The happy sequel to Quebec’s great ball-park wedding
On that memorable day in 1939, a multitude watched as 105 couples exchanged vows in Montreal’s ball park. Here is the surprising story of those marriages today — and the lessons they’ve taught a million other couples in a score of lands
It was a day the like of which Montreal had not seen in all her three hundred eventful years. The city had talked of little else for weeks, and even today, nineteen years after, it is a rare Montrealer who does not claim to have been present on the sunny morning of July 23, 1939, when a hundred and five couples knelt in the Montreal baseball park and were married simultaneously by Archbishop Georges Gauthier and a hundred and four assisting priests.
Actually, no more than twenty-five thousand spectators could jam into the stadium. Outside, the traffic snarl was out of hand. The Jeunesse Ouvrière Catholique—Young Catholic Workers — which organized the event had chartered all Montreal’s five hundred and seventy taxis to pick up the guests who poured in via sixteen special trains from all parts of Quebec and from adjacent Ontario, New York and New England. Other multitudes came by bus and on foot. The couples and their attendants drove in state in one hundred and five chauffcured limousines loaned by an auto agency.
Uninvited guests offered as much as ten dollars to holders of good seats but found few' takers. Four hundred onlookers fainted and were carried out to hospitals or firstaid posts. It was the busiest single day in
the history of the Montreal brigade of the St. John Ambulance Corps.
Panic ran through the crowd as rumors circulated of a plot to poison the guests. Squads of doctors rushed to the scene, but decided the wholesale collapses were caused by hysteria, heat and a surfeit of cold pop and ice cream. The late Mayor Camillien Houde. who had come to make a speech, took command and prudently ordered the refreshment vendors from the premises.
More photographers covered the mass marriage than the epochal arrival of the airship R100 nine years before. They took hundreds of shots of the radiant w'hitcgowned brides and their perspiring bluesuited grooms against the background of discreetly draped beer and loan-company billboards in the ball park’s outfield.
After the ceremony, in which Archbishop Gauthier united Henri and Thérèse Séguin at an altar in centre field while individual priests repeated the vows to the others, forty thousand spectators surrounded the wedding parties as they cut an ornate six-foot-tall wedding cake and ate a nuptial banquet of cold cuts and potato salad at picnic tables in the public playground of nearby St. Helen’s Island. Still more came in the late afternoon to glimpse the newly-
weds and to cheer a mass pageant. The World of Work, staged by the Young Catholic Workers.
It was the most frantic evening until then in the annals of the Montreal police, surpassed only once since by the “Maurice Richard riots” outside the Forum. Between suppertime and midnight two thousand calls clogged headquarters switchboards, reporting missing children, husbands and wives and grandparents — all of whom eventually found their way safely home from Canada's largest wedding reception. The couples went home, too. For most of them the outing at St. Helen’s Island was their honeymoon. They were working people (average income, twenty-five dollars a week) and the next day was a working day for the bridegrooms.
Later, Father Albert Sanschagrin, a chaplain of the Young Catholic Workers (now bishop of Amos-Abitibi) doubted that another mass marriage would ever be held. “There was too much cheap publicity and comment,” he said. “Many people did not understand our purpose and laughed at us.”
It was true that some newspapers covered the event rather as if it were a circus, that some ribald remarks were heard on the sidelines, and that a number of disapproving persons condemned it as a “mockery of marriage.”
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The happy sequel to Quebec’s great ball-park wedding continued from page 23
Yet it was intended to be—and has proved to be — anything but that. Probably few of the thousands who saw a carnival spirit in the mass marriage understood that these one hundred and five young French-Canadian couples were, in fact, the first graduating class of a unique “university of marriage.” The colorful spectacle in the ball park was a sort of valedictory to a year of serious education in the most important and most difficult of human relationships.
This is no mere figure of speech. The successful graduates—and more were weeded out than passed—had each won a minimum mark of sixty percent in fifteen tough examination papers containing no fewer than seven hundred and fifty searching questions on every aspect of marriage ranging from courtship to the psychology of choosing a mate, from budgeting to sex adjustment.
Few understood that these were the first graduates of a unique university of marriage”
What they learned has since become part of the curriculum of the University of Ottawa, and the course has spread through the world so widely that its sponsors have renamed it the International Marriage Preparation Service and claim it has become Canada's most important single influence on the everyday life of people in other countries.
It is an intriguing thought that a French-Canadian program for happy marriage, compiled to help a group of young Quebec Catholic workers, now guides the home life—and the love life —of a million people in the Philippines, Lebanon, Holland, the United States, Basutoland, India, New Zealand and a score more foreign lands.
Although the marriage - preparation course is based on Roman Catholic doctrine, not all students are Catholics. In Toronto, ten percent of the four thousand graduates of classes conducted by the Paulist Fathers have been Protestants. A pair of gratified youngsters recently told Father Frank Stone, director of the courses, “You've taught us how to be a good husband and wife—and better Anglicans.”
The course was inspired by Pope Pius XI. In 1938 the Oblate priests and lay leaders of Quebec’s Young Catholic Workers were pondering a new project for the year for its forty thousand members. The organization—known in Quebec as the JOC (or Jeunesse Ouvrière Catholique) — had been founded in mid-depression 1932 by Father Henri Roy, encouraged by Quebec's Catholic bishops.
Roy and his JOC set up homes for young unemployed and organized classes to continue schooling that had been cut short (a study showed the majority of unemployed youths had not gone beyond the seventh grade). The JOC persuaded Montreal courts to parole young offenders in its care, and sponsored recreation clubs and summer camps to keep its charges out of trouble.
But by 1938 the depression was easing. and JOC members were growing up. Seeking new ways to serve them, Roy and his associates remembered an encyclical on marriage issued by Pope Pius XI a few years before:
“In order to bring about the restoration of marriage, it is indeed of the utmost importance that the faithful should be well instructed concerning matrimony, both by word of mouth and by the written word, not cursorily but often and fully, by means of plain and weighty arguments . . .”
The JOC decided to test the extent to which "restoration of marriage” was needed in Quebec. It was a complex task, since in Catholic communities the basic index of marriage failure—divorce—was largely absent. "But the prohibition of divorce makes it all the more important that husband and wife be well prepared for a marriage that is going to last whether it is happy or not.” a JOC chaplain pointed out later.
So the JOC launched a series of discussion and investigation projects among ¡ts two hundred branches, made survey I after survey among single people,
couples about to be married, and some couples already married; queried priests, doctors, lawyers, judges, sociologists, merchants. The residts dismayed Father Roy and his helpers. Not more than one third of the marriageable or married appeared to know enough about the physical, spiritual, emotional or economic aspects of family life to stand a good
I chance of happy marriage.
As a result the JOC started a “pilot" course. Originally the plan was modest: twenty-five pairs of young people who intended to marry would be given intensive instruction by priests and lay fj experts in the various facets of married
life. Their graduation would be the
mass marriage of all twenty-five couples in Notre Dame Cathedral. When some of his friends warned him that it might be regarded as a publicity stunt, Roy surprised them by saying:
"But it is propaganda—propaganda for happy marriage to counteract the other I; side of marriage, divorce and broken
homes, which now gets most of the ||; publicity.”
When word of the marriage course || spread among JOC members and their
friends, so many applied that Roy and his staff, even after a rigorous weedingout of candidates, had to raise the enrolment, first to thirty-five, then to fifty, seventy-five and finally to an "inflexible limit” of one hundred. Even so. another five couples managed to get in by the time the courses started.
These were no formal lectures, but evening after evening of give-and-take dis-
II eussions. Most of the sessions were con!§ ducted by priests, but doctors, lawyers,
nurses and home economists took part in others. There was "field work” on the curriculum, too. Three or four pairs of students would descend on the home of a couple married a year or so and quiz the newlyweds on all aspects of their married life, from how they apportioned the housekeeping money to how they were preparing for the first baby. The students and their teachers wrote playlets around the problems of marriage and acted them ip out before an audience of fellow students to heighten "the feeling of reality.”
Only for sessions in which the biologií§ cal aspects of marriage were discussed were the boys and girls separated. "And that was only because we felt that the young people would ask questions more freely and discuss the problems more frankly if the other sex were not present,” explained a JOC official.
This was the preparation for the spectacular "mass marriage" in Montreal's ball park on July 23, 1939. Nearly two decades have passed since the hundred i; and five couples went home from St. Helen’s Island and. after their one big day in the limelight, slipped quietly into the anonymity of everyday married life.
As married couples they were no longer eligible for membership in the JOC. But Father Roy had pledged that he would follow up the marriages and help with problems that might arise in the early years of married life. So the Ligue Ouvrière Catholique (League of |¡ Catholic Workers) was founded as a sort of graduate branch of the JOC. Today the LOC has an active membership of five thousand, most of them graduates of the JOC's course in marriage preparation. The LOC serves as a forum for the discussion of home and school problems and a clearinghouse of information on jobs, budgets, vacations, child psychology and, in fact, all matters pertaining to family life. A special function of the LOC has been to keep in touch with the life stories of the hundred and five couples.
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How have they fared in nineteen years?
The fact of which LOC officials are proudest is that they have recorded no broken homes, no separations, among the pioneer group.
There have been remarkably few deaths, too. Cyrille Paradis left a sickbed to take part in the ceremony, returned home with his bride and died in less than a month. Both Mr. and Mrs. Donat Guardad have died, childless. Four other wives and ui.ce husbands have died.
Perhaps surprisingly in the light of traditionally large French-Canadian families, the mass marriage has produced the moderate average of three children to a family. The largest family is that of Georges and Marie-Berthe Couture, who operate a restaurant in Granby, Que., with the boisterous help of the ciders among their twelve children—six girls and six boys ranging in age from eighteen years to seven months. Another couple has ten children.
Nearly all the couples had their first child early. A year after the marriages twenty children had been born and fiftyfour more were expected. No grandchildren have yet arrived, but a bumper crop is expected within the next two or three years. Many of the children are second-generation students at the JOC’s marriage-preparation course.
How have the mass-marriage couples prospered? There are no spectacular ragsto-riches stories among the hundred and five couples, but in a majority of cases there is testimony of solid achievement. More than seventy percent of the couples own their homes (in one group of twenty families living in the north suburbs of Montreal, seventeen are homeowners).
The mass-marriage couples do not regard their studies in preparation for marriage as some half-forgotten incident of their youth, but as the principal influence in their married life and a definite factor in their success. Consider the case of Henri and Thérèse Séguin, the “lead couple” of the mass marriage. On the eve of their wedding, twenty-three-year-old Henri summed up what he had learned and made a prediction for the Séguins’ future: "Without the course in marriage my fiancée and I could never have understood so well the practical aspects of marriage. We both now know our own hearts and minds. Because of our training I am sure our honeymoon will last and we will be better spouses and parents.”
Shy Thérèse Séguin added: "I have
learned what a serious and sacred thing marriage is and all the duties it involves. Without the course I would have been as heedless and frivolous as many brides 1 have known who have been disillusioned when they found marriage wasn't just a round of parties and pleasures.”
How well have those brave words been borne out? "Better even than we hoped,” Henri Séguin said recently. "We have worked as a team and it has been a wonderfully rewarding life.”
When they were married Henri Séguin was a clerk in Montreal’s tax office. A few years later the "team” pondered a serious decision: should Henri leave his safe civil-service job for a more hazardous selling career? They decided on the venture, and Henri became a fur salesman. Today he is vice-president of McComber Furs Inc. With the help of Thérèse Séguin’s shrewd household management, learned in her pre-marriage course, the Séguins have bought a large building on Fleury Street. They have four children. Eighteen-year-old Nicole is a physiotherapy student at the University of Montreal. The other children are plan ning university educations, too, in common with many other children of th: mass - marriage couples. None of the latter attended university, and some did not reach far in high school.
Time after time these couples repeat the theme: “The course has been the most important influence in our married life.”
"Before this marriage all my luck was bad; after, all was good,” says Alphonse Rodrigue. “I did not even have a job when I married, but 1 got one the next day. We have had sickness and operations, and once we lost all our possessions in a fire. But what my wife learned in the course has made her such a good manager that we have never suffered. Today we own our own home, summer cottage and car.” For seventeen years Rodrigue has driven a bus on Montreal's streets, and has earned a unique reputation as “the bus driver who never gets mad.”
Once Rodrigue visited a JOC hall while Father Sanschagrin was conducting a marriage-preparation class. "Give the students your recipe for happy marriage.” the priest suggested.
Rodrigue delivered his first and only lecture as a marriage expert. "Always kiss your wife when you leave home and when you return,” he instructed. "Then look carefully around for something she may have done. Has she put up new curtains, or changed the furniture around? Perhaps she has a new hairdo. Notice such things and praise her for them. In this way your honeymoon will never end.”
Invariably the couples are propagandists for pre-marital preparation. Arthur Green had a unique opportunity to pass on the JOC s message. Green, a French Canadian whose name came from an Irish ancestor, was a provost sergeant with the Royal Montreal Regiment overseas. A provost sergeant is often a figure of fear to his men. but the eight hundred soldiers Green policed soon learned that Green's idea of discipline was a lecture on " how to be happily married.”
“I'm sure 1 saved some of them from hasty marriage," says Green. "At least most of them w'aited until they got back home.”
It was. in fact, postwar dislocation that provided the great stimulus for the expansion of the course in marriage preparation. During the war the JOC continued the course, but the material had never been written, and it was available only to those who could attend. (They add up. however, to one hundred thousand graduates, and seven thousand a year still attend JOC courses in Quebec, Maritimes and Ontario French-Canadian communities.)
It occurred to Father André Guay, one of the priests who had assisted at the mass marriage and had since joined the Catholic Centre of the University of Ottawa, that a written version should be available to young people who could not attend classes. He discussed it with Father Sanschagrin, who agreed. The two priests, with the collaboration of lay experts in various aspects of marriage, wrote a fifteen-part, 370-page textbook in French. The first printing of seven thousand didn’t begin to meet the demand from French-Canadian communities. Since then fifty thousand have been published and the orders still have not been filled.
Guay thought there might be some small demand for an English translation. He printed seven thousand, put a small notice in the Catholic publication Sunday Visitor—and got four thousand requests from that source alone, the majority from the United States.
This response so surprised Guay that he decided to investigate the potential interest in other countries. He booked passage by air around the world, visited twenty countries and made more than a hundred speeches to Catholic groups. "Not once.” he recalls, “did I say. ‘In Canada we have a course in marriage preparation which you should use.' Instead. I told my audiences of priests and Catholic lay leaders that I u'as studying their own methods in marriage preparation in order to improve our course, which already had some success in Canada and the United States.”
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It turned out that none of the countries Guay visited had organized courses of instruction in marriage—but all had problems as great or greater than Canada's. The very existence of such a course aroused interest everywhere.
To date, twenty-two countries are producing and distributing the course with the permission of the Catholic Centre at Ottawa, and sixty more are negotiating for it. Quebec Catholic mores are studied in Tagalog by Filipinos, in Arabic. Flemish. French. German. Spanish. Italian, Dutch and fifteen of the dialects of India.
The Catholic Centre has had to permit several changes in the course to meet local conditions. In India, for example, the description of the physical characteristics of male and female has been eliminated; not through delicacy, but because in India many children run naked in the warm climate, live with parents in the intimacy of one-room homes, and the human body is no mystery.
The Dutch director of the course was puzzled by a statement in the hygiene section, recommending the drinking of six glasses of water a day for health. “Is this,” he queried, "in addition to the beer that everybody drinks?”
Cuban priests, given the course as translated into Spanish by Chilean Catholics, wondered why the term "street car” appeared often in the text. In Chile, “wawa” is the colloquial term for “child." In Cuba, it means street car.
An unforeseen by-product of the course is that the Catholic Centre at Ottawa has become a tourist attraction. Every summer hundreds of visitors arrive. identify themselves as graduates of the course, and explain. "We included Ottawa in our vacation trip because we wanted to meet the people who had taught us how to be happily married."