A family camping trip in eastern Canada unexpectedly became an opportunity to demonstrate devotion to Mary when we arrived in the area of Quebec City, the capital of the province of the same name. The incredible Catholic heritage of Quebec led us fully into our Marian pilgrimage and indelibly stamped in our memory the reality of the Catholic devotion of the French settlers who first came to the area in the early 1600s.
The Notre-Dame-de-Quebec Basilica-Cathedral (Our Lady of Quebec) stands in the heart of Vieux-Québec (Old Quebec City). The first Catholic parish and cathedral in Canada, it has been rebuilt after destruction by two fires and a British attack over the centuries; each time, it was reconstructed on its original foundation and according to the original plans.
Walking through Old Quebec City, we encountered yet another noteworthy church, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires (Our Lady of Victories) located in the Place Royale, a square that is considered the birthplace of French civilization in North America and one of the oldest settlements. The tiny church, built in 1688, has an altar that looks like a fortress, and hanging from the ceiling is a model of the ship that brought French soldiers to the colony of New France in 1664.
The Place Royale, with its stone church, is home to other structures built in the 1600s, as well as an archaeological dig and an amazing trompe-l’oeil mural illustrating the history of Quebec.
A Catholic Countryside
Leaving Old Quebec City, we continued our travels on two-lane roads through hilly farmlands and small towns.
The Catholic heritage of Quebec rises up in the center of each village and town. Spires appeared as we approached each town, calling us home to one church and yet another and another, many dedicated to Our Lady.
After settling in at a campground near the St. Lawrence River one Saturday afternoon, we inquired at the camp office about the possibility of finding a church for Mass the next day.
We were told that, 15 minutes farther down the road, we would find a beautiful one in the town of Trois Pistoles (Three Coins). So we decided to set off for Notre-Dame-des-Nieges (Our Lady of Snows) on Sunday morning. We expected we’d be going to Mass in French.
Completed in 1887, the church was easy to spot, with its spires rising above the town. Once inside, we were struck by the ornate ceiling. The rich colors of the old stained-glass windows, the ornate altar area — reminiscent of Notre-Dame-de-Québec — and the richly carved woodwork created a reverent worship space for Mass.
An Unexpected Encounter
After Mass, we were treated to exuberant singing by a group just outside the doors of the church. The singers wore black berets, and the banner they carried and the whale boat they stood by touched a memory of my own Spanish heritage.
Confused, I asked my husband if he recognized any of the words they were singing. Once establishing that the language was absolutely not French, I asked him if he had understood the language spoken during Mass. He hadn’t even recognized the Our Father.
That’s when I realized we had stumbled into a church celebrating Mass in Basque, a language that is not rooted in any of the Romance languages, even though the Basque country lies within the borders of Spain near France.
As it turns out, the Basque people have a long and strong presence in Quebec, and we had just been treated to an experience of Mass that brought home the fact that our faith transcends cultures and times, even as it crosses oceans and language barriers. Hundreds of miles from home, we were home with a family that shared our faith, despite differences in culture and language.
During the rest of our travels through Quebec, as we drove through each little town, the spires of each Catholic church reminded us of the faithful French and Basques who settled the area, leaving a legacy of faith, truth, beauty and hard work.
Laurie Barrows writes from Colchester, Vermont.
Mary’s Mother’s Basilica
We also stopped at the majestic Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupré on the bank of the St. Lawrence River in the town of Beaupré (Beautiful Meadow).
One of Quebec’s 21 shrines, the basilica’s silver spires rise above the town, making it the most prominent structure in the area, a visible and indelible mark of the Catholic devotion of Quebec’s early French colonists.
Treasures await the visitor both inside and outside this basilica, which houses several of St. Anne’s relics.
The shrine attracts more than 1 million visitors annually and is a pilgrimage destination, especially for St. Anne’s feast day, July 26, and the feast of the Nativity of Mary, Sept. 8. St. John Paul II visited the basilica in 1984.
The First Nations (Canada’s term for Native Americans) also hold a pilgrimage to the shrine each year in June, as they have since the 1700s.
If the architecture of the basilica isn’t enough of a treat for the eyes, the interior will take your breath away.
Mosaics on the ceiling and walls depict the life of St. Anne and events in the life of Jesus, and 240 stained-glass windows grace the walls of the church. Great attention to the smallest details in the church’s construction and ornamentation create an environment demanding exploration.
Even the ends of the pews received artistic attention, carved with the story of creation. The columns at the entrance to the sanctuary are topped with sculptures representing the masons and carpenters who labored to bring the basilica into being.
Entering the sanctuary, a wall of canes, crutches and other medical equipment prominently evidences the healings attributed to St. Anne’s intercession. The basilica’s collection of ex votos (offerings in thanksgiving for prayers answered) is the largest in North America. The first miracle was in 1658, when a crippled workman was cured.
The present basilica was built in the 1920s, near the site of the first chapel built to house a statue of St. Anne, the patron saint of Quebec. The statue, carved from oak, is crowned with diamonds, rubies and pearls. In her arms, Anne holds her daughter Mary. The statue itself is said to be miraculous.
The Stations of the Cross within the basilica are depicted in oil paintings, each a work of art unto itself. The abundant statuary, wood carvings, richly ornamented altar areas and mosaic ceilings combine to create a visual symphony that would take days to appreciate fully.
Outdoors, Stations of the Cross climb the hill across the street from the basilica, capturing the reality and emotion of each station.
Visiting Mary’s mother’s basilica is a fitting stop on any Marian pilgrimage in Quebec.
— Laurie Barrows