Cover

‘HOSPITAL FOR THE SOUL’

A priest tends to his parish like a missionary

BENOIT AUBIN April 12 2004
Cover

‘HOSPITAL FOR THE SOUL’

A priest tends to his parish like a missionary

BENOIT AUBIN April 12 2004

‘HOSPITAL FOR THE SOUL’

A priest tends to his parish like a missionary

BENOIT AUBIN

CASUAL CLOTHES, an easy smile and a quick mind that spews out big ideas hammered into smart tidbits—Père Alain Mongeau seems like anything but what he is in real life: the curé, or pastor, of a long-established, long-faltering and now reviving Catholic congregation situated in the heart of the trendy Plateau MontRoyal district of Montreal. “I call myself a missionary,” says the 40-year-old priest, who has revived his St-Louis-de-France parish by attracting a core group of 150 young people to his church. “Many of them knew almost nothing about faith, religion and what comes with it. They had to be evangelized first.”

When Montreal was “a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window,” as Mark Twain once described it, the inner-city Catholic parishes of the Plateau were the breeding ground of a burgeoning French-Canadian proletariat, and the landing pad for successive waves of European immigrants. Back then, the Church dominated political, social and cultural life as well. It provided the basic social net-schooling, health care, community life-and the curé was first among equals amid the local elite, because he could invoke God or the Pope and dispense the dos and don’ts of daily life: girls should not ride bicycles, women should not use contraception, men should not borrow money in pawn shops.

Today, all that remains ofthat era are the churches themselves-huge, lavishly decorated, expensive, empty monuments to a culture most Quebecers deserted in the early sixties. “The Church in Quebec today is old, and weak, and discouraged,” Mongeau says. “Whatever will survive of it in 20 years is what we are building now. The parish as we have known it will have vanished.” There are no more fresh immigrants, no more struggling proletarians, on the gentrified Plateau today. It’s now designer everything: boutiques, bars, restaurants, open lofts in walk-up flats where huge families used to be crowded in. The place is inhabited by no-child-yuppies and frequented by trendy youngsters and suburbanites driving German cars, mingling with panhandlers and garbage-pickers. “Kids are finding out that the fabled Plateau lifestyle does not meet all their needs,” says Mongeau. “Bars are not the only place to meet people. Boutiques do not feed the soul.”

a Many of his flock knew little about religion before, says the pastor, and ‘had to be evangelized first’

The last thing you’d expect to find on St. Hubert Street near Cherrier is a vibrant community of starry-eyed, cleanliving, socially involved young Catholics who are redefining the per-

sonal and social values that come with membership in the Church. “Some of them are students living in communes,” notes the pastor, “some are angry street kids, others look like zealots, many are just ordinary folks raising kids—an interesting mix. They are not proselytizers, just people who share some values and are creating a community.” There is more to it than attending the traditional Sunday Mass. They hang around for a communal brunch on Sundays, plan outings and charity work, and gather regularly to pray, learn and discuss issues. “They form a community.”

And how do the Church’s stringent positions on moral values play with his flock? “Look, I am not the bouncer at the door of the club saying, ‘You’re in, you’re out.’ The Church’s teachings are not a strict set of rules to be observed; they are more like stars in the sky helping us get a bearing. I am the shepherd.” There’s danger, Mongeau says, in strict fundamentalism. “The Church is not a meeting place for perfect people; it is a hospital for the soul. I can tell you I am not against your sex life or what makes you happy. But can you listen to someone talking about creating love and generating life?”

Mongeau says he found inspiration in the small religious communities that were sprouting up all over Europe and in the former Communist bloc, where he travelled extensively from 1985 to 1996 (he was ordained in 1997). He transplanted the model here, and it seems to be working. “The Church,” he concludes, “fares better amid adversity.”