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Can Catholicism make a comeback in Quebec?

When Paul Malvern lived in Quebec City, the capital of the Canadian province with the same name, two things set him apart - he was not of French Canadian origin, and he went to church on Sundays. 

The Cathedral Basilica of Notre Dame de Quebec. Credit: Sylvainbrousseau/wikimedia. BY SA 3.0

When Paul and his wife started the car for church on Sunday mornings, the neighbors complained about the noise - and then had the Malvern’s car banned from their apartment complex. 

“I guess it woke up all the other residents, and they basically had our car kicked out,” Malvern told The Pillar.

Just two generations ago, the Malverns would have been part of a long line of cars leaving the complex on the way to church on Sunday - in particular, heading to Catholic Mass.

But since the 1960s, the number of Quebec Catholics attending weekly Mass has dropped like temperatures in a Canadian February. 

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While 75% of the population of Quebec identified as Catholic in the 2011 census, officials in the Archdiocese of Quebec City estimate that fewer than 5% of those are weekly churchgoers. The numbers are significantly lower than the rest of Canada: between 15-25% of Catholics in the rest of Canada are estimated to attend Mass weekly, according to the Catholic Register. 

The dramatic decrease in churchgoers is reflected in a major consolidation of Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of Quebec City, which announced last month that their 29 “pastoral units” - already consolidated from 200 original parishes - would be further consolidated into less than 20 “pastoral centers.” 

The idea behind the massive consolidation is to free up personnel and resources to re-evangelize Quebecers. But will it work?

Malvern, who now lives in Ottawa and has worked in politics and marketing, said the Church in Quebec needs to settle in for the long game. 

“My sense is it's going to take a long time, and the Catholic Church is going to have to rebuild itself pretty much from zero,” he said.


‘Matches and bulldozers’

In some ways, what happened in Quebec is not so different from religious decline in other parts of the West.

But some things set it apart. One factor is widespread regional hostility, and often disdain, for Catholicism’s unique place in Quebec’s history and heritage.

Isabelle O’Connor is a lifelong Catholic who lives in western Quebec, in the Archdiocese of Gatineau. She runs a Catholic prayer card and religious goods company with her husband, Ward. 

O’Connor told The Pillar that the Quebecois (as people of Quebec call themselves) often have little interest in preserving things like art or church buildings, and so when they become unused or vacant, they’re often destroyed.

“In France, they have heritage conservation,” O’Connor said, where even the government steps in to help save old Catholic churches from falling into ruin. Case in point: the rebuilding of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral.

In fact, Quebec’s provincial government has tried for decades to preserve older and crumbling churches. A program began in 1995 to subsidize churches with historical value, and the project got a $20 million boost in 2019, keeping some churches open and in repair.

But critics say the preservation council has focused only on churches with active congregations, or pushed for other churches to be turned into gyms, daycares, and other secular spaces. And others say the funding is not enough to preserve the buildings important to Quebec’s religious heritage, and that some important churches have been demolished to make way for development.

In Quebec, it’s “matches and bulldozers” for too many abandoned historical churches, O’Connor said.

“We have a little song - in French, it’s funnier - the chorus talks about matches and bulldozers. So if there’s an old church, put a match to it. There's no pride. We’re not honoring our roots,” she said.

“Worse than hostility [to the faith], it’s indifference...because indifference is a form of violence.”

That attitude is even reflected in Quebecers’ swear words. Many are taken from the Catholic vocabulary. “Tabernacle” or “host,” for example, are part of the French-Canadian lexicon of profanity, used often with no conscious thought about their more transcendent meanings.

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Bishop Martin Laliberté, an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Quebec City, told The Pillar that in Quebec, religious people are often seen as less intelligent than their secular neighbors. Catholics often feel uncomfortable talking publicly their faith, because they’re afraid they’ll face an argument, or a backlash, he added.

Bishop Martin Laliberté, auxiliary bishop of Quebec City. Courtesy photo.

 Malvern said he often hears Quebecers bemoan the influence the Church once had in their sex lives, including an urban legend which says the stairs of apartments in Quebec were built on the outside, in order to discourage extramarital affairs. He also hears frequent complaints about the Church’s encouragement in the 1940s and 50s for people to have large families. 

“...I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has told me the story about how some parish priest visited their grandparents and strong-armed them into having 16 children or some similarly high body count,” Malvern wrote for Culture Witness in 2017. 

“Looking back on it with the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to know how true these stories are and how embroidered they might have become with the passage of time. But what clearly is real is the passion people inject into this story’s telling and its prominent place in Quebec’s national mythology,” he added. 

And while resentments against the Church are stronger with the older generations, who remember the days when the Church was large and powerful, some of these attitudes have trickled down into the younger generation, Laliberté said.

“I am from the National Missionary Society. I have some members of my society who went to mission in Asia, for example, who say when you arrive there to talk about Christ and the Church, it's like a blank page,” because they do not have preconceived ideas about it, the bishop added.

But in Quebec, “we don't have a blank page.” The old resentments or false ideas about the Church have to be addressed before having a conversation about Christ, he said. 

So how did a country once teeming with Catholics become so aggressively indifferent to it’s mother religion? 

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‘A victim of her own success’

Bishop Laliberté told The Pillar he thinks the Church in Quebec became, in many ways, the “victim of her own success.”

Catholicism first came to Canada in the 1530s with French Catholic explorers, who were accompanied by Catholic priests. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain officially founded Quebec as a French Catholic colony. 

François de Laval - Project Gutenberg eText 17174.jpg
St. Francis-Xavier de Montmorency-Laval was appointed the first bishop of Quebec in 1674.

Because of its close association with the French crown, and for lack of anyone else to do the job, the Catholic Church helped develop nearly every institution of Quebec’s society for decades, including education, health care, administration and government, other social services, and even the establishment of new cities.

Over time, the Church would slowly cede some of its power and influence to the government - first to the French government, and then to the British, beginning in 1763. During the French Revolution, Quebec became a haven for French Catholic refugees fleeing the guillotine.

From its missionary beginning, the Catholic identity of Quebec grew and remained strong, especially as the Catholic Church took on the preservation of the French language and culture of Quebec as its duty.

“It was almost part of the civic religion,” Malvern said. “To be Quebecois meant that you would be Catholic.”

Gilles Routhier, a professor of theology and religious sciences at Laval University in Quebec, said that for centuries, French Canadians - a minority in their own country - looked to the Church as a protector against the English-speaking culture that surrounded them in the rest of Canada, and in influence from Canada’s neighbor to the south.

The Catholic Church was the predominant social institution in Quebec until 1960. Its influence reached from hospitals and schools to workers and farmers, for whom the Church established the first unions. Catholic social organizations were numerous, and participation in them was common.

But because the Church was so big, it needed a lot of money and people to maintain its massive institutions. Institutions started to buckle under the strain of the post-World War II baby boom, coupled with a decrease in vocations first seen in the 1920s, Routhier said.

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The Church also made key compromises, to its detriment, with the government of Quebec’s provincial Premier Maurice Duplessis, who was in power from 1936-1939 and from 1944-1959, and whose administration is sometimes called “the great darkness” or “clerical fascism,” Malvern told The Pillar.

In a bid to maintain its influence, the Church is widely thought to have kept quiet about problems in Duplessis’ administration, including authoritarian policies, corruption, and mistreatment of orphans and religious minorities such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, among other issues.

“Did [the Church] approve of all that Duplessis did? Probably not, but they may have seen their silence and collaboration as the price they had to pay to retain the goodwill and active assistance of the Province’s political masters. And in fairness to them, their strategy did work well for a time - until it no longer did. But when that terrible day finally did arrive, the Church would pay a high price for having compromised its principles,” Malvern said.

Not all historians agree with that take on Duplessis’ administration, or the Church’s role in it. But the narrative is the most common one in Quebec, and one that has contributed to a widespread anti-clerical backlash against the institutional Church.

Routhier added that after World War II, the government began taking the place of the Church as the keeper and protector of French Canadian language and culture, and once it took on this role, the flimsy faith of many French Canadian Catholics was revealed.

“They said, ‘We don't need the Church anymore. We can detach ourselves from the Church. We have a new protector’,” Routhier said.

The Quiet Revolution, beginning in Quebec in 1960, marked further and more obvious decline for the Church.

Over the course of a decade, Quebec’s society underwent a massive shift from rural society to urbanized one, and from a deeply religious culture to a largely secularized one. At the same time, the Second Vatican Council brought change to the Church around the world and in the French Canadian province, and the period after the Council was tumultuous in the Church.

“It was a cultural revolution, but when you have a revolution you need an enemy,” Bishop Laliberté said. “And you have to look for what is oppressing the people, and for the thinkers of the Quiet Revolution, the enemy was the Church because it was omnipresent, controlling everything.”

Even though the Church had also provided much good to the people of Quebec for centuries, its all-encompassing influence started to be resented and rejected by the people. 

“In the 60s, there was a trial against the past,” Routhier said. And in Quebec, the past was Catholic. 

“And the people... they wanted a change. And to change means to reject,” he said. 

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Basilica of Notre Dame, Montreal, Quebec. Credit Tango7174/wikimedia CC BY SA 4.0

Can a ‘poor Church’ rebuild from scratch?

Malvern said that if anything good can be said of the decline of the Catholic Church in Quebec, it is that the Church was a “good loser.”

“When it was clear it was losing power, the Church didn't fight back with full force. It kind of accepted that social change and cultural change was happening,” Malvern said. But Church leaders didn’t immediately know what their role should be in the aftermath. That led to a lot of confusion, and to periods of absence from public life for Quebec’s ecclesiastical leaders.

As O’Connor explained, the Church in Quebec took on the attitude of “turn the other cheek,” when it faced resentments and hostilities from the people of the province.

“Turn the other cheek, that's what our master has taught us,” O’Connor said.

“And so for people who do have faith, like my husband and I, we don't make much noise. The Kingdom does not make noise, we don't scream, we don't yell. We're not on the rooftops. We're not on TV, we have zero budget for publicity. We're poor,” she said.

With parishes closing and vocations few, O’Connor is not despairing that the Church is “going down the drain.” She said she is excited about what God can do with a Church that is small and poor, but faithful.

“It’s a blessing to be like that, because then you realize how much you need God, and how much you're worthless or powerless without him,” she said.

O’Connor, a web developer and self-described “website maniac,” has a passion for using the Church’s beauty to draw people back to the faith.

She spins up almost a website per day on topics ranging from illustrated guides to the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit, to introductions to the Theology of the Body, Canadian saint biographies, guides to the basic tenets of the Catholic faith, illustrated guides to the rosary, and more.

“This is the first generation of people in Quebec who have never been taught about the Church, Jesus, Mary, anything like that, at all,” O’Connor said.

She has found that people do not want to spend money on copies of the Catechism or the Bible, and so she creates French and English resources available for free online.

The internet “is the only place that we can go now [due to the pandemic],” she said. “It's free. It's accessible instantly. And it's worldwide publication in one snap of the finger. So it's very, very powerful, and we need to use it. So that's what I'm doing,” she said. 


Back to its (missionary) roots

Bishop Laliberté said the goal of the most recent round parish consolidations is to help free up priests - who are decreasing in number - so that they have more time to spend with the people doing pastoral activities, rather than spending hours driving daily from one parish to another to offer the sacraments. 

He hopes to see a revitalization of Christian community in the new parish units, and that people won’t be afraid to invite others into that community.

“People have to look at the Christian community and say: ‘Oh, what they live is so beautiful, I would like to be part of it.’ [We can’t] just go to church to for the services, for Mass.”

“We have to say: ‘This community is mine, and I have to take charge of it. I have to involve myself in this community and make it a living space or a living environment where we can really experience Christ together in this community.’” 

The Church in Quebec also needs to learn from its missionary roots, he said, and find new ways to preach the Gospel to people who no longer speak the language of a Christian culture.

“When you go to another people you have to learn a language,” he said. “In the Church, we have our own culture, with our own language that the people outside the Church cannot understand. So it's not that we have to change the Gospel. The Gospel is the Gospel. But we have to find new ways to talk to people about Christ.”

There are some signs of hope, he said. There are small groups forming in private homes to reading and talk about Scripture.

Parents who approach the Church for baptism or other sacraments for their children are now offered catechism classes at the same time.

There are Christian and Catholic immigrants from places like Haiti and countries in South and Central America forming new faith communities.

There are also new ecclesial movements, like Focolare and the Charismatic Renewal, that have found a home in the province, as well as about 20 new religious communities with houses in Quebec, including the Emmanuel Community, the Chemin Neuf Community, the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem, and several others.

Fraternité de Jésus - Québec
Members of the Emmanuel Community in Quebec on a 2014 retreat. Credit: Emmanuel Community.

O’Connor said about half of those new communities originated in Quebec, while the rest began in France, which in recent decades has seen a boom in new communities, particularly offshoots of the Charismatic Renewal.

These communities are drawing in new members and young people, at a time when some of the older orders in the province are dying off

For Bishop Laliberté, those signs are reasons for hope, and even for cautious optimism.

“There's a movement in our Church right now,” Laliberté said. “You can sense that the people say ‘Yes, if we don't do it now, it's going to be too late. So, let's do it.’”

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