Earning a place in heaven

Earning a place in heavenOver the past few centuries, a multitude of religious beliefs, rituals and practices filled the daily lives of Quebecers. All we have to do is think of saying the rosary as a family, the feast of Corpus Christi or Mary’s month and we are plunged into the world of the popular devotions of our ancestors. These devotions influenced, even defined, a part of our culture.

Come along with us in this new series of chronicles. We will trace the history of several, occasionally forgotten, aspects of the religious heritage of Quebec. Popular feasts, processions and annual pilgrimages. These are just some of the ways to earn one’s way to heaven!

Click on a title to access an episode or to close the tab.

First episode
Cross my heart
Cross my heart

Roadside cross in Gaspé (Quebec), collection numérique de la Bibliothèque nationale du Québec.

With the Virgin Mary, the cross is undeniably the most influential theme in Quebec religious art. Sculptors, goldsmiths, architects and painters all made church crosses, stations of the cross, cemetery crosses, crucifixes and rosaries, each more sumptuous than the last.

And let’s not forget the crucifixion scenes and roadside crosses that dot the roads in Quebec. Erected at the crossing of two country roads or proudly planted on a hill that brought Golgotha to mind, these “life size” crosses are a symbol of a mystical past. Even today, between 2,500 and 3,000 can be found throughout Quebec.

The origins of these crosses and crucifixion scenes date back to the Middle Ages. Their appearance essentially coincided with the emergence of Roman art, in about the 11th century. Following that, the multiplication of these objects of piety reached a peak in the 16th and 17th century, particularly in Brittany. This explained why the tradition was brought over to New France, from the time Canada was discovered by Jacques Cartier in 1534. Cartier, who was originally from Brittany, erected several crosses, taking possession of the land for the King of France.

Croix de bois, croix de fer

Crucifixion scene in Saint-Pamphile (Québec), collection numérique de la Bibliothèque nationale du Québec

In the 17th century, the principal settlements had at least one crucifixion scene or roadside crossing. The missionaries traveled throughout the country, erecting crosses everywhere. The settlers erected these structures to highlight their faith, thank God for some favour they had obtained or to commemorate the site of a sunken ship or battle. This practice was so popular that, in about 1750, each parish located between Montreal and Quebec City had an average of two to three roadside crosses. Since it was common practice to stop and pray or bow at each cross, trips were often quite lengthy!

The proliferation of roadside crosses and particularly crucifixion scenes continued into the 19th century and even into the first half of the 20th century. Particularly during this period, these structures became sites where people gathered to pray during religious feasts such as the Feast of Corpus Christi, Mary’s month, Palm Sunday or Good Friday. They would gather there to invoke the grace of God against scourges of all kinds: wars, epidemics, fires, droughts, and so on.

There are many kinds of crosses and crucifixion scenes. The most modest were made by farmers and the most elaborate, particularly the crucifixion scenes, were ordered in past centuries by parish priests and made by professional artists. The most famous of these was sculptor Louis Jobin.

Croix de bois, croix de fer

Roadside cross, collection numérique de la Bibliothèque nationale du Québec.

Copper, iron, and stone were used to make these structures, although pine was the most common material. As a result, several crosses did not withstand the elements. The oldest generally date back to the end of the 19th century.

Pious images serve as a source of inspiration for the making of several crucifixion scenes. To learn more about this, join us again on March 23, 2004.

* Roadside crosses were sculpted without any ornamentation or with a few instruments of the Passion (lance, ladder, sponge, tongs, hammer, etc.). The crucifixion scenes represent Christ on the cross and often include several personalities. For example, the most elaborate such structure in Quebec, erected in 1932 in Saint-Célestin (Nicolet region), includes the two thieves, the Virgin Mary, St. John, Salome and the soldier bearing the lance.

  • PORTER, John R. et Léopold Désy. Calvaires et croix de chemins du Québec, Montréal, Éditions Hurtubise HMH, 1973, 145 p.

Second episode
Pious images
Pious images

«O doux agneau, gardez-nous toujours dans votre coeur béni», 1918.
© Maison Saint-Gabriel

Religious images, illustrating the catechism or representing the saints, date back several centuries. As soon as engraving was developed, in the 14th century, pious images became popular. In Quebec, of all of the objects associated with religious practices, pious images were the most widespread devotional items until the 1960s. However, their popularity peaked at the turn of the century.

In the Roman Catholic church, the religious authorities distribute small images and recommend their frequent use. For example, certain images reproduce litanies to encourage believers to recite prayers and meditate and the image of the angelus displayed at home reminds everyone of their Christian duty.

At a time when the life cycle was strongly marked by religious festivals and rituals, pious images also served to immortalize important moments in the life of a believer: first communion, confirmation, the annual visit of the parish priest, the death of a loved one... Young and old alike carefully stored these images in a souvenir album or a box, like a valuable treasure. Printed on glossy paper or finely worked like lace, they were true collector’s items.

Pious images

«Chrétien, souviens-toi que tu as aujourd'hui une âme à sauver»,1900.
© Maison Saint-Gabriel

Much like our modern greeting cards, pious images were also used to exchange wishes and thoughts of all kinds. Certain images were used as post cards, sent during a trip, while others were given to family members or friends for major holidays (Christmas, Easter, etc.).

With the worship of the saints, pious images were essentially used for their protective value. Referred to as “protection images”, they protected the individual against illness, insomnia, accidents, etc. They could also be used to ask the holy individual, portrayed on the image, for a particular favour, such as finding a lost object. Believers would often wear their images pinned to their clothing or in their socks, pockets or purse... Some would even swallow very small pious images to heal a sore throat, relieve menstrual cramps or deal with other afflictions.

The protection provided by the pious images extended to material goods. An image of the Virgin Mary, placed in a house or building, would protect against fire. An image of St. Christopher, placed in a car, prevents traffic accidents. The Sacred Heart blesses “homes where the image of His heart is displayed and honored.”

Finally, it should be noted that pious images are just one of many devotional objects, along with medals, scapulars, statuettes, crucifixes and other sacramental items that are almost forgotten today.

Different groups, including the confraternities, promoted pious images. To learn more about confraternities, join us again on April 6, 2004.

  • LESSARD, Pierre. Les petites images dévotes. Leur utilisation traditionnelle au Québec, Québec, Les Presses de l’Université Laval,1981, 174 p.

Third episode
Brotherhoods and confraternities in New France

Confraternities and brotherhoods are groups of lay people with spiritual and charitable goals.* In New France, they were very common. Men and women joined this type of association to ensure their salvation. They would take part in all sorts of religious activities: special services, group prayers, processions, charitable works...

Although the religious confraternities were generally founded by lay people, they were always supervised by the Roman Catholic clergy, who authorized their founding and guided their activities. For the clergy, the confraternities were a way to encourage the devotion of the faithful.

In fact, through their activities, the confraternities encouraged religious practices. For example, the Confrérie du Rosaire (Confraternity of the Most Holy Rosary) promoted the rosary. Other confraternities “specialized” in devotion to a particular saint, such as the Confrérie de Sainte-Anne (Confraternity of St. Anne), which is dedicated to the mother of the Virgin Mary. In the case of this type of confraternity, the members were invited to adopt good conduct by imitating the virtues of the patron saint. In addition to these characteristics, the goal of all the religious confraternities was to improve the moral and spiritual lives of their members. Moreover, the members were to serve as models for the rest of the population.

It is important to note that membership in a confraternity was voluntary. As such, the activities of these associations were optional and not obligatory. These pious acts and devotional practices were completed in addition to the prescribed duties of the Christian, such as Sunday Mass.

In order to encourage the faithful to join the confraternities, the Roman Catholic Church generously distributed indulgences.** In addition to this advantage, which was not negligible, the member of the confraternity enjoyed the assistance of his colleagues, when needed. For example, at the time of his death – and even after death – he could count on them to accompany him through this final step and recite prayers for the salvation of his soul.

Under the French Régime, eight confraternities*** were established. Of these confraternities, only the Confrérie de la Sainte-Famille (Confraternity of the Holy Family) still exists today. After the Conquest, a large number of confraternities were founded. Up until the end of the 1950s, there were several very active confraternities in Quebec. Yet, the 17th century remains the golden age for these associations.

Most of the confraternities focused their devotion on a saint. To learn more about the cult of the saints in Quebec, join us again on April 20, 2004.

* The terms confraternity or brotherhood also refer to a group of individuals practicing the same trade, such as the brotherhood of grape growers. However, these trade associations were not common in New France.
** In the Roman Catholic religion, the indulgence is a total (total indulgence) or partial (partial indulgence) of the temporal punishment for sins that have already been pardoned.
*** In chronological order of their founding: the Confrérie du Rosaire (the Confraternity of the Most Holy Rosary) in 1656, the Confrérie du Scapulaire (the Confraternity of the Scapular ) in 1656, the Confrérie de Sainte-Anne et la congrégation de la Vierge (Confraternity of St. Anne and the Congregation of the Holy Virgin) in 1657, the Confrérie de la Sainte-Famille (Confraternity of the Holy Family) in 1664, the Tiers ordre franciscain et la congrégation des filles externes (the Secular Franciscan Order and the congregation of the daughters of Jesus) (date unknown), and the Confrérie du Sacré-Coeur (Confraternity of the Sacred heart) in 1716. Although most of these confraternities were founded in Quebec City, they later established branches in several parishes.

  • CLICHE, Marie-Aimée. Les Pratiques de dévotion en Nouvelle-France. Comportements populaires et encadrement ecclésial dans le gouvernement de Québec, Québec, Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 1988, 354 p.

Fourth episode
In the name of which saint?
In the name of which saint?

St. Charles Borromeo, patron saint of Point St. Charles, by Pierre LeBer, 17th century.
© Maison Saint-Gabriel

Profoundly devote, our ancestors placed their trust in the cult of the saints to help them in their daily lives and deal with hardships. Represented in images, statutes and medals or venerated through relics, the saints were invoked to deal with evils of all kinds: epidemics, droughts, wars, etc. On a more personal level, the believer would ask for the protection of a saint to deal with a personal problem, heal an illness, bless his marriage...

In New France, the saints were most often invoked to ask for healing, prevent shipwrecks, fires and famines or even to obtain material or spiritual help. In this respect, it seems that St. Anne was the most solicited of all saints, followed by the Holy Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and St. Augustine. It is interesting to note that several people asked for intercessions on the part of saints who had lived in the country. In this way, several healings are attributed to Father Jean de Brébeuf, who was martyred by the Iroquois in the 17th century and canonized in 1930.

In the name of which saint?

St. Joseph and the Child, by Sister Sainte-Catherine-des-Anges, CND, date unknown.
© Maison Saint-Gabriel

Each saint is supposed to intervene in a specific field, often determined according to what he accomplished in life. St. Roch, for example, who is invoked in the case of contagious illness and the plague, spent his life caring for plague victims.

Which saint should be invoked in the case of need? Here are some suggestions with respect to the better known saints:

  • To find a lost object, pray to St. Anthony of Padua;
  • To heal sore throats, invoke St. Blaise. In the past, on February 3, his feast day, the faithful would go to the church to have their throats blessed;
  • St. Lucy, who died after lengthy torture in which her eyes were gouged out, protects the blind and is invoked to relieve eye ailments;
  • St. Hubert is invoked to heal hunting injuries or dog bites;
  • Does your spouse snore loudly? It would seem that praying to St. Bernard effectively solves this problem!

In addition to allowing the faithful to obtain specific favors, the cult of the saints gives them protection. Cities, trade associations, etc. are often associated with a patron saint. In Quebec, most villages are named after a saint. One particular case is Montreal, which is protected by the Virgin Mary, as a result of its earlier name: Ville-Marie.

The scent of saintliness...
In the Middle Ages, saints were enormously popular. In 1171, in order to prevent people from proclaiming just anyone a saint, Pope Alexander III reserved the right to canonization for the pontiff. Following this, procedural rules were established. They were later revised several times over the centuries.

Canonization is a complex procedure and sainthood is only proclaimed after a very long legal investigation during which the virtues and miracles associated with the “candidate” are acknowledged. Generally, the procedure is initiated by a group of faithful believers who proclaim that people were miraculously cured following the intercession of God’s servant.

Certain criteria are also considered undisputed signs of sainthood, such as the fact that the saint’s body does not putrefy after death and gives off a pleasant perfume. Several stories about saints mention this attribute. For example, it is said that, in 1933, in Nevers (France), the cover of St. Bernadette Soubirous was opened, releasing the scent of roses¼ this gave rise to the French expression “Être en odeur de sainteté” (to be in someone’s good graces).

To learn more about the canonization procedure, consult the following page:

Au nom de quel saint?

Ex-voto, 1812. The ex-voto is an object used to obtain or give thanks for a blessing. The ex-voto is placed in a church or chapel.
© Maison Saint-Gabriel

Several streets and neighborhoods in Montreal also bear the names of saints. In certain cases, the place name honors both the patron saint and a famous individual. St. Paul St. designates both St. Paul the apostle and also Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, founder of Ville-Marie. The Point St. Charles neighborhood honors both St. Charles Borromeo and Charles Lemoyne, an explorer and wealthy fur merchant in New France.

Along with prayer, Masses and pilgrimages, one method of recourse used to invoke the saints was the veneration of relics. To learn more about these objects of devotion, join us again on May 4, 2004.

  • CLICHE, Marie-Aimée. Les Pratiques de dévotion en Nouvelle-France. Comportements populaires et encadrement ecclésial dans le gouvernement de Québec, Québec, Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 1988, 354 p.
  • DAWSON, Nelson-Martin. «Les dévotions populaires une assurance tous risques», Cap-aux-diamants, no 26, été 1991, p. 14-17.

Fifth episode
Holy relics
Holy relics

Reliquary / monstrance, date unknown.
© Maison Saint-Gabriel

In the third and fourth centuries, it was said that the faithful were healed miraculously after visiting the tombs of the saints. Blind people were able to see, paralyzed people could walk again, people with damaged limbs stopped limping... By word of mouth, these stories spread and everyone wanted to visit the holy grave sites. Yet, it was impossible for many of the faithful to travel to such places since Rome and the other holy sites were distant. To remedy this situation, it was declared that contact with a part of a saint’s body was enough to enjoy his/her intercession. Simply seeing relics was also sufficient. That’s all it took for the tombs of the saints to be pillaged, since everyone wanted his/her “portion of holiness”. Teeth, fingers and toes, skull fragments, etc. were dispersed throughout the world. In this manner, the devotion of relics came into being. The dispersion of the relics lasted throughout the Middle Ages and occasionally resulted in an actual black market where fraud was common.

The term “relic” comes from the Latin reliquiae which means “remains”. Relics are often what remains of a saint after his/her death. Body parts are called “primary relics”; clothing, objects that belonged to the saint, etc. are secondary relics. Fragments of the Cross or the holy shroud are included in this second category.

Relics are stored in reliquaries to be preserved and displayed. Large reliquaries are placed on the altars in chapels and churches; small reliquaries are used to decorate the walls in homes, much like paintings, or are carried about by their owners, in their pockets or clothing. Moreover, it was not uncommon for a single reliquary to contain the relics of several saints.

Holy relics

Cross/reliquary containing a relic of Marguerite Bourgeoys, 1950.
© Maison Saint-Gabriel

Holy relics

Reliquary/frame, date unknown.
© Maison Saint-Gabriel

Holy relics

Reliquary bearing the inscription “Cy gist le Coeur de /Sr. Pierre LeBer”, 1707.
© Maison Saint-Gabriel

Holy relics

Tower of the Martyrs of St. Celestine (Québec). The Tower of Martyrs is the only pilgrimage site in the world devoted to holy relics, 20th century. Digital collection of the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec.

Through relics, the faithful venerated a saint or asked for his/her intercession for a spiritual or material favour. Reciting prayers, contemplating relics or placing them on a part of one’s body were also ways in which these objects of worship were venerated.

Finally, faithful Christians venerated the relics of patron saints as well as those of people who were not canonized. Numerous pious individuals whose virtues had been demonstrated are honoured by Roman Catholics in this way. One example is Brother André, founder of St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, who is held responsible for several miracles and dozens of healings.

Very often, the places where famous relics are stored become sites for frequent pilgrimages. Quebec has a large number of these sites. To learn more about pilgrimages, join us again on May 18, 2004.

  • PERRIN, Joël et Sandra VASCO ROCCA, dir. Thesaurus. Objets religieux du culte catholique, Paris, Éditions du patrimoine, 1999, 406 pages.
  • MORISSETTE, Jules. Gratia Dei. Les chemins du Moyen Âge, [ En ligne], 2003. Québec, musée de la civilisation. [ ] (2004).

Sixth episode
On the road to salvation
On the road to salvation

“To keep the faithful busy, weary them and fill them: these are essential elements that make up a sacred site for the deliverance of pilgrims” (translation). In this frame of mind, the faithful climb the steps at St. Joseph’s Oratory on their knees, stopping at each step to recite a prayer, 1955, collection of the Centre d’histoire de Montréal.

Until the 1960s, the daily lives of Quebecers followed the rhythm of religious celebrations and rituals. In addition to the Christian feast days, processions and Sunday Mass, pilgrimages played an important role. Every year, in a manner similar to that of the first pilgrims who walked to Jerusalem or Santiago del Compostella, family members would go to one pilgrimage site or another to demonstrate their faith. Young and old alike eagerly awaited the pilgrimage day, for a trip filled with surprises.

The oldest pilgrimage site in Quebec is the Basilica at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. In 1658, the first chapel was built there, after sailors from Brittany transplanted the cult of Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, in New France. Several miraculous healings took place in the sanctuary at this major site of worship. The columns of the church, decorated with hundreds of crutches, provide testimony of these unexpected cures.

On the road to salvation

Crowd of pilgrims assembled at St. Joseph’s Oratory, 1960, © Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal

In Montreal the first pilgrimage site was on Mount Royal, where De Maisonneuve, who had founded the city, erected a cross to thank Providence for saving the colony from a flood in 1642. Marguerite Bourgeoys, who was recruited in 1653, had the cross erected again, but the Iroquois threat made access to the site virtually impossible. To remedy this situation, after several difficulties and delays, she had a small chapel built in 1675. This chapel became the new pilgrimage site. Rebuilt in 1771, following a fire, this chapel is now the Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Chapel in Old Montreal.

It took another two and a half centuries and the determination of a very modest man, Brother André, before Mount Royal returned to its initial vocation. In 1904, a chapel dedicated to St. Joseph was built. Starting in 1915, it was replaced by St. Joseph’s Oratory, the most popular pilgrimage site in the 20th century.

On the road to salvation

Pilgrimage to the reliquary at Saint-Célestin, at the start of the 20th century, digital collection of the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec

In addition to the sites mentioned above, Quebec is filled with numerous places for worship. There is the Notre-Dame-du-Cap sanctuary in Cap-de-la-Madeleine, near Trois-Rivières; the Canadian Montmartre in Sillery; and the Tower of Martyrs in Saint-Célestin, near Nicolet, the only sanctuary in the world dedicated to holy relics.

Most of the pilgrimage sites were founded at the start of the 20th century when religious fervor and the devotion of Quebec Roman Catholics reached a peak. In those times of crisis – it was the time of the Spanish influenza, World War I (1914-18) the Great Depression – pilgrims turned out by the hundreds to pray for divine intercession and obtain spiritual and material assistance. After visiting the sanctuary, they would sometimes take part in a Mass around an altar, arranged outside the sanctuary for that purpose. Pilgrimage sites often have a crucifixion scene and roadside crosses outside.

En route vers le salut

Pilgrimage to Cap-de-la-Madeleine, 1906, digital collection of the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec

Once they had completed their pilgrimage, everyone would return home with a stock of medals, statuettes, religious images, holy oil, holy water and other souvenirs. These souvenirs would certify that the pilgrimage had been completed, only to be renewed the next year.

Similar to pilgrimages, processions were also popular in Quebec in past centuries. To learn more about these popular activities, join us again on June 1, 2004.

Seventh episode
Marching for the glory of God
Marching for the glory of God

Corpus Christi procession in Montreal, 1959, collection of the Centre d’histoire de Montréal

In certain rural parishes, religious processes are still organized, as it was the case in the past throughout Quebec, about fifty years ago. During that period, several times a year, the faithful would parade through the streets of towns and villages, to honor a saint or celebrate a religious feast day.

In Quebec, processions date back to the 17th century. The colonists, who had come to settle New France, brought traditions with them from the parent country and organized the first processions. For example, the Jesuits reported no fewer than four religious processions for 1646. Following this, processions continued to grow in popularity and number. Everyone agrees that the most grandiose processions were organized at the end of the 19th century.

Marching for the glory of God

Procession in the streets of the village of Saint-Félicien, 1909, digital collection of the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec

The Roman Catholic clergy, confraternities, and religious communities organized processions to encourage the faith of their followers. Certain processions took place on a local level – in a village or school for example – while larger ones would be organized in several parishes throughout the province. This is the case of the two most important annual processions: those organized for Corpus Christi and the Sacred Heart.

Regardless of their size, all processions followed the same pattern, with the exception of a few details. The faithful would meet at the church, the starting point for the ceremony. After taking Mass, they would assemble behind the banner for their group (religious community, school, confraternity, etc.). All of the groups would join in a long procession, parading through the streets, reciting prayers and singing hymns. The priest walked at the head or the rear of the procession, carrying a monstrance, a cross or a banner bearing the image of a saint, depending on the purpose of the procession. He would be followed or preceded by the faithful, also carrying banners and, occasionally, the statue of a saint, attached to a pole. Incense would be burned along the road, which was strewn with flowers and bordered with cut trees, often pines. Along each side of the road, houses would be decorated with ribbons, flowers, papal flags and pious images

Marching for the glory of God

Procession held at the time of the 1910 Eucharistic Congress, digital collection of the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec

Two or three times, the procession would stop by a decorated altar. This altar would be temporary, set up outside, for the holy sacrament. The priest would bless the faithful and invite them to pray. The procession would end where it started: back at the church. The priest would bless the faithful a final time and they would return home until the next procession.

In addition to the processions held to celebrate major religious feast days, such as the Assumption, the Rogations, and the feast days of patron saints, religious processions were also organized to ask for divine intercession in the case of the difficult times. Many documents attest to this fact. Thus, in 1702, a procession was held in honour of St. Roch and St. Sebastian, in the hope of stopping the small pox epidemic that was ravaging the country. In 1722, a process was organized in honour of the Virgin Mary, asking her to stop a drought that had been ongoing for three months. It is said that, after the procession had ended, it rained three days without stopping.

Marching for the glory of God

Procession, 20th century.
All rights reserved © Maison Saint-Gabriel

As in the case of most of the popular religious practices of our ancestors, religious processes disappeared completely with the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. However, it should not be forgotten that they had a profound impact on Quebec culture and identity.

This is the final chronicle on popular religious practices in Quebec.

  • Musée DU QUÉBEC. Le grand héritage. L’Église catholique et les arts au Québec, Québec, Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, 1984, 369 p.


Louis Jobin
Quebec sculptor who was born in Saint-Raymond de Portneuf in 1845 and passed away in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in 1928. He was initially trained by Master Sculptor François-Xavier Berlinguet and completed his studies in New York with an English sculptor named Boulton. During the course of his career, Louis Jobin completed several magnificent works, some of which still decorate churches in Quebec. He is credited with numerous crucifixion scenes, including one in the Sainte-Foy cemetery (1878) and another in the Village of Bras d’Apic in the Chaudière-Appalaches region. He also sculpted all of the statues in the Église de Saint-Henri de Lévis (1878-1882) and the equestrian statue of St. George slaying the dragon (1909), on the façade of the Église Saint-Georges-Ouest, in the Beauce.