MONTREAL (CCN) — It’s doubtful that Montreal would be celebrating 375 years of history Jan. 6 had floodwaters not receded in December 1642. Jeanne Mance and Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve — the city’s co-founders — knew as much and sought heaven’s intervention to ward off a certain death blow with the onset of their first winter.
Maisonneuve made a public pledge to erect a cross on Mount Royal should divine providence spare Ville Marie. When the waters lapping on the threshold of their rudimentary lodgings started to recede on Christmas Eve, they knew the colony, its provisions and the mission for which Ville Marie was founded would survive.
True to his word, on Jan. 6, 1643, Maisonneuve shouldered a cross and forged up a snowy path with a band of colonists to erect it on the mountainside.
Fast forward 375 years, and another band of believers, led by Archbishop Christian Lépine, gathered before noon to commemorate that act of thanksgiving. In -20 C temperatures, with a wind chill of about -30 C, more than 200 diocesan leaders and pastoral workers assembled at the chalet atop Mount Royal to re-enact the pilgrimage to the summit. They were joined by Maisonneuve, Jeanne Mance and their retinue (portrayed by local actors) for the 30-minute walk to the summit and back, which included a short prayer service beneath the iconic 31-metre steel cross towering over the city that recalls the event.
There, the Archbishop of Montreal recalled the courage, faith and forbearance of the city’s founders in establishing a missionary settlement where Europeans and indigenous peoples could live harmoniously together.
This is part of the city’s DNA, Lépine had stated earlier in his opening remarks at the nearby chalet.
Ville Marie was founded solely to make Jesus Christ known to indigenous peoples and to live the Gospel imperative that all should live harmoniously together, the archbishop said during his address at the chalet.
“It’s commonly thought that because Montreal was part of New France, Ville Marie was founded as a French city,” he noted. However, it was not founded to establish a French city,” he underlined.
Montreal “is French in its origins, in its initiatives,” he stated, but its raison d’être was to be a city “with an inclusive vision where indigenous and French people were to live together. It’s in our genetic code, which is why we, as a diocese, are committed to ‘living together’ harmoniously.”
In that spirit, last September then-Mayor Denis Coderre unfurled a revised city flag incorporating a First Nations’ symbol — a white pine — in recognition of the island’s indigenous roots.
In addition to evangelization and living harmoniously together, Montreal’s third commission, Lépine pointed out, was to “love the poor as Christ loved them.”
Personified by Jeanne Mance, known as North America’s first lay nurse, “love and care of the poor and of all vulnerable people has always been part of our mission.” The poor must be served regardless of their beliefs, their circumstances and without judgment, he underlined.
The 375th anniversary of Montreal’s founding and the subsequent anniversaries that follow offer an opportunity “not only to explore our roots,” the archbishop concluded, “but to be inspired by the values that motivated the founders of Ville Marie and to respond to the thirst, which only Jesus Christ can satisfy, that resides in the hearts of all.”
The commemorative event was part of the diocesan Epiphany celebration, held annually, which included carol singing, Quebec folk music, prayer and refreshments.
Durocher is editor emeritus, Catholic Times Montreal.