Canadian News

Sacred art in profane hands

David Thomas November 20 1978
Canadian News

Sacred art in profane hands

David Thomas November 20 1978

Sacred art in profane hands

The name of the stone church is ironic: Ange-Gardien ( Guardian Angel ). Once a refuge for rare religious treasures dating back to New France, Ange-Gardien and dozens of other Quebec churches have been pillaged by a Philistine traffic in sacred artworks that has implicated parish priests, prominent politicians and respected North American museums. Now, in a unique court action, Ange-Gardien parishioners are trying to recover the 20 statues, carvings and pieces of silverwork valued at $90,000 that found their way into the National Gallery of Canada, the Musée du

Québec, and the hands of private collectors. One of those collectors is former Union Nationale minister of cultural affairs Jean-Noël Tremblay, whose name was dropped from the list of defendants only when he surrendered a set of aged vestments. Should the parish council win its case in Quebec Superior Court, museums and collectors everywhere could face legal attempts to retrieve religious artifacts that disappeared without parishioners’ consent.

The extent of such profane trading in religious goods was laid bare by the AngeGardien affair which, dripping with historical drama, has become a Quebec cause célèbre. Because a British general had chosen the church near Quebec City as his headquarters, the building and its contents were spared the systematic torching otherwise inflicted upon homes, barns and buildings by conquering Redcoats in 1759. But the artworks did not survive a former priest’s determination to modernize the church in the 1960s: Father Joseph-Henri Gariépy sold chalices, ciboria and other

paraphernalia to antique dealers. Only days after his embarrassed testimony in court last winter, he died without revealing what he had done with the money. Current priest Marc LeClerc and parish stewards, left with a church renovated in a style reminiscent of a chrome-and-arborite kitchen, want the court to annul his transactions.

Museum curators retort that the church made little effort to enforce its own canon law, and that museums everywhere are packed with once-sacred art. Moreover, argue the museums, Quebec’s religious antiques might have been junked by ignorant priests if collectors had not intervened. Two of the disputed Ange-Gardien statues, for example, could no longer stand on their rotted bases since, left outdoors for years,

they had been used as surrogate fire hydrants by parish dogs.

A parallel artwork scandal which surfaced last month revealed, however, that museums are not an entirely secure repository of public treasures. Two days before the Liberal election defeat in 1976, a pair of antique plates worth $2,300 and belonging to the Musée du Québec were stolen from a display in the national assembly restaurant. Another perplexing disappearance, discovered only this year, was that of the first church bell in Canada—a heavy and priceless gift of Louis XIV, which evaporated from Quebec’s pavilion at Expo 67. And police have only recently begun to investigate the disappearance in the early 1960s of antique woodwork during restoration of Quebec City’s Place Royale. The woodwork’s trail is widely believed to lead to the renovated basement of an exceedingly prominent Liberal indeed.

David Thomas