Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/December 1895/Miracles in French Canada

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THE village of Beaupré, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, twenty-one miles east of Quebec, is famous as the chief seat in America of the cult of Saint Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary. About 1620 a Breton crew, struck by a tempest off the lower end of the Isle of Orleans, vowed a sanctuary to her if she would rescue them, and on being driven ashore at Beaupré, then known as Petit Cap, built her a log chapel. A large wooden church was afterward put up, and in it Laval, first Bishop of New France, whose spiritual empire was so vast that it has since been divided into seventy dioceses, deposited a piece of a finger bone of Saint Anne.[1] In 1686 a stone church was erected and remains to this day. A much more splendid edifice was completed in 1889, at a cost of half a million dollars. In 1876 Pius IX "was pleased," writes one of the Redemptorist Fathers in charge, "to declare Saint Anne patroness of the Province of Quebec, without prejudice to the title of Saint Joseph, the patron of all Canada." The present Pope has bestowed honors and privileges upon the new church, which has received more relics of the saint, including a fragment of rock from her house in Jerusalem, "from the room, indeed, wherein took place the mysteries of the Immaculate Conception."

In the grandeur of its buildings and decorations, and in the elaborate machinery employed to fire devotion and attract pilgrims, the shrine is now second to none, except perhaps those of Lourdes and La Salette. A railroad has been built from Quebec, and steamboats make connection with the Intercolonial, Quebec Central, Grand Trunk, and Canadian Pacific. Huge boarding houses and hotels offer accommodation to visitors, who can also obtain rooms in the convent of the Gray Nuns. A miracle-working spring has been discovered, and the water is sold in bottles at a depository in the church. The Redemptorists issue a monthly publication to make known the cures. The bandages, sticks, and crutches piled in rows speak for themselves, as also the ex voto paintings, one or two by Lebrun, representing the saint in the act of delivering clients from perils by sea and land; American flags, bracelets, wax flowers, guns, knives, tobacco pouches, etc., are gifts from poorer clients who have experienced her kindness. Persons unable to visit the shrine, owing to bodily infirmity or any other restraining cause, may be represented by substitutes or may forward letters containing their requests to the saint; these are deposited beneath the statue in front of the main altar and prayers are said for a favorable answer through her intercession. The number of pilgrims exceeds one hundred thousand a year.

Nature has furnished an admirable setting for the shrine. The St. Lawrence at this point is four miles wide. Directly opposite Beaupré is the Isle of Orleans; behind it, the Saint Anne Mountain and the Laurentian Hills clad with pine, maple, and balm of Gilead. Cap Tourmente lies to the eastward; there the river begins to widen till at Tadousac, where the Saguenay joins it, it is thirty-five miles from shore to shore. To the west are the farmhouses and uplands of Château Richer, the Falls of Montmorency, from their bellowing and white foam called the Vache, Beauport and the valley of the St. Charles, Quebec and the historic rock. On summer evenings the old Breton hymn peals over the waters:

"O sainte Anne, ô Mère chérie!
Garde au coeur des Bretons la foi des anciens jours;
En tends du haut du ciel le cri de la patrie—
Catholique et Breton toujours!"

Even in winter, when the snow lies level with the fences and the St. Lawrence is gorged with ice, Beaupré attracts an occasional devotee. The height of the pilgrim season is from June to the middle of September.

Miracles are wrought for the most part in the new church, though the old one is still favored. Some find no immediate relief, but are cured on reaching home. At the ordinary services the officiating priest marches down from the high altar to some unhappy creature gasping at the rails, and, after a few preliminaries, applies one of the relics, incased in crystal with gold bands, to the part affected, reciting meanwhile the litany of Saint Anne: "Grandmother of our Saviour, Mother of Mary, Ark of Noah, Root of Jesse, Light of the Blind, Tongue of the Dumb." The other sufferers struggle to their feet and watch the process with breathless interest. The dying consumptive bares his breast that the relic may be placed directly over his lungs, then sinks to his knees at the foot of the statue; having finished the litany, the priest turns to the Gospel of Saint Anne; the thurifers surround the patient and swing the incense, the relic is elevated, a bell rings, and the congregation kneels. This is the supreme moment. No time is lost, however, on a busy day, and when it is seen that a miracle is not forthcoming, the poor fellow is bundled into one of the sixteen lateral chapels, where other saints are venerated; his place is taken by another far-gone pilgrim, or perhaps a batch not so grievously afflicted are beckoned to the rails and the relic passed from lip to lip amid the prayers and sobs of five thousand onlookers. No one asks, with the skeptic in the temple of the seagod. Where be the offerings of them that have perished? if only a single miracle be announced during the week or recorded in the monthly Annales.

The golden age of miracles in French Canada dates from the arrival of the Recollets and Jesuits, 1615-'25, and may be said to have terminated about 1860. The Church possesses many relics besides those of Saint Anne, some among the most precious in Christendom,[2] and has had local martyrs and confessors whose ashes repose here. Nevertheless, the stream of miracles outside Beaupré has gradually dwindled and dried up, and those of Beaupré are losing their old characteristics.

In the early days Saint Anne cured all manner of ailments with an untiring hand. The Relations des Jésuites for 1667 contain an account of the chief miracles wrought down to that time—the cure of Elie Godin of dropsy; Marguerite Bire, of fracture of the leg, Jean Adam, blind of both eyes; Pradere, a French soldier, of paralysis and une apostume dans l'estomac, and other wonders to which Laval bore witness. Saint Anne never raised the dead to life, at least not in Canada, nor gave a limb to a one-legged client as Saint Anthony of Padua did, but over and over again she cured heart disease, cancer, apoplexy, and consumption. She interfered to save pious persons from death in the forest, when they had been pinned under a falling tree, by inspiring neighbors to go to their aid or a faithful dog to carry a piece of blood-stained bark to the nearest settlement, and snatched many from ice jams, bush fires, and Dutch men-of-war, in the last case resorting to the expedient of causing a fog to hide the vessel of her friends. She rendered barren women fruitful, and once or twice cured the dumb; by her efforts attempts to plant Jansenism in the colony were frustrated; she also brought to naught the designs of stray Huguenots. At the siege of Quebec Wolfe dispatched an expedition to harry the river parishes. "Wherever resistance was offered," says Parkman, "farmhouses and villages were laid in ashes, though churches were generally spared." The church at Beaupré was not spared by the troops; it was set on fire three times, but each time Saint Anne extinguished the flames, and some of the Highlanders confessed the miracle. When the north shore down to Cap Tourmente was blazing, nearly all the farmhouses in which she was specially venerated escaped.

But since 1860 or 1865, when the rush of population to the New England factories set in and French Canada began to receive at second hand the new ideas absorbed by the emigrants, the saint has been comparatively listless. She cures headache and dyspepsia, converts Protestants with Catholic wives, finds employment for clients, protects them while traveling, restores lost objects, procures young women admission to convents, and endows those who come to her in a proper spirit with grace and strength to quit evil practices. Now and then we hear of a hysterical girl being cured on the spot, or of an epileptic finding relief, but as a matter of fact the character of the miracles has deteriorated since faith in them has been shaken by New England influences. Hence the rather bitter remark, attributed to Mgr. Bégin, that if the French Canadians are supplanting the Puritan stock, Puritanism is having its revenge in French Canada.

Formerly images of Saint Anne were carried in procession through a parish to bring on rain or to stop rain, a ceremony that reminded one of the old Roman religion and the transportation of Bacchus, Ceres, and Dea Dia through the fields and vineyards by white-clad youths, followed by the lustral water and the full incense box. The practice is falling into desuetude; the habitant, like the rest of us, is beginning to be satisfied with the weather as it comes, and to have confidence in the predictions of the meteorological office. A bad crop is still attributed to the backsliding of the farmers or to the nonpayment of tithes. In French Canada the tithe, collectable by law and a first lien on the soil, is every twenty-sixth bushel of cereals. Of late, since the opening of the western prairies, the habitants have dropped cereal growing and taken to raising hay for the United States market. In this manner the curés have been cheated out of tithes, and some in whom the sense of reverence must have been dim pointed to the McKinley bill, which levied a duty of four dollars per ton, as an expression of the divine wrath.

The Normans and Bretons who colonized New France were governed to the end of their nails, as they used to say, from the mother country. The local self-government of the American colonies, the town meeting and its ramifications, were unknown; they were not allowed to hold meetings nor even to tax themselves for improvements without the royal permission. There were no common schools; the Recollets, or begging friars, taught the A B C as they wandered from parish to parish, but only where they found lodging for the night. As late as 1835 an act of the legislature was passed permitting school trustees to sign their reports with a mark. The feu-follet, or Will o' the wisp, was either an unshriven soul or Satan himself; sorciers were witches and imps who held their sabbaths on the Isle of Orleans; the chasse-galerie, a huntsman with a pack of dogs, appeared on the eve of a storm; but the most formidable apparition was the were-wolf, or loup-garou, which was seen as late as 1767 in the county of Kamouraska, seeking whom it might devour. None of these ugly visitors could cross a stream which bore a saint's name. If encountered in the woods, the feu follet could generally be dodged by sticking a needle in the earth or holding out a half-open knife after first making the sign of the cross; but the only safeguards against the others short of making a race for the St. Lawrence or the St. Something-else was for the traveler to carry a bottle of holy water, Le Formulaire, a prayer-book originally got up for the Ursuline nuns, or the petit Albert, which contained the forms for exorcising evil spirits.

The Jesuits have described the Arcadian simplicity of life and manners and the extraordinary piety of the early settlers, kept fervid both by their ministrations and by the constant Indian attacks. Every church had its own saint and relic, not necessarily of that particular saint, and its own miracles. Laval's successor presented the parish of Saint Paul in the Isle of Orleans with an arm bone of the great apostle of the Gentiles. A few years afterward the parish changed its name to Saint Laurent, and the adjoining parish of Saint Peter thereupon called itself Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The curés agreed to exchange relics, but the Saint Laurent people refused to be bound by that arrangement, and one night entered the church of Saint Pierre, carried off their old relic, and left the other, which they deemed an inferior one. Miracles beyond number were reported and passed into popular belief without being vouched for by ecclesiastical authority, such as missionaries using their cloaks as rafts to cross lakes and rivers, checking bush fires by drawing a line on the ground, being directed when they had lost their way and providentially supplied with food.

The Acadians had miracles in plenty. In the introduction to A Legend of Montrose, Sir Walter Scott speaks of the portents which announced the Highland clearings—the notes of the night wind howling down the pass of Balachra modeled to the tune of We Return no More, the song with which Highlanders usually bade farewell to their native land; "the uncouth cries of the Southland shepherds and the barking of their dogs in the midst of the hills long before their actual arrival." I have been told at St. Pierre-Miquelon that the Acadians who fled to those French islands from the country of Evangeline were quite sure they had been forewarned of what was in store by the appearance of British armies in the sky, by dirgelike sounds from the ocean, and the wailing of souls in purgatory heard during Mass for a year before the calamity. In 1811-'12 Bishop Plessis visited Prince Edward Island, and in the account of his journey, published long afterward,[3] we are told that mysterious voices were heard in the Acadian churches, but not in the churches frequented by the Roman Catholics of Highland Scotch extraction. There was a groaning or sighing voice like that of a person in distress, and a singing voice like that of a woman or a child. On the mainland of New Brunswick these voices followed the Acadians to the lumber shanties, and were heard on Sundays when they gathered for prayer. In the churches the voices were loudest during the recitation of the litany of the Holy Name of Jesus. The good bishop asks: "What are these voices? Whence come they, and for what reason do they make themselves heard?" He comes to the philosophical conclusion that "as they have done no one any harm it matters little whether they cease or keep on." At the grand dérangement, as they call their deportation, the Acadians received at least one mark of favor from the Virgin Mary. Abbé Ferland tells the story in his La Gaspesie. Two hundred and fifty of them on board a vessel bound from Port Royal to the Carolinas overpowered the crew during a storm, fastened a scapular to the rudder, and invited the Virgin to take charge; she did so, and in a few hours they made land at Rivière Saint-Jean. The Virgin helped the French at the battle of Ticonderoga, appearing in white on the breastworks as the enemy came up for each fresh attack. She did not appear on the Plains of Abraham, nor during Montgomery's invasion; in the latter campaign, indeed, the mass of the French Canadians would probably have been glad if she had helped the Bostonnais.

There were legends among the French Canadians of revelations from heaven having been vouchsafed to the Indians. Mgr. de S. Valier traveled through the Gulf region in 1685-'87 in the capacity of grand-vicaire to Laval, and published a report at Paris in 1688, reprinted at Quebec in 1857. He speaks of the Cruciantaux Indians, who "have a particular respect for the cross," which they wore on their persons, planted over their graves, and attached to their canoes. An Indian "one hundred or one hundred and twenty years old" related that he had witnessed the arrival of the first ship that came from Europe to that part of the country. But the use of the cross among the Indians antedated that event and had not been introduced by outsiders. Once upon a time, during a famine, when the spirits had been appealed to in vain by the medicine men, an old savage saw in a dream a young man who promised the band an early deliverance by virtue of the cross, and showed him three crosses—one to protect them from visitations, another to serve them in their councils, the third to guard them in their journeys. When the old man woke he whittled three crosses just like them, and this is how the cult began. The incantations and jongleries of medicine men were sometimes blamed by the early white settlers for causing a failure of the crops. In these modern days the blasphemy of the habitant is blamed, though as a rule he seldom blasphemes except when plowing with fractious oxen. In a book (Une Mine, etc.) published in 1880 a worthy Oblat father asks, "Why these bush fires, droughts, wet seasons, frosts, hailstorms, worms, and flies that ruin your crops?" and goes on to ascribe them to the "torrent of bad language that deluges your fields."

When Father Labrosse, a famous Gulf missionary, died at Tadousac, the bells of all the churches were tolled by angels. The crucifix outragé is among the relics of the Hôtel-Dieu; it was used by a soldier in divinations by which he undertook to find lost money. A fête was established by way of public atonement, and miracles have since been performed with it. Here, as elsewhere, the corruption of names has given rise to legends of the miraculous and the uncanny. Thus Cap d'Espoir, Cape of Hope, has been twisted by English sailors into Cape Despair; the French have accepted the corruption and made it Cap Désespoir. Then to account for the name, tradition says one of the vessels of Sir Hovenden Walker's expedition against Quebec was cast away at the spot, and the remains of a wreck are still shown and known as the naufrage anglais. Till a few years ago the fishermen at Cap Désespoir used to be warned of storms by the apparition of this English frigate, with her terror-stricken officers and men gazing landward and the captain apparently upbraiding the pilot. The fishermen of the Gulf of St. Lawrence are as superstitious as fishermen elsewhere. They hear the lamentations of lost souls like the braillard off Rivière de la Madeleine and see supernatural lights like the feu des Roussis at Paspebiac. The haddock, le poisson de Saint-Pierre, was the first fish caught at the miraculous draught in Lake Gennesaret, and the finger marks of the apostle are on its back. Nevertheless it is not a lucky fish, possibly because "their net brake" and they "filled both the ships so that they began to sink." The French-Canadian fisherman and the fisherman from old France work side by side on the Banks of Newfoundland. There is a marked difference in their accent and intonation as well as in their physical appearance, three hundred years of existence in the New World having made the French Canadian swarthier and leaner than the man from Saint Malo. On the rocks of Cap à l'Aigle at St. Pierre-Miquelon there is a white statue of the Virgin, and as his vessel passes it the French Canadian is careful to salute the "old mother," but the fisherman from France ignores her. While the latter sings modern songs from the cafés of Paris, the former sticks to the songs his ancestors brought from France—Malbrough, Dans les prisons de Nantes, Sur le pont d'Avignon, Par derrièr' chez ma tante. En roulant ma boule, etc. Both believe that a sorcier can find the best fishing ground on the Banks, that a dog on board brings good luck, that it is bad luck to whistle, and so on. At home the French-Canadian fisherman occasionally sees the Wandering Jew striding along the beach in the direction of Labrador, which, by the way, was the heritage of Cain. To meet him face to face brings good luck if you happen to be returning from vespers, but not otherwise. There is an old ballad about him in which, "near the town of Bruxell's in Brabant," he accompanies two honest fellows into a tavern and over a pot de bière fraîche describes the events at Jerusalem that led to his being banished "to everywhere and nowhere without end":

"Sur le mont du Calvaire
Jésus portait sa croix;
Il me dit, débonnaire,
Passant devant chez moi:
Veux-toi bien, mon ami,
Que je repose ici?"

But the Wandering Jew—Isaac Laquedemme by name, and by trade a shoemaker—was in bad humor that day, and replied ans raison:

"Ôtes-toi, criminelle,
De devant ma maison;
Avance et marche done
Car tu me fais affront!"

Then came the terrible sentence:

Jésus, la bonté même,
Me dit en soupirant:

'Tu marcheras toi-même
Pendant plus de mille ans;
Le dernier jugement
Finira ton tourment!'"

He has been tramping ever since, wearing his shoemaker's apron, and always with five sous, never more or less, in his pocket, glad to drink a glass of wine with any honest bourgeois he meets, hut much tormented in soul when he halts for that purpose. The ballad, as sung in French Canada, is given in full in Ernest Gagnon's collection.

Among the miracles recorded by ecclesiastics, the most striking was the defeat of the English expedition against Quebec in 1690 by the Virgin Mary, to whom a church, still standing in Lower Town—Notre Dame des Victoires—was forthwith dedicated. Miraculous cures were wrought by the relics of the Jesuit Brebeuf, murdered in the country of the Hurons near Penetanguishene, and through invoking the Jesuit Le Jeune. These are about the only miracles officially credited to the Jesuits; they bear no comparison with those ascribed to the Jesuit Anchieta in Brazil; still less with those of St. Francis Xavier and the missionary thaumaturgists of his day. The performance of miracles by the Canadian Jesuits may possibly have been hindered by the presence of heretic traders from the neighboring English and Dutch colonies; it was cynically suggested at the time that unless they could banish the smallpox, always raging among the Indians and frequently attacking the settlements, it was useless to work minor wonders as a means of impressing either red men or white.

The nuns were more successful. Marie de l'Incarnation and the Mère de Saint-Augustin possessed the spiritual charismata of the Christian women of whom Tertullian wrote: "There is at this day among us a sister who has the gift of revelations, which she receives in church amid the solemnities of the Lord's day by ecstasy of the spirit; she converses with angels and sometimes also with the Lord, and she both hears and sees mysteries." The astounding visions of these two Quebec nuns are described at length by a recent biographer, Abbé Casgrain. Both were forewarned of the earthquake of 1663, when, as the Relations say, rivers and lakes changed their beds, mountains were swallowed, and forests hurled in the air, the trees falling on end with the roots upward; the warning was conveyed by the appearance of demons, which gathered over Quebec and were restrained for a time, but only for a time, by a majestic youth of whom they stood in awe. The statue of Notre Dame de Toute-Grâce, at the Hôtel-Dieu Convent, was wonderfully gifted. The Mère du Saint-Esprit, of that house, foretold its destruction by fire. In 1810 a Protestant woman visited it at Christmas and prayed before the manger. She bore a child, which was the image of l'Enfant Jésus, and became a nun of extraordinary piety, on whom the Virgin lavished favors. Marguerite Bourgeois, founder of the Congregation of Our Lady at Montreal, is now undergoing the process of canonization; numerous miracles were worked by her before and after her death. Probably, in modern opinion, the most splendid miracle of all was the courage displayed by these well-born women in crossing the ocean and spending their lives amid the rigors of a semiarctic climate, Indian alarms, sieges, pestilence, and all the privations and hardships of a new colony for the glory of God.

When the Island of Montreal was wanted by the Sulpicians, a lay agent, apparently under Jesuit influence, had a vision in which the owner was guaranteed heaven without purgatory. The property, which has made the Sulpicians one of the richest orders in America, was immediately transferred. This, I believe, is the only instance of note in which the supernatural was invoked for a doubtful purpose. All the other visions and miracles can be accounted for without the hypothesis of conscious deceit. It was essentially a time when, as Dean Milman wrote of another age, "the Christian lived in a supernatural world; the notion of the divine power—the perpetual interference of the Deity, the agency of the countless invisible beings which hovered over mankind—was so strongly impressed upon the belief that every extraordinary and almost every ordinary incident became a miracle; . . . a mythic period was thus gradually formed in which reality melted into fable, and invention unconsciously trespassed on the province of history." This is kinder than Gibbon's verdict: "If the eyes of the spectators have sometimes been deceived by fraud, the understanding of the readers has much more frequently been insulted by fiction."

The seigniorial tenure, a mitigated feudalism based upon the Custom of Paris (1510), was abolished by the Canadian Parliament in 1854. It was then, a scoffing Parisian said, that the habitant of French Canada discovered that Louis XVI was dead. When he began to migrate to New England he learned other things that are slowly undermining his cradle beliefs, and we may say without a scoff that it will not be long till Good Saint Anne is dead.

Remarking on some of the results achieved by the Challenger Expedition in the antarctic seas, Dr. Murray says that the amount of animal life found in the antarctic region south of 40 is very much more abundant than in any other part of the world. One of the great secrets of oceanic circulation may possibly be found by investigation of those regions. Certainly one of the greatest pieces of scientific and oceanographic work yet to be done on the surface of the globe awaits efforts in these regions.
  1. The Manual issued by the Redemptorists says Saint Anne was buried near Jerusalem, but her body was subsequently laid in the Church of the Sepulchre of Our Lady, in the Valley of Jehoshaphat. "One day a mysterious bark was seen to approach the shores of France. It had neither sail nor rudder, but God was its pilot. Never had the ocean borne a greater treasure. In this bark were Saint Lazarus with his two pious sisters, Saint Mary Magdalen and Saint Martha, together with several other saintly women. They were fleeing from Palestine with a number of priceless relics, the most precious among which was the hallowed body of Saint Anne. This treasure was placed in the hands of Saint Auspicius, the first Bishop of Apt." It was buried "to protect it from sacrilegious hands, and the place where it had been secreted was wholly forgotten" till, Charlemagne being at Apt one Easter day, "a miracle led to the discovery of the place."
  2. At the celebration in 1874 of the second centenary of the erection of the Diocese of Quebec over five hundred relies were exposed. The list is given in Le Deuxième Centenaire, an official account, bearing the imprimatur of Cardinal Taschereau. Among them were relics of the vêtement depourpre de Jésus Christ, crèche de Jésus Christ, colonne de la fagellation de Jésus Christ, sainte épine de Jésus Christ, table de la dernière scène, terre où Jésus pria, pierre sur laquelle Notre Seigneur s'assit et mangea avec ses apótres, vraie croix de Jésus Christ, etc. Also, apparel of the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, fragment of the rock struck by Moses, lock of hair of Saint Mary Magdalen, portion of the cloth of the head of Saint John the Baptist, fragment of a wooden altar served by Saint Peter, and of the block on which Saint Paul was beheaded, bones of the Holy Innocents, of the chief disciples, of Saint Stephen the first martyr, etc.
  3. Le Foyer Canadien, 1865.