The uncomfortable pew

What Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s hometown says about the state of the Church

The uncomfortable pew

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Quebecers and Argentines share deep Catholic roots, a hot-blooded Latin temperament and a general wariness of the Church’s place in their respective societies. Catholicism is on the wane in both, to the benefit of evangelical Christianity in Argentina and secularism in Quebec. Yet if God influenced Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s ascension over Quebec’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet, then He is a pragmatic higher being indeed. For, despite their similarities, the outlook for the world’s largest Christian denominations in Quebec and Argentina could not be more different.

The newly elected Pope Francis will likely favour the fate of Catholicism in Latin America, home to nearly 40 per cent of the world’s Catholic population. Ouellet himself knew of the continent’s fertile grounds: in 1970, he left his hometown of La Motte for Colombia shortly after his ordination. One of the reasons why this might be is plain to see in La Motte itself. Had Ouellet become pope, and at a youthful 68 he still might yet, he would have overseen a dwindling hometown flock in Quebec.

La Motte—literally, “the lump”—is a village of roughly 450 souls sitting in the middle of the triangle created by the mining towns of Val D’Or, Amos and Rouyn-Noranda in Quebec’s northwestern Abitibi-Témiscamingue region. It isn’t in the middle of nowhere, in other words, yet on snowy, wind-ripped winter days, it might as well be. The locals, made up of long-time residents and a burgeoning crop of artists who have moved here over the last 20 years, like it that way. To be sure, the few grey-haired residents who crowded into the town’s community centre to see if their native son would win were sad when he didn’t. “We’re a bit disappointed, it would have rejuvenated the parish,” said Marthe Béliveau, 81. Like many parishes in Quebec, La Motte’s certainly needs rejuvenation. Ouellet was ordained at its St. Luc Church in 1968—the same year the Quebec government shut down Séminaire d’Amos, the area’s only seminary, due to a shortage of would-be priests. Ouellet’s alma mater, Montreal’s Grand Séminaire, has suffered a similar fate; there were roughly 300 students when he attended the school in the 1960s. There are 18 today.

In 1986, the pews of St. Luc Church were removed, a bar was installed where a confessional once stood and a curtain was pulled across the altar and the holy space behind it. Faced with declining attendance, the church’s board acquiesced to demands that the church become a community centre. Since then, St. Luc Church has been a church only on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings.

Like all churches in Quebec, St. Luc suffered in the wake of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution of the early 1960s, which put an end to the province’s clergy-dominated governance. “It’s funny, because we’re actually quite Catholic, in that we help each other, we volunteer, there’s a tradition of charity in La Motte,” says Margot Lemire, a writer who moved to the village in 1981. “But the Church? Bleh.”

A pope from La Motte would have brought new challenges; local farmer Luc Castonguay worried they might need a traffic light, if not two or three, in town. But there would have been economic benefits, too, and further attention to the Ouellet family, who loom large over La Motte. Many of Ouellet’s five brothers and two sisters, as well as his 91-year-old mother, Graziella, still live in the town. During the pre-conclave hype, in which journalists from around the world descended on La Motte, the family largely remained in the cluster of houses they own on a bay outside the village. For much of the last five years, the town has been preoccupied not with Cardinal Marc Ouellet, but his younger, decidedly secular brother Paul, who, nearly two decades ago, helped save La Motte’s fortunes by sparking an impressive art scene in the village.

Paul’s legacy is forever tainted because of his guilty plea to sexual assault of two minors in 2008. An accomplished writer and singer with a distinct anti-ecclesiastical bent—he won a Radio-Canada literary prize in 2006—Paul Ouellet was perhaps best known for La chanson trop longue (“The song that’s too long”), a seven-minute folk ditty decrying the damages wrought by the church on the people of Abitibi-Témiscamingue. “Love was crushed to death / Between the right to live and the rites of the Church,” read the lyrics in part.

Paul Ouellet launched a festival of performing arts in 1995, which he dubbed Le Show de La Motte. The artists and writers who have participated in Le Show say it helped revitalize the village. “Culturally and economically, it was going badly,” says Lemire, who helped organize the festival. It attracted artists from around the province, with many staying on. “There were clans in La Motte, families who didn’t speak to each other because of some feud. It had the effect of breaking up these clans, and brought pride back to the town,” Lemire says. A yearly festival highlighting the work of La Motte artists called La Route du terroir followed suit, which today attracts some 7,000 people every summer. In contrast to many small Canadian towns, La Motte’s population has grown by nearly 20 per cent in the last six years.

As La Motte settles back into relative obscurity, its residents remain conflicted. Musician Danny Lévesque wrote a song pillorying what he calls “religious capitalism,” and breathed easier once the conclave announced its decision. Yet most villagers, even those wary of having busloads of tourists rolling into the village, couldn’t deny the economic upshot that would come from having a pope from La Motte. “We’re tiny; it’s almost like it’s too big for us to imagine,” says Castonguay, 45, who produces and sells pesto made from his own basil. “It would be good for us, yet I’d rather not have it.”

Marc Ouellet may eventually be pope. He was reportedly in close contention with Bergoglio before asking his allies to support his Argentine confrère. He has said that not being named pope was “a relief.” Yet God, or at least the Vatican conclave, works in mysterious ways. As prefect of the congregation of the Roman Curia, the body that helps choose new bishops, he has enormous sway over the direction and priorities of the Catholic Church. His frequent and unabashed critique of present-day Quebec society—he has said it abounds with “secular fundamentalism” and “a relativist dictatorship”—is in line with the Church’s stance on the ravages of modernity. He is relatively young and healthy.

Should he ascend to the top of the Catholic Church, Marc Ouellet will certainly be a boon to La Motte, if only because the faithful tend to flock to the hometowns of popes. But while they might appreciate the man and the attention he draws, fewer and fewer in La Motte (or in Quebec) live their lives by what he preaches.

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