The Vatican in the Maritimes

At the world's only museum devoted to the popes of the Catholic Church — the Musée des Papes in the Canadian maritime province of New Brunswick — there is a very special statue standing in the back garden.

A magnificent, 8-foot depiction of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the work was originally intended to stand atop the steeple of a local parish church. It was found to be too heavy for that perch and erected here in 2002 as a shrine.

It's a fitting setting since Mary, under that title, is patron saint of the Acadian French in Canada's Maritime Provinces — and the museum is located in the heart of Acadia in northeast New Brunswick, bordering Chaleur Bay. These are the people from whom Louisiana's Cajuns are descended.

In 1534 Jacques Cartier named the waters for their warmth (chaleurs meaning warmth). French-speaking Acadians were the area's first settlers. After 25 years of cruel exile following the English conquest of French Canada, many returned in 1780 from France, Louisiana and other areas to which they had been dispersed. Much of their land had been taken over by English colonists and their property given away to strangers. Life for the former exiles was harsh.

Edmond Landry, the museum's founder, is an Acadian businessman, entrepreneur and many-times mayor. The basement of his house is covered floor to ceiling with awards testifying to his dedication to faith and community. He uses private capital, not government funding, for his projects.

The oldest in a family of 10 children, Landry was 20 years old when his father died. “I had to assume responsibility for ensuring the welfare of my mother, brothers and sisters. This is why I never married,” he told me. “First my father died, then my brother who had three children also died and I wanted to help take care of them.”

Asked why he decided to build a museum devoted to papal history, Landry said: “Throughout our history, the Roman Catholic faith of our forefathers was very important, for cultural as well as spiritual reasons. During the long years of the dispersal and the subsequent return of French Acadians, it was the Roman Catholic Church, through its priests and sisters, that kept our culture, language and religious beliefs alive. Otherwise we'd have been assimilated into the general population and lost our identity.”

What better way, he decided, than to design a professional and reverent presentation of Church history since the time of the first pope, St. Peter?

Around Every Corner

This gem of a building was completed in 1985. It's well lit and multi-storied, with a surprise around every corner. The design incorporates crisp, clean lines and tasteful accoutrements, including enormous picture windows overlooking the bay.

One of the first displays I came to was a 1/60 scale model of St. Peter's Basilica and Square in Rome. It measures 21 by 11 feet. The soft, yellow-beige tone of the structure warms the room, whose walls are decorated in a rich red tapestry.

“This is by far the favorite exhibit of those who come to the museum,” Landry said. “Most people who've never been to the Vatican are amazed at the immense size of St. Peter's Square.”

From there I moved into a gallery containing bright paintings of all 264 popes from St. Peter to John Paul II. Here also is a model wearing a reproduction of the Swiss Guard uniform.

The popes come alive when you move on to the small theater. Here a full-length video (produced in French as well as English) tells the story of the papacy, reminding us that the office is the oldest institution in the world.

The film, shown in a comfortable screening room, opens with these dramatic words: “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

The commentary and images provide a riveting history lesson showing the part both Church and popes played in the development of Western civilization. It's a fair and balanced look at the popes and the Church through the centuries. That is to say, it does not shy away from dealing with the fact that there have been some dark moments.

Watching it, I was struck with how human the Church is, with its fair share of sinners even among St. Peter's successors. Without Christ's promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, it surely would have never survived.

By the same token, I was amazed at the number of Catholic popes who've been canonized. And I was surprised to learn of the number of short-lived pontificates.

Marvels of Memorabilia

Another section of the museum is devoted to the members of the many religious orders that have worked in Acadia. They're represented by life-size mannequins dressed in their respective habits.

Last year a special exhibit featured the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, who were celebrating their 100th anniversary. For me the display evoked memories of school days long past. I thought of the sisters who would sweep through classrooms in their long black habits, the only sound the clicking of rosary beads hanging from their waists.

There's a lot of memorabilia in this section, with photos of school and related activities through the years. There's also an extensive display of paintings of Acadian churches, vestments and chalices used in Acadian churches, along with models of Church architecture both in Acadian New Brunswick and around the world. For those interested in the Acadian story and architecture, this is a must-see part of the museum.

Outside the museum stands the Fountain of Peace sculpture, symbolizing the international peace the Church continually prays for. Many distinguished visitors over the years, such as the Malachite Patriarch Maximos V from Lebanon, the former apostolic delegate to Canada and Quebec Cardinal-Vatican administrator Edouard Gagnon, have prayed for peace in this garden.

Today Edmond Landry is 73 years old and, although he has had heart trouble in the last few years, his dedication to the museum — and all it represents to Catholics and the Church — is stronger than ever.

Thanks to his vision, for those interested in St. Peter and his successors, Grand Anse, New Brunswick, just might be the next best thing to Vatican City.

Lorraine Williams writes from Markham, Ontario.