General Articles

The Village on the River

Canada’s age rests here — in parishes such as Lotbiniere, where ships and people have the seventeenth-century look

EVA-LIS WUORIO September 1 1948
General Articles

The Village on the River

Canada’s age rests here — in parishes such as Lotbiniere, where ships and people have the seventeenth-century look

EVA-LIS WUORIO September 1 1948

The Village on the River

Canada’s age rests here — in parishes such as Lotbiniere, where ships and people have the seventeenth-century look


THE CHURCH bells peal out their joyous chant. Behind the white steeples the blue St. Lawrence twists its sunny way to the sea. Cherry orchards, in bloom at last, foam their way down the fields. And out of the huge white church, set in the centre of the small village, pour the good people.

Thus it is everywhere upon the river this Sunday of sunshine of early summer. As here today in Lotbinière. It is the fete of Corpus Christi.

First come the men of the village and the adjoining country, each behind the banner of his own society. Black-clad, in Sunday best, they march stolidly along, as did their fathers before them for 300 years, down this very village street. Then come the women, the old ones in black, the young modishly modern, behind the banners of “Enfants de Marie,” of “Dames de Ste. Anne,” of “La Ligue du Sacré Coeur.”

Behind them, under the stern strict eye of the Good Sister of Bon Pasteur, in solemn black, come the white-clad little girls, chosen angels as a reward for good behavior. Devoutly and loudly the nuns chant their prayers, setting an example for the sometimes gossiping village folk in the procession.

Behind them is a little space, sufficient for the gold dust of the road to settle, and to give the people rocking on the galleries of the ancient houses time for a long breath.

Now come the smallest choirboys, in their embroidered surplices, hands neatly folded. Behind them walk the older choristers, carrying golden flambeaux, censers but faintly scenting the fresh summer air and the flags and banners of religious orders. Muted, now, is the riotous tumbling tune of the church bells.

To deep chanting walk the clergy behind the choirboys. A golden cross is held high. Flanking it, two grave chandeliers with tall candles. And, then, under a white-and-gold canopy carried by four black-clad wardens, their farmers’ hands bulging in tight gloves, comes the curé. High,

unwaveringly, he holds the gold monstrance.

Like a swift wave the people fall to their knees along the roadside. This is the Holy Host. Devoutly they cross themselves, there by the repository erected this morning. Pebbles of the road and the new, dewy grass of the field are familiar under their knees, familiar since childhood. And even unto ancestral memory. This is a gesture of ages, brought long ago from Norman villages in far France, well-rooted now along the Canadian Et. Lawrence.

There, a white handkerchief under his knee, kneels Marc Moraud, his small grandnephew Pierre at his side. Here is lean, hook-nosed notary Eugene Bernard his father was the notary of the village before him and his grandfather before that. Close to him hotelkeeper Lucien Hamel bends his head devoutly and behind him is Edmond de Vi Ilers, pilot, home from the river for the fete. Camillien Houde, wealthy farmer, cousin of Montreal’s mayor, kneels by his straight-backed young son. And, a Protestant among his people, Alain Holy de Lotbinière, eighth seigneur of one of Canada’s oldest country seats and of the last remaining seigneury in the land, is here too, inconspicuously, to give respect to one of the great festivals of the year.

The Latin chants ring forth. The traditional

gestures are peculiarly attuned to the simple scene: the sun, bright after the long grey spring; the swift tide carrying the river to the sea; the freighters, white cruise boats, cross-river ferries, chaloupes, passing in the sunshine, busy with the commerce of the modern day, even this Sunday out of t he past. Over the sound of the Latin incantation the lowing of a cow from an adjacent forsaken orchard sounds loudly plaintive.

Canada’s age rests here.

Since 1672, when the seigneury still known as Lotbinière was granted to René-Louis Chartier de Lotbinière, there has been industrious life on the river here. Today the parish is among the most prosperous in Quebec.

The village of Lotbinière is only 45 miles above the city of Quebec on the south shore of t he Et. Lawrence. The ancient houses stand on a bluff above the tidal Hats. The one street follows the bend of the river. Dominating the tranquil settlement, the huge white church spears the sky with twin spires. Many of the 500 villagers are well-todo retired farmers whose sons now work the family acres, or river pilots, also retired on their quite considerable earnings. The village* is the cor»* of the parish of 1,650 people. The curé, the doctor, the notary, form the professional element. There is a convent school ('onhnued on paw 50

Continued on page 50

The Village on the River

Continued from page 19

for girls, a village school teaching up to university-entrance level for the boys. Throughout the parish are 11 small public schools. The Syndicat de Heurrerie (the co-operative) is, after the church, the most important focal point for joint activities. There is also a Cercle Lacordaire, a temperance society whose members not only promise not to drink, but also not to have any alcohol in their houses.

The village is typical of the many strung along the St. Lawrence: the agricultural backbone of the province, a cradle for men known throughout the Dominion each succeeding generation.

Though old in settlement, modern methods are familiar here, both in farming and in co-operative purchasing and selling. There is in Lotbinière a co-operative dairy, mill, insurance company and bank. Thrifty ways of life are part of the inherited Norman shrewdness of the people.

The Three Mayor Houdes

Tidy farms, well-worked by frugal farmers, slant up from the original 30arpent. grants on the river to the back concession and the woods. It wasn’t until 1941 that the Government abolished seigneurial tithes (a nominal rent of from a few cents to $1.50 an acre, paid by the habitant to the seigneur). Still, however, De Lotbinières hold their Manoir at Pointe Platon, just outside the village, their old mills at

Rivière du Chêne in the woods and other lands. They also own kilns, forests and lumber mills—41,000 acres in all. In direct line (though in 1828 transferred through a daughter who married a Joly) Protestant Alain Joly de Lotbinière and his son Edmond hold their heritage in this Catholic stronghold.

The farmers who were once the seigneur’s tenants guard their heritage, too. There is. for example, the homestead of the Houdes. Camillien Houde is the mayor of the parish. (The mayor of the village is another Houde. With Montreal’s Camillien Houde this makes three Houde cousins, all mayors.) The 200 - year - old house stands, solidly lovely, white-painted, in midst of green fields sloping toward the first Houde homestead, nearly 300 years old, on the bluff above the St. Lawrence. Here the Mayor of Montreal spent his boyhood summers.

From the kitchen windows, as in all Lotbinière houses, you see the river, and the mountain-high north shore. 'Fhe room is light-painted, clean. The wood stove, the crucifix, the radio, the religious certificates, the calendar in primary colors, spell out the comfort of the kitchen.

Camillien Houde himself is a stocky Norman, with shrewd yet merry blue eyes, a firm chin, a big good nose. In the evenings when the work in the

barns and the fields is over, he’ll come in, take off his shoes and. in stocking feet, consider the affairs of his office, such as a recommendation for a young man or woman leaving the parish for the city. His greatest prides are his horses and his maple bush and he’ll point out with a sudden deep laugh that he is a widower now and no mean catch. In the “salon,” the best room, there are the uncomfortable plush

chairs, the family portraits and the air of musty unuse—typical of all farms.

Beyond the farm lands there is always the river. Throughout centuries it was the only means of transporlntion. It is prodigiously openhanded with fish; boats go out at dusk for seine fishing and come back with heavy loads these summer dawns. In the winter there are whole little villages on the ice. with little houses, heated by wood stoves, erected above the fishing hole.

The river’s song is the song of an enchanter. Ulysses’ sirens had not such a sweet voice. Many a son of Lotbinière has found the call too strong to withstand. The urge of the tide, the sight of ships outward bound—gallant in sunshine, fantastic ghosts when St. Lawrence fog hangs low, palaces of pleasure strung with lights in the deep night—is as much a part of the village as the good soil. When in May the ice begins to go, hearts in Lotbinière twist sharply. Out come the sea trunks, boys call ships’ agents in Montreal or Quebec, river pilots prepare for their summer runs.

Some of them will become river pilots, a profession second only to farmers. Many of the pilots make as much as $7,000 a year. Their houses are no longer the simple homes with wood stoves, rockers and crucifixes. They winter in Florida, buy electric refrigerators, store furniture and city drapes.

Madame Lefleur’s husband is a pilot. Throughout the summers she lives with her father, old Monsieur Abel, in the family place, a Norman stone house, which has belonged to the Abels for nearly 300 years, with a graceful sloping roof and a windowless wall to the cold northeast wind.

Abbé Georges Abel, Madame Lafleur’s brother, who comes from his job as a professor at the Quebec Seminary for the week ends, will remark that “the ancestors built for the ages,” as you reach to touch the huge oaken beams or lean out over window sills three feet deep.

On the. window sill of Madame Lefleur’s second-floor room there is the Union Jack and a pulley system running to a flag pole in the yard outside. A friend who lives up beyond the curve of the river will sight her husband's ship, telephone, and by the time the shrill ship’s whistle with which Lotbinière men greet their own village sounds for Madame Lefleur, she has run up the flag on the mast, as a sign she’s watching her heart sweep out on the swift tide.

Because of the constant fascination

of the river, the quay is a rendezvous for the entire village. The first settlement and church (1693) were here, on the little rise above the tidal flats where the wharf juts out stolid, stonegrey, into the whirling waters.

Here the mail and passenger ferries, the odd freighter, the supply boats, stop at times. One windy, blue-andgreen afternoon I saw at the head of the wharf a vessel of amazing shape and a captain as picturesque.

It was a pulp boat, la goélette St. Stanislas II, and looked practically 17th century, rounded in the bow, hollowed into a gaping hole within, a single mast serving as a derrick. Aft rose two stories high, looking like a clumsy house. In the little cabin above, the wheel, the compass and the bunk filled the entire space. l,There was a gay calendar and a crucifix on the wall. Here bachelor Capitaine Robert Marion, with a vast handle-bar mustache, of undefinable age, spends much of his days and nights. Below the bridge you find the galley with a woodburning stove, cupboards stacked with preserves made by Marion’s sisters, bunks, smoke-blacked crucifix and all the untidiness of a man keeping house.

Mostly he runs the big, cluttered, grey craft alone, carrying “le pulp” from Mont Joli to Trois Rivieres, taking other cargo as the occasion demands. But he pauses often at Lotbinière, his birthplace. “Le pulp” is an industry of importance along the river. Even at the Seigneury, where young Edmond de Lotbinière is back recently from studying forestry in Sweden after service in the Royal Canadian Navy throughout the war, there is a steppedup interest in lumber. The thick forests on the north and south shores, reaching hungry fingers at Canada’s oldest settlements, are a potent part in the life sense, the folk tales, the songs of the people.

Next to the curé, the doctor and the notary are the most important villagers.

A little way down the village street from the church is the centuryold, sprawling, galleried house of Dr. Wilfred Laberge. For 50 years the sour-looking, giant-hearted doctor has been tearing corners off newspapers, rolling them into funnels and pouring his pills into them. For years he covered three villages, Lotbinière, St. Emmelie and St. Edouard, by horse and buggy. “It’s quicker with an automobile,” he says a bit sharply.

Quite some time ago now, he concocted a cough medicine which the

villagers of Lotbinière found very effective. He keeps it in a gallon jar in the corner of his disinfectant-smelling office, lined with bookcases, stacked, not with books, but. with bottles and boxes of pills, tablets, fluids. When a coughing patient arrives he will fix him with a hard eye and grumble, “What? Didn’t bring a bottle?” And as he goes scrounging through his shelves he always says, “Running out

of bottles. That’s what. Running out of bottles. Always giving them, never getting any back. People should learn to bring their own.”

Notary Eugene Bernard, a tall, white-haired man with a scholarly air whose father originally organized most of the co-operative groups in Lotbinière, now has the running of them from the business end. He is the bank manager. He also draws up the wills, the marriage contracts, property excii anges and arranges loans.

He lives in a white-painted, modernlooking house, next to the church sciuare in the centre of the village. His family came to Lotbinière in 1759. Notaries in the Bernard family reach back to France, the professions being uniquely French in the first place. He was a brilliant student at Laval, but elected to return to his own village to lake over his father’s job.

“There is not much opportunity here for the young people,” the notary regrets. “Many of our youngsters seek their fortunes elsewhere. Yet most of the farms are still in the hands of the same families who first settled here. When a son comes of age, the parents retire, build a house here in the village, close to the church and let him takt* over. So here we have the shops, the trades, the professions—that is, the curé, the doctor and myself and a dentist who visits us once a month—and the retired farmers and pilots. It is a quiet life. A good one.”

Canada knows many a son of Lotbinière, the notary points out. The present seigneur’s grandfather, Sir Henry Gustave Joly de Lotbinière, was the Premier of the province, member of the Laurier Cabinet and LieutenantGovernor for British Columbia. The famous French-Canadian rustic poet Pamphile Le May was of the Lotbinière Le Mays. He has now a memorial chapel, under an old elm, on the village street. In addition to I Camillien Houde, Judge Camillien Noel of Alberta, Monseigneur Maurice Labberte and Canada’s youngest high-seas captain, 27-year-old Jean Charles Blanchetteall are sons of Lotbinière.

The Burial of Mme. Montpas

The way of life in Lotbinière follows the pattern of old days. Late grey spring. Sudden lush green summer. Autumn breath-taking in color. Long, long white winter. The spice and the seasoning of the days are the religious festivals. The auctions for charity, or church, or the occasional sale of a farm. 'The births, weddings and funerals.

! Life has a directness that is almost harsh.

One grey day this spring Madame Montpas died. And on a grey day she was buried.

We go to it because Dupont, the hired man, has been asked to participate with his two black horses. They are neighing at the door before I’m finished with the early breakfast. Dupont in tight black Sunday clothes is another man from the Dupont in the gallant, faded-blue work shirt.

As the high buggy moves off, with you balanced precariously on the narrow seat, Dupont sings softly and the black horses trot. The constant east wind of spring sweeps cold and wet over the fields. The tide on the river is high and sings with the wind.

As we pass the houses, people stand at the corner of the window, holding the curtain with two fingershidden, you are supposed to think—watching us ride by. Always, at all windows, there are people standing at the corner, half-hidden, watching. If they are outside they rush indoors to look out.

The oldsters of the village appear to have taken a holiday for the occa-

sion. People in black trudge down the street. Here are the two ancient sisters whose life is the church. They speak to very few, see no one, attend everything that goes on at the church, every day. If anyone is, they’ll be certain of heaven, people say and look on them with awe bordering on fear.

There is a small calvary on the roadside. I’d never noticed it before, but Dupont holds back the black horses a second to touch his hat to it. While Dupont goes for the hearse and the black plumes for the harness, we walk in the churchyard among windand weather-worn graves of Beaudets, Lemays, Lalibertes, Augers, Leclercs and Hamels, dating back to the beginnings of settlement.

Inside, the church is still empty and bitterly cold. The lights, which play such a dramatic part in many Roman Catholic services, are dimmed this morning. The dusk, the dolefully tolling bells, the east wind, all are somehow a part of the story of poor dead Madame Montpas.

She lived out of the village, in the Row—that is, the back concessioncaring for her parents until a widower married her. Felix Montpas was so thrifty he would net even have electriclights, a toilet or a radio, yet she felt the marriage was a reward for her many years of faithful labors. He died a year ago and she waited—impatiently, but who could blame her—through the time of mourning. Then she began to get a few of the long-dreamed-of things. The electricity and the radio, such music out of such a small box! In echoing whisper, in the cold church, we submit our thanks that she had her little time to enjoy these blessings.

The procession enters. The purple coffin covered with a black robe. The nephew carrying the black cross. The altar boys with their candles and gold crosses, the chalice. The curé.

As the coffin passes, the bone-scraping east wind seems to sweep by with it. The choir intones mournfully. Nine old ladies in black, precisely alike, sisters of the deceased, follow behind. Then the nieces. The service is long.

Later, a step from the church door, into the grey spring morning under the low grey skies, the east wind among the grey stones of the churchyard mourning. In the purple coffin the old woman who had so little time to enjoy her radio, her electric lights. Into the earth, barely unfrozen, black, black earth, the coffin and the body.

Vignettes of a Village

Dupont comes up, black horses again harnessed to the little buggy, singing his soft little song to himself, touching his hat to the girls on the church hill. We drive home down the curving village street and note how the east walls of the oldest stone houses are covered with weathered planks to shield the stone from the biting salt wind of the east. Houses, even churches were built, here on the river, with their narrowest wail to northeast for centuries.

We pass the house of Emile Cout ure, the shopkeeper, who has 17 children, and his neighbor, Charles de la Chevrotiere, who has 15; “they play together, the little ones.” We pass the notary’s, the doctor’s, the cobbler’s, the co-operative dairy. The horses trot crisply for we are going chez nous— that untranslatable French-Canadian word for home, which means so much more than “with us” or “home”—to hay and wheat for them, and a warm bowl of ragout for us. The thought and the fact that the east wind of spring is at our backs now stop us from feeling the cold so.

Tranquil, in the evening, the village rests on the bluff above the ancient

river. Tranquil is the memory of her in the hearts of her sons.

There is sharp ache to the familiar scenes for those who go away. Many pictures.

Leger Laliberte, the crier, standing after High Mass, of a Sunday morning, on the churchyard wall, reporting that Isaac Lemay of Ste. Croix is selling his farm machinery at auction and that old Widow Beaudet’s red cow is missing.

The curé, receiving his “dime,”—the 26th bushel of grain from every harvest, at an autumn ceremony; or working in his garden above the river, in the shadow of the high twin steeple of the church.

There are memories of spring nights, frogs singing in the woods, the mist rising from the ditches, the horse’s hoofs beating a faintly echoing song, as you ride to the old stone mill on Riviere du Chêne. It has stood there for a couple of centuries and the Augers have always run it for the seigneur. You warm up in the white-painted kitchen, the pungent clean scent of grain seeping in from the mill proper. Isidore Auger will space his words to the swing of his rocker, his wife will be busy over her flax, and the moonlit rapids will chant a thin silvered tune beneath the lazy mill wheel.

Some will think of the familiar shape of a De Villers’ boat, one of the three the brothers own on its way to unknown ports, slowing by Lotbinière while all the village young go out in Camille Leclair’s chaloupe (a motordriven open boat) to say the last good-by; or of the many evenings you have rushed to the windows to see Edouard’s, or Raoul’s, or Pierre’s boat passing the village—with a glad heart if she is going up the river, with a sinking feeling if she is outward-bound.

And there are the Angelus bells. On still evenings you hear them ring across the river at Les G rondines and at Deschambault, echoing back from the hills. You hear, too, the bells of Ste. Croix and St. Emmelie, as well as the familiar bells of Lotbinière, tumbling out their praise. In all of Canada there are no other bells like these of the St. Lawrence. They do not play tunes or chimes. They ring in a cacophony of ecstasy, as in Spain—treble, bass, tenor, making joint wild harmony, sweet sound, over the river.

A man will kneel upon the plowed earth of his field then or stand, head bent, silhouetted against the sunset, within the high vault of his barn. Throughout the land of the St. Lawrence a prayer will rise in sober reverence. “Hail Mary, full of grace! . . .”

The day is done.

Above the Laurentians the coppergold of the sunset is heart-blazing. But upon the edges of the horizon the deep purple of the night is gathering in the farthest villages. The tidal flats, emptying seaward, are a pattern of purple and gold. The mountains change color swiftly, from clear blue to a pink haze, to misty purple and then, as the sun sinks, to black.

One by one the green lights brighten in the lighthouses on the headlands. The buoy lights blink in the gathering dusk. On the quays the guard lights come on. The last of the sunset gold has left the high steeples. Twilight is short.

In the night the village seems to gather close, small. The immensity of darkness stretches to the pole. In the north sky the white fingers of the northern lights waver, even on a summer’s night.

And in the dim village church a single votive candle lights a bunch of fading lilac, left among the wax flowers on the altar by a child going home from a long day’s play. ic