Laurentians, miles away. The greenish river runs either way with the tide.

This is dreamland scenery in a way; not for its quiescent splendor alone but because it invites to contemplation and draws out one’s thoughts one by one.

There, on the low prairies close to shore, the old villages of the Beaupré Coast stretch out lengthwise like tiny beads

along the “King’s road.” The farms run like green ribbons, quite narrow, from the river up to the wooded hilltops in the mellow, bluish distance.

Within the compass of the eye we have a synopsis of the whole of French Canada and scattered hints of its romantic past.

The Romantic Past

TJTERE CARTIER, the discov-*• erer of the Saint Uiwrence in 1535, paused in his journey up the river and wrote in his memoirs: “We found the island covered with very fine trees, such as oaks, elms, pines, cedars and others, and also plenty of wild grapes which we saw wherever we set foot. For this reason we named it Island of Bacchus.

It is about twelve leagues long and consists of very fine level land, mostly wooded, without ploughed fields. We found there small huts occupied by Indians while they fished. ...”

But he called it Isle d’Orleans, after the duke of that name, in the spring of 1536.

Champlain, the founder of New France, seventy-three years later (1608), also described the island in his memoirs, like this:

“It is rich with woods of all sorts, such as we know in France; it is very fine and edged with natural prairies on the north side that are fkxxled twice a day. There are streams and springs, and a store of wild grapes in many places. . . The coast has a number of brooks that abound with fish. Game of various kinds is also found there in incredible abundance, as on the prairies of Cai>-Tourmente (opposite), a splendid place and a pleasure to the eye. . .”

The island and the shore opposite soon after the discovery were ceded as a seigneurie; that is, it became a seignorial estate. The nobleman into whose right it passed landed there with the Governor and took possession of it according to feudal usage—broke a few branches, pulled out shrubs, flourished an empty pistol at a grouse or a rabbit, and walked around like a lord, with picked escorts, on his feudal domains.

The brand new seigneur did not further avail himself of his rights but ceded them to the first bishop of Quebec, Mgr. de Laval, who later exchanged them for others with Berthelot, an influential man at the Court of P'rance.

These facts, trivial in themselves, will show how the seignorial system of land tenure was established and the country first opened to colonization.

Mgr. de Laval, for several years owner of the island after 1662, brought a number of settlers there from Northwestern France and planted them upon his estate. Most of them were of Norman extraction; others came from the Loire River provinces. The population of the island in 1667 was 529, whereas that of the town of Quebec was only 448, out of a total of 4,312 for the whole of Canada.

When Berthelot acquired the bishop’s rights thirteen years later, a full-fledged seignorial estate already existed on the island, with farms, buildings, forest preserves, dues from tenants—rentes seigneuriales—and windmills. The new seigneur improved his domain for some years, till the population in 1681 reached the substantial figure of 1,080.

The island settlement then was practically complete, in so far as heads of families and basic traditions are concerned. The map made a few years later (1689) by the French engineer Villeneuve—one of the earliest of the kind in America shows the parishes, the farms and the names of the owners, much as they are today.

Customs Do Not Change

ACCUSTOMED as we are on this side of the Atlanti ■ ■ to think of a hundred years in retrospective as a Ion ; way off, we now have to attune ourselves to an olde.' environment. People were already toiling here, at this very spot, over 250 years ago much the same by name and custom as today. To realize this is in itself a new experience. The parishioners of Sainte-Famille at that time were building stone houses and log barns. Their first church or chapel stood there to the right, on the slop*, a few hundred feet below the present one. It was of timbers (colombage) and the hipped ;x>f was thatched rather small and rustic for a church, but the facilities were most limited; everythinï had to be fashioned on the sp>t, SÍ) far away from th ■ motherland. It is not everywhere that panes of glass wer1 available for windows just then; oiled skins were used instead.

But what would seem hardships to us was wholesome, like brown bread, tí) those early pioneers, who do not seem once to have regretted their choice of a new alxxle in the new world. They were here to stay, no matter what happened; and their settlement at once shot vigorous roots into the rich soil.

Should you doubt it, we can make sure of it this very moment. Come along to the presbytère, the curé's house in front of us 2(X) feet from the road down toward the river. The presbytère itself in part is an ancient house, nearly 250 years old. M. Martel, the parish priest, is there ready to receive us with a Norman smile, his eyes inquisitive, yet half closed, slitwise. A gixxl name his, quite French and old as France itself. Charles Martel, the first of that name, was the king of France, back in the centuries before the year 1,000, who defeated the M;x>rs when they invaded Central France.

Out of the stone vault M. Martel will produce the first parish registers, under motley parchment covers. You could not read the writing, fine though it is. Its style is Gothic, as in the old medieval scripts.

Here you can see the names of the people back in 1675 and 1700 as they were baptized, married or buried: Gagnon, Blouin, Morency, Dion—the very names of the farmers around here plus many others.

Take the name of Gagnon, for instance. A familiar one in French Canada; there are hundreds of Gagnons in North America, I should say thousands! Well, one of their two roots is still in the ground around here; the other is on the shore opposite. Their first ancestor, Robert, from Perche, France, settled here in 1657. A wayside shrine along the Continued on page 46

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road near here commemorates his coming, and a bronze tablet, holds up the information that it was erected in 1909 in honor of Robert Gagnon, the first settler on this farm, by forty-one priests of his name who were living and grateful. There had been to date sixty-two priests of this family, fifty-three of whom were still living. This happened nine or ten generations after the first Gagnon had begun to toil here with the spade and hoe. And his record is just like many others alongside.

High Heels on Sunday

' I 'HERE IS a smell of old wall paper, tapestries, plaster or lime—a fragrance of centuries and sedate respectability—in these old houses that gets at you from the first moment. It makes you feel that many people before us have come and gone, some of them in queer garments different from ours, with a still queerer mind; people who knew nothing of steam or electricity, who counted money in livres, and believed the King of France the eldest son of the church in Christendom.

If we step out on to the porch we can see, a few hundred feet below, one of the oldest convents in America. Yes, still the same walls, though they have been raised and restored more than once; and the roof has been changed. There the nuns still keep the table and chair of the venerable founder of

their order, Soeur Bourjeoys. Date, 1701.

So education entered the island alongside of the pursuits of rural life.

Soon after the settlers had faced the forest and challenged it with ax»s and whipsaws, they seem to have forgotten their own kinsmen in provincial France. Little, if any, correspondence passed the ocean between them; still less could there be any notion of mutual visits. The past was as if buried except in so far as it subsisted in the present.

Sailing ships were few, casual and erratic. Two years once passed, about 1705, without any contact with the motherland. The war with England was to blame. The Bishop of Quebec was made a prisoner on the seas and valuable cargoes were confiscated. So everyone had to shift for himself.

The habitants wove their own homespuns, flannels and linens—just as today. They made their shoes—bottes sauvages, which they used most of the year. Yet on Sundays they, particularly the young women, wanted to have smart French shoes—souliers français. They wore their homemade shoes most of the way to church when the paths were muddy, and then stopped and changed their footwear. From there they would strut precariously on high heels! For rare events they managed to ape the style of the higher class, but usually they looked just like plain peasants; and were none the worse for it. For they were hardy, self-reliant and sufficient. One wonders at times whether their

government with its political intrigues was not just a nuisance to them.

An Ancient Pilgrimage

THE SAILORS often met with storms on the high seas. When it happened they fell down upon their knees and made vows to Sainte Anne. This was done according to an immemorial custom. Many shrines on the coast of France bear this out. One was erected by seamen on the Beaupré Coast; there, almost in front of us, on the opposite shore. We can see the little tower in the distance—Sainte Anne de Beaupré.

There is such a widespread belief in miracles and occult cures that pilgrims and tourists from far and wide invade the place every summer.

The miracles of Sainte Anne at first were mostly confined to sea folk. This is shown by old painted canvases in the Memorial church, which represents sailors praying at sea while the storm lashed them. But they now cover the whole range of human vicissitudes. The growth of Sainte Anne as a pilgrimage centre is an interesting story.

From a chance stopping place, it became a pilgrimage and trade centre during the French period. The Micmac Indians from the Maritimes used to come on yearly visits to the shrine. While there, they disposed of their furs, were banqueted, and managed to leave more than they received. But they went away satisfied.

The parishioners of the Beaupré Coast also w-ere fond of going to the shrine overland, miles aw-ay; those of Ile d’Orleans likewise; they crossed the river in their sail boats. This happened once a year, in July or August, for the feast of Sainte Anne. A

pious pilgrimage, yes. But the people so seldom in their lives went away from their home that they were apt to treat this as a feast, and there are always some black sheep in the herd. Men would procure spirits and get riotous. Another abuse was that of young men and their fiancées travelling in carts from distant parishes on the coast and stopping overnight on their way. And the good shepherds wondered at the spiritual gains and losses of their flock in the end.

Growth Not Survival

VUE HAVE BEEN wandering, through * V our eyes, to the far shore in front of us, and we might continue our little imaginanjaunt. But whatever we see w-ould tell the same tale; one of pioneering, of gradual changes and growth. For there w-as growth here, not merely survival. Survival is a thing of the past, unchanged and neglected as it were; or if changed, for the worse. It flavors of decay and may soon drop off the walk of life.

Not so w-ith the people here or the manifestations of their existence. They are alive and sturdy. So they have been for tw-o or three centuries. The depression does not hit them hard, because they have w-eathered many others and are self-reliant. They own fields, gardens, cows, sheep and orchards. And there are many things they can do, for their hands are trained for many home crafts. As people they have not merely survived, they have multiplied, expanded. From French folk, they have become thorough Canadians; and since the day of their landing here they have gone on adapting themselves to changing surroundings. And no one in America is more attached to his homeland—for him the best under the sun.