General Articles

The Shrine of M. Dionne

To Francois Dionne, life is a "happy day.” And when night falls he’ll be ready— monuments, coffin and all

HUGH KEMP March 1 1948
General Articles

The Shrine of M. Dionne

To Francois Dionne, life is a "happy day.” And when night falls he’ll be ready— monuments, coffin and all

HUGH KEMP March 1 1948

The Shrine of M. Dionne

To Francois Dionne, life is a "happy day.” And when night falls he’ll be ready— monuments, coffin and all

HUGH KEMP

QUEBEC is a province of the devout. In the rural districts this characteristic often expresses itself in the erection of outward symbols. Among these none is more unusual than that which stands at 179 Lafontaine Street in the town of Rivière du Loup, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, 120 miles northeast of Quebec City.

At first sight there seems to be only a grocery store. Even as a store it is something special. Its whitewashed brick exterior is almost hidden by merchandise, except where the two windows break through. The windows are filled with an odd mixture of goods. Fruits and vegetables are the leaders, but they must share space with wood carvings of habitant life, jars of spices, pails of fish, firecrackers, boxes of candy, fancy dolls and wax candles.

Within the store the assortment is still more varied and the crowding more intense. The shelves bulge outward, the counters are piled almost to the ceiling. It is like a small warehouse with narrow aisles carved through the merchandise.

When the eye becomes accustomed to this maas and begins to select out the detail, some strange new shapes may be observed. It may be noted with astonishment that within this cluttered interior are five monuments: one in the centre of the store and one at each of the four corners. Their marble bases are sunk down midst bags and jars and their upper structures rise into the fruits and vegetables. Cherubim and seraphim gambol amid oranges and bananas and just below the 12-foot ceiling marble angels spread their wings. The angel on the central monument disappears right into the ceiling.

Through a door at one side of the store is a plaster-white vault 30 feet long and 10 feet wide. It is entirely without fruit, but has artificial grass on the floor and ferns growing against the end walls. In the centre of this cold room stands a black coffin with a brass name plate already on it, and in a cabinet at one end are the burial robes of a man who is still very much alive.

The queerly mixed properties of 179 Lafontaine, the symbols of life, death, and the afterlife, are the chief possessions, the sustenance and the triumph of M. François Dionne, 69-year-old French-Canadian merchant who has spent three decades of his life cultivating a close friendship with death and 15 years sleeping within sight of his own coffin.

Francois Dionne is well known to the 9,000 people of his town; among them he has some friends, but no disciples. He is no prophet, no a see I ic either. He is an orthodox Roman Catholic who is interested almost exclusively in his own salvation. The curé pays him regular visits, examines his creation with mild wonderment, but expresses neither clerical approval nor disapproval.

If Dionne is somewhat without honor in his own home town, there are compensations. He and his personal shrine are known to many thousands all over North America.

His place is on the main highway that leads from Quebec City down the south shore of t he river and around the Gaspé coast. All summer long th' tourist cars roll in their hundreds past the door oi his establishment. A great many of them stop and some visitors come back year after year. In the words of M. Dionne, ‘‘People from New York and Florida and California . . . they all know me and they come in shouting, ‘Alio, Dionne, what’s new?’ ‘See for yourself,’ I tell them, and they do.”

All visitors are welcome to regard his statues— though they are cautioned well not to touch—but only a favored few win entry to the eerie space of the death room.

While many come to see him, Dionne goes to see few. Only once a week does he venture beyond

the confines of his property — on Sunday he goes to church.

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The Shrine of M. Dionne

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He wonders why so many people go so far so often. For what do they search? For the happy day. “Everybody looks for the happy day. My home is my happy day. In summer, everybody stops to ask me why I don’t go to the horse race. For what? One horse run close to another horse. For me, that’s not the happy day.”

Physically, Dionne is the grocer, not the monk. He is a large man with heavy features and heavy limbs. His chin knows the razor’s edge, but not too often. When he talks his peasant’s French there are flashes of gold behind thick lips. He wears a grocer’s apron and a cap pulled down over his forehead. His breath is thick with garlic.

Himself, he is a happy man. For the children who visit him he does little dances, nimble in spite of his bulk, and he tells stories of the angels and the devil. The latter he fears not. His dialogue is well-grounded in declamation; well-illustrated with pantomime. He weeps, sighs, clutches his bosom, flings wide his arms. He gives it the business. He is robustious.

While the inspiration for his monuments did not come to François Dionne until his early manhood, the foundations of it in his personality go back to birth and beyond. His parents were desperately poor farmfolk not far from Rivière du Loup. François was the 11th child. He was born in a barn, accidentally but symbolically enough, on a cold February morning in 1879—a date which he now has tattooed on his arm.

He remembers that there was but one knife in the house and four chairs. The children tripled in the makeshift beds.

In his early teens the farm was abandoned and the family dispersed in the town to make a living, however possible. For young François there was no work there and like many other young French Canadians he trekked across into the United States, to Maine and Connecticut. In the wintertime he worked in the bush. Summers he got a job as a stonemason’s apprentice in Hartford, Conn. He was just beginning to get a little money put aside when he contracted a tropical fever and was ordered to return to Quebec.

Back home he got a job in a new furniture factory. For a roof over his head he built himself a small shack on the main street, right across from the site of his present store. Promptly a bevy of relatives moved in. For months 18 of them lived in a two-story place 12 feet square. Most of them ate off François’ slim pay cheque.

One day he despaired of this existence and quit his job. With the drop of money he had from his final pay envelope he bought up a few boxes of fruit and told the relatives that they were going into business.

His father was appalled, cried, “Now we’il all starve for sure.” To this François made a strange answer, not being certain himself where the words came from. He said, “If people cannot buy, we will give things away. We will trust to the good God and it will be all right.”

Prom then on, things began to work out. “My imagination began to turn on itself,” he says, “and for every problem there was an answer.”

Some of the problems were tough. For one thing, there was no room inside the building for the stock. All of it had to be piled up outside the store. Every day François and his helpers moved the stock right around the building to keep it out of the sun.

And Dionne kept to his word. When people had no money he gave things away. And it came back to him severalfold. With the moneys that began to accumulate he bought new stock and he also put four of his relatives’ children through senior school. By 1913 he had put enough aside to acquire his present, property —where a more favorable sun prevails.

Standing in the empty space of his new store, he was struck with gratitude and he remembered from where his blessings had come. He looked up then and he spread out his arms and he offered a new deal. “Keep things going good, God,” he cried, “and I’ll put you in my store.”

Did His Own Masonry

Things boomed—coincidentally with the rise of the tourist trade—and the grocer kept his bargain. During the long evenings of winter the plan took shape. He sketched out the distribution of the statuary himself, m a fine architect’s hand, and this original plan now hangs on a hinged board at the side of the store, just beneath the pickled eggs.

The travelling salesmen of religious ornaments made many suggestions and other ideas came from the perusal of catalogues and from correspondence with firms in Montreal. A piece at a time Dionne assembled his materials. The marble for the bases and the big marble angels which stand atop each unit came all the way from Italy and were bought through an agent in Montreal. The cherubim and seraphim are of a hard domestic stone, but very good nonetheless.

Construction began in 1925 and has been going on until just recently, when its creator proclaimed the work complete.

The stone masonry was done by Dionne himself, as well as the lower ornamentation. From a craft standpoint, his work is excellent.

The main monument was about six years in the building, but the four comer ones went rather more quickly. The toughest problem was getting the Italian marble angels to sit securely aloft. In this Dionne was helped by a few strong friends. Together they moved a small crane into the store and hoisted the sacred figures up on the end of a rope.

The central monument stands on a base four feet square made of polished black marble. From it rises a column of grey stone almost to the ceiling. Around the base of this column are grouped the cherubim and seraphim and atop it stands an angel, her head about 16 feet above the floor.

This monument was delayed in completion because the ceiling was in the way. Dionne had to wait till the apartment above became vacated by its tenant, then he leased the place and hacked his way through to the upper skylight. Now the biggest angel of all—six feet two inches—is sheltered in this well, and the observer must crane his neck to see her.

In earlier days the monuments stood fairly well in the clear, but as business multiplied the flood tide of merchandise began to mount up around their bases, getting higher and higher as the summers went by until now they are almost submerged. But Dionne does not care. The monuments are not for today, he points out, but for the time when both he and his final inventory will have dissolved into the earth.

“Live, Suffer, Die”

After the major work had been completed, François found himself with idle hands once more. Out came the old drawing board again and onto paper went the plan for the death room.

The location of this is directly in back of his bedroom. Its centrepiece is a long, black coffin, mad« by the hands of François Dionne, to some day hold his body.

At the head of the coffin stands a cross and at its foot are two skulls. On the wall at the end of the room is a cross bearing the image of the Savior, with bleeding heart, and underneath it the resigned motto, “Live, Suffer, Die.” Just back from the foot of the coffin are four chairs and kneeling stools.

Dionne spent considerably less on the death room than on the monuments. The coffin, for example, cost him only four and a half dollars for the raw material.

His final travail was the making of his burial robes, which now stand in a small cabinet at the entrance to the room. These are fine black wool with white piping and are faintly suggestive of the Chinese in design. The full dress includes a pair of good French-Canadian woollen socks, the sandals of a monk, a white silk handkerchief and a hat modelled after the fez.

Dionne’s quarters—one bed-living room—are separated from the store only by a curtained doorway and adjoin the death room on the other side. He sleeps in a huge double bed, 12 feet from his long black box. Beside the bed there is a small cabinet already set up with the properties of the last rites.

The decor of the room follows that of the rest of the establishment. Wherever François puts his hand there is a sacred heart, even under the nickel-plated telephone. Along a ledge near the ceiling are a hundred little images, including a wooden statue of Saint Bernadette, the carving of which he commissioned personally.

Beside his desk is an enormous rocking chair which he made himself. Its rungs are six inches in diameter. And beside it is a huge tobacco urn which he converted from an old drinking fountain.

A plaster hand juts out from the wall to hold his business papers.

Only once a year does François Dionne leave these surroundings for more than an hour. Then he takes the bus along the river highway to Lévis, crosses the ferry to Quebec City and transfers to a boat for Montreal. From the wharf at Montreal a taxi whirls him up to the famous Shrine of Brother André—the only shrine outside of his own that he ever visits. He used to know the remarkable man who healed the sick on the side of Montreal’s mountain and now he pays an annual visit to honor his memory.

From the shrine he swoops down to the big wholesalers and from there back to the boat and home.

He’s a Carload Buyer

The Montreal wholesalers all know him and regard him with amazement. He places whopping orders, out of all proportion to the size of his storage space. When the goods are delivered, he jams them in, around and under his store. His own cellar is jam-packed, ns is the cellar of the place next door which he rents for this purpose.

“By getting my goods at carload prices,” he says, “I make half of my profit in buying and the other half in selling.” Every week during the summer he clears a railway carload of fruit.

If Dionne’s buying and selling policies are unusual, his public relations are even more so. All around the fruits and vegetables and in and out the angels he has strung a series of signs, crudely painted and held together by rusty wire. These, in strange contradiction to his early philosophy of “give and ye shall receive,” admonish his visitors in the most frank language. For example the following: “Eaves-

droppers are not admitted.” “Pickpockets are admitted to the courthouse. Only buyers received here.” “Drinkers not welcome.” “Blasphemers keep out.” “Look but don’t touch.” “The man who cashes cheques is not in today.”

New customers do not always take these comments with the best of grace. At least once a day during the summer a visitor will stomp out. in high dudgeon. François takes their departure with resignation. Dionne the grocer and Dionne the mystic have become two different departments.

François Dionne was married when he was 42, had one daughter. Now his wife is dead and his daughter married and living in Detroit. The relatives who once lived with him have departed, leaving the old man pretty much alone.

He has three employees: a middleaged woman and a young boy and girl. These four spend long days in the store, eat all their meals together. Occasionally, particularly at the time of the Feast of the Sacred Heart, they all go into the mortuary room and either kneel or prostrate themselves on the floor and offer up prayers.

Every day about 30 children from the nearby orphanage come to visit and for an hour the old man has a whale of a time. He gives them candy, plays with them, does little dances and tells stories. He also delights in exhibiting such properties as a pencil 18 inches long, a pencil with a rubber point, a pipe that weighs three pounds and a fountain pen that uses half a pint of ink.

His one other big joy is in dressing his windows. In this function his unfettered imagination produces some awesome combinations. His latest window design: a team of black dolls playing hockey against a team of white dolls in front of a southern colonial mansion.

Last spring, François Dionne became stricken with a nameless malady and he thought he heard the far-off trumpets. He donned his burial rohes and took to his bed, calling for his friends, the children, the priest and the photographer. When all were grouped around the failing man, the photographer snapped a picture.

Shortly after the doctor arrived and pronounced Dionne far too fat. In the old tradition he promptly let blood—two gallons of it, so they say—and the dying man rose to serve his customers again.

Last summer, Dionne worked through his customary 14-hour days, but now that it is winter again on the lower St. Lawrence he has little to do but sit in his rocker by the front door. In the daytime his three employees are there to pass the time with him, but at nightfall they depart and he is left alone to retire to his great bed and await the expected visit from the dark angel. Sometimes he thinks he hears the voices when the cold winds howl up the main street outside and whistle eerily around the death room. But not again will he hustle into his robes, not until the hour has really come.

The whole plan is now complete. When he finally does depart this earth, the enormous inventory of groceries will be broken up and distributed among the poor; the dolls and novelties will go to the children.

Then six good men will move in to demolish the building itself, fill in the foundation with earth, plant grass and build a small fence around the property.

Not many years hence the mortal remains of François Dionne will lie conventionally in the local graveyard. But his monuments will stand where they are now, on the main street of Riviere du Loup, paying tribute to God and the memory of a grocer whose imagination turned on itself and who knew the happy day when he saw it. ic