I can divide travelers into two groups: those who visit churches and those who do not. I belong to the first group: I like to visit churches.
This preference has nothing to do with religious convictions–it’s more a matter of personal taste and the priorities of a destination. Some tourists need to witness local faith and history made flesh in the stone arches and painstaking artwork of a church–others would rather go to the waterpark down the road.
But like them or not, churches often hold the secrets of whatever city or country you may be visiting. Things have happened here–births, weddings, and deaths–and it is impossible to ignore the solemnity of time, song and ritual that lingers inside these buildings. When you travel, churches stand out: approaching a small town from afar, churches are often the first thing that you see–they’re built to be seen and revered from afar. Upon entering their intricate doors, your gaze is forced upwards–the ultimate intent of religious architecture.
Québec is a city of churches in the midst of a land of churches. Cathedral towers and silver church steeples give height to the vast and forested landscape while glowing crosses are lit up at night atop hills and reflective road signs point to faraway monasteries and convents, nestled away in the more remote corners of the Québec wilderness.
Despite this architectural show of faith, Québec is a land where everybody is Catholic but pas vraiment (not really). For the most part, Québec’s churches are quietly empty. Some churches are simply closed and boarded up, with “For Sale” signs nailed to their doors, while others have been transformed into condominiums, museums, restaurants and night clubs. In fact, most churches remain as emblematic fossils from Quebec’s great French Catholic past. The Québécois will explain how things have changed in a single generation; they will quietly refer to the Quiet Revolution and suggest that they are now liberated.
I do not question such politics, but I am curious about the omnipresent churches of Québec. After weeks of criss-crossing the province and its unending supply of religious architecture, I find myself stopping and peeking inside any living, breathing church I can find. I desire a closer look at the holier side of Québec.
The largest and most prominent find in my church search is Notre-Dame de Québec Basilica-Cathedral. There are many “Our Ladies” throughout Québec: Our Lady of the Woods, Our Lady of the Snow, Our Lady of the Lake. But Our Lady of Québec is the oldest, first built in 1647 and then rebuilt again and again, in between devastating fires.
As a tourist listening to so many tour guides, I can’t help but notice that historically, things burn down quickly and frequently in Québec. I have come to expect it. Be it a church or a seminary or a factory or an estate–I now ask, “When was the fire?” And eventually I am told. I expect it now, because there is always a fire.
The frequent fires of Québec were not always acts of God. They were more usually acts of men. Yet despite the fires and the complete rebuilding of this church, it is the site itself that is revered and which over time, becomes sacred. In a day when so many churches are forgotten and have lost their original significance, Notre Dame de Québec remains quite “holy” in Québec. For starters, this original site marks the beginning of this particular parish, the first one established in New France and still the oldest in North America (north of Mexico). French explorer Samuel de Champlain himself worshiped at this site, more than 400 years ago.
The ship Champlain sailed to Québec was called the Don de Dieu (Gift of God) and it is this ship that is still pictured on the city flag of Québec, a yellow silhouette of mast and sails on a royal blue background. It is a meaningful logo around the city, and just like the license plates of Québec, it is another reminder of Québec’s past and of faraway France.
Whatever its religious significance, the cathedral of Notre Dame de Québec stands as prominent souvenir of France with its grand cathedrals. Perhaps only a very few attend mass here today, but this great hall represents the foundling of French-Canadian culture–some even believe that the remains of Samuel de Champlain are in the area (the original mausoleum burned to the ground).
I spend an hour walking up and down the church, studying its windows and walls and the other tourists who passed through. Its beauty is unquestionable, though relatively modern–a recreation of the original 17th century church rebuilt in the 19th century. I light a candle, not for anything or anyone in particular–it is merely an act performed in a church with meaning. In Thailand’s temples I have rung bells or beat on drums. In Moroccan mosques I have removed my shoes. In Quebec, I light a candle.
I stare at the little yellow flame and then head outside, back into the too-bright sunlight of a summer day. After a few cobblestoned blocks, I can see the St. Lawrence River, named by Jacques Cartier on the feast day of St. Lawrence in 1535. I can see across to the other side of the river–to the other side of Québec.
Québec is the French derivation from the Algonquin word Kébeck, meaning “where the river narrows”. Québec City is where the St. Lawrence narrows, where it switches from being a large fleuve to being a more narrow rivière. And so this is where I cross over, back to the bank I started on, to keep exploring.