The third building on this site was built during and after World War I and is the largest church in Québec City. Its style is double-steepled gothic, with impressive stained glass. The interior is described in great detail on the website of La Corporation du patrimoine et du tourisme religieux de Québec. There was a most peculiar series of life-sized wax figures of the parish's saints and founders up in the apse (including Blessed Franois de Laval, the city's first bishop, and Saints Marguerite Bourgeoys and Marie de Youville, who had both worked in the neighbourhood before heading off to Montréal). A banner in the church acknowledges cash contributions from the provincial government foundation for the religious heritage of Quebec without which steeples all over the province would be falling over. There is also a parish museum, which I did not get a chance to visit.
The parish has its own foundation, and houses a comprehensive training and work placement scheme for mentally disabled adults along with a series of other programs. Very cleverly, the parish foundation brought in a number of businesses as sponsors. They also host an Afro-Caribbean community centre, along with a community chaplaincy, an AA group and a safe-injection site. Saint Roch is, of course, to be invoked against vampires, but is most known among Canadians as the name of the first ship which traversed the northwest passage. And for fans of the pilgrimage to Santiago, he is one of the typical pilgrim saints, usually depicted with a dog licking his open sores.
Just emerging from urban decrepitude, this is the old Victorian shipping and industrial quarter of Québec City, just north of the walled city, and about 20 minutes away by foot from the train station. An autoroute divides the district from the harbour and the train station, and provides a bit of gritty urban desolation for the pedestrian. The evening before, on my way back from dinner, I had made brief eye contact with a streetwalker who was looking for her next customer as I was waiting at the corner for the light to change. (I would see her again – read on!) Although this neighbourhood was once the centre of working-class English and Irish life, I doubt if there are more than a hundred anglophones nearby. Some of the faculties of Laval University and several research institutes are close by, and there is a heavy student population, as well as many immigrants. The church is on Rue Saint Joseph, which features a number of funky-to-chic restaurants and artsy cafés, tapas joints and that sort of stuff.
I think that it was Monsieur le Curé Réal Grénier.
What was the name of the service?Messe communautaire (Community Mass)
How full was the building?
I counted 285 people in the nave, which they say can hold 650. To my eyes it looked fairly full – even bulging! Including the galleries and transepts, it is said that the church can hold about 1,200. There was a good age spread, with families and quite a few young people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
They don't seem to do that sort of thing here, but everybody seemed fairly friendly.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was remarkably comfortable, with a good broad shelf, and the kneeler well-padded. I was at the end of my pew and able to lean back into the corner without any discomfort. It would have easily provided napping support during long sermons.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet, but with people nodding and greeting each other as they came in and took their pews. It is an urban parish, and lacked heartiness and noise, but congregants seemed to know each other by sight and there was the abashed half-smile and semi-nod of greeting which is one of our national characteristics.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"La grce de Jésus notre Seigneur, l'amour de Dieu le Pre, et la communion de l'Esprit Saint soient toujours avec vous." ("The grace of Our Lord Jesus, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be always with you.")
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A small leaflet in French entitled Prions en église (Prayers in the Church), with the propers for the day. Many congregants were following the mass from memory and did not seem to focus on the little books. Everything was in French.
What musical instruments were played?
They have a legendary Casavant organ, and it seemed to be handled very capably.
Did anything distract you?
About a third of the congregation were late, but everyone seemed fairly relaxed about it.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a moderately no-nonsense novus ordo mass, with clear diction by the priest (appreciated by this anglophone). The two acolytes stood on the gospel end of the altar, facing the congregation. The first two readings, Exodus 22:20-26 (God declares his law through Moses) and Thessalonians 1:5-10 (the Thessalonians received God's word with joy), were read by two young women lectors, the first with a Haitian accent and the second with an educated local accent.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – It is always a bit tricky grading the preacher when he speaks in the Mystery Worshipper's second language, but I would give him a 7 or 8, as his diction was clear and his tone modulated. He included one or two anecdotes, and the congregation seemed to pay close attention to him.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Providence lays out paths for us, but it it up to us to choose where we should go. However, the way in which we take our path is perhaps even more important. We need to bear in mind help for the poor, respect for every human being we encounter, respect for life, the responsible use of resources and of our talents. When so many are in want, waste causes sorrow in heaven, and shows a poor example to our children. Today's gospel lesson tells us that we are to love God first, and then much good will follow if we trust in him.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The relaxed atmosphere of the service, and not being in a meeting room with academics for the first time in three days, where I was trying to make sure that I was using the conditional and the imperfect correctly.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing in particular. Even the passing of the peace was carried out with a respectful attitude. Somehow the Haitian family in front of me discerned that I was anglophone, and sent their two small children back to offer me the peace in English to make me feel at home.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As I left my pew and walked down the gospel aisle, by the window of Saint Roch distributing his goods to the poor (see above), who should be there but the streetwalker I had seen the night before. We again made brief eye contact, but the swell of the crowd carried me past her and out the door. There was no clerical greeting party at the door (as is customary in rural and small-town Francophone RC churches).
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The espresso at the Binerie two blocks down Rue Saint Joseph was nice and full-bodied, with a professional crema on top. I got a free cookie from the barista who clearly was entranced by my exotic Ontarian good looks.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – Perhaps a 7, even though I'm not RC. There hasn't been an Anglican church in the neighbourhood since World War II and the cathedral (one of two Anglican churches in the city) is a 300-step climb to the walled city (I measured a cardio-pushing 40 minutes by foot), so This Is It for residents of the neighbourhood. If I lived nearby, I would likely drop in from time to time. People were friendly without being pushy, and there is a good range of social programs there, as well as a pretty comprehensive program of sacred music (there are often live broadcasts on Radio Canada).
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. The change of focus after a tiring four days of committees, meeting rooms, presentations and interviews (all in French – my head still hurts!) entering this community for an hour and sharing their experience was remarkably calming.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Seeing "my" streetwalker in church. A former colleague of mine worked the streets in her teens to finance her drug habit conquered with much difficulty so I am always moved by what they must be dealing with. Who shall pray for whom?