Photo: Chapelle de procession Saint-Pierre, Municipalité de L'Isle-aux-Coudres © Ministère de la Culture, des Communications et de la Condition féminine, Jean-François Rodrigue, 2004. Source: Répertoire du patrimoine culturel du Québec


Standing witness along the roads of Quebec

The chapels, cemeteries, representations of the crucifixion and roadside crosses that still stand beside the roads of Quebec today provide a reminder of the important place religion held in the daily lives of those who came before us. While the cultural value of this religious heritage is acknowledged, the symbolical meaning of such sites has a tendency to be lost as a result of the decline in religious practice.

This series of chronicles provides an opportunity for readers to get back in touch with this religious heritage by gaining a better understanding of the religious meaning, customs and functions of this heritage which, at least for the younger generation, seem to belong to the reality of days gone by or even be out-dated.

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First episode
Beyond the upright and the crossbar…

Off in the distance, we see crosses planted along the road that runs parallel to the shoreline.
This emblem is very common in Canada
and serves to encourage the piety of the traveller […]
Anyone who passes by a cross, raises his hat or makes another gesture of reverence…

Pehr Kalm, 1748

Croix du premier cimetière du Québec, Québec © Ministère de la Culture, des Communications et de la Condition féminine, Christian Lemire, 2006. Source: Répertoire du patrimoine culturel du Québec

In the city, in the countryside, on institutional properties, on the lands of farmers, along rural roads, on the main street, and inevitably in the cemetery, the cross characterizes the heritage of Quebec. In a previous chronicle, we discussed the origin and importance of crosses and crucifixion scenes in Quebec. In this chronicle we will deal specifically with the various symbolic elements of the cross and the roadside crosses.

The cross, a symbol derived from the oldest forms of adoration, has existed since the dawn of time. Generally, the cross spread through several civilizations since it recalled the human presence (imagine the silhouette of a man, standing with arms outspread) and life (result obtained from the vertical and horizontal opposites, the masculine and feminine). In Western culture, the word “cross”, from the Latin crux, has been in use since two centuries before the time of Jesus Christ. Under the Roman Empire, crucifixion was an ordeal to which wrong-doers, slaves and all those who were not citizens could be subjected.

The crucifixion of Jesus (and His resurrection), the central dogma of the Roman Catholic religion, is the source of the use of the symbol of the latin cross and, by extension, the “sign of the cross”. The Roman Catholic missionaries were very supportive of “cross planting” initiatives, whether this was done to highlight a foundation, establish a place of public devotion, express gratitude to a generous God or sanctify a site. In Quebec, in particular, this was a significant way in which to express faith. Any reason for erecting a cross was good and crosses were planted by both official authorities and ordinary people. As a result, the cross became a form of popular art, although it was related to religious art.

Croix de chemin
Boucherville © Ministère de la Culture, des Communications et de la Condition féminine, Jean-François Rodrigue, 2007. Source: Répertoire du patrimoine culturel du Québec

The Roman Catholic crosses that characterize the French-Canadian heritage all have an upright and a crossbar, the elements that make up the structure and the symbolical component of the Latin cross. The upright is the vertical axis, symbolically associated with hope, since it connects mankind to heaven, whereas the crossbar, the horizontal axis, is associated with solidarity, since it unites men among themselves. Together these two axes symbolize matter, namely the body of Jesus and the heart, life and faith are found where they intersect. As a result, a heart, a circle or the rays of the sun are often used to symbolize the living love of Jesus, sacrificed to save humankind and resuscitated by God. Frequently, the Latin acronym INRI, which stands for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudæorum (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) may be inscribed at the top of the upright or the letters IHS or JHS (the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek - JΗΣ), the emblem of the Order of the Jesuits, also called the Society of Jesus, may be inscribed at the intersection. The ends of the cross may also be decorated. They are embellished with trefoils, fleurs de lys or other ornamental designs. These simple crosses were not the same as those referred to as “the instruments of the Passion”.

Historically, the representation of the instruments of the Passion of Christ appeared in the second century and became generalized in the Middle Ages. These instruments evoke the descriptions of the crucifixion provided by the Evangelists; moreover, the craftsman, who added these instruments to his roadside cross, also provided narrative elements so that, when fixed to the cross, these objects contribute to honour the memory of the Passion of Christ in greater detail.

The rooster evokes both Peter’s denial and the cry announcing to Christ that the resurrection had arrived; the whip recalls the flagellation, an episode at the beginning of the Passion, which occurred following Christ’s condemnation and before His crucifixion; the rod symbolizes the blows that the soldiers struck to his head; the nails and the hammer recall the manner in which He was nailed to the cross ; the vinegar-soaked sponge refers to Christ’s agony since it served to quench His thirst; the lance recalls when the piercing of His flank, which ensured His death; and, finally, the ladder symbolizes the descent from the cross.

Croix de chemin du Bord-du-Lac, Montréal (arrondissement municipal de l'Île-Bizard-Sainte-Geneviève-Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue). © Ministère de la Culture, des Communications et de la Condition féminine, Jean-François Rodrigue, 2004
Source: Répertoire du patrimoine culturel du Québec

Most of the outdoor crosses were made of wood or wrought iron. Since they were exposed to the elements, their lifespan depended on how they were maintained and whether they or not they were placed on a base that would ensure greater resistance or under a canopy that would provide a certain amount of protection against the elements.

The maintenance, renewal and preservation of the practice of erecting crosses provide evidence of the deeply-entrenched faith and religious culture of the French-Canadian people. A symbol of life and death, temporality and eternity, the cross is also a cultural manifestation, so much so that, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Celtic cross was added to the landscape as a result of Irish immigration. This cross, also known as the “Eucharistic cross” has a ring at the intersection of the two parts, which recalls the body of Christ through the symbol of the Holy Host. Most often, it is found in cemeteries and at commemorative sites.

We invite you to return on September 21, for a chronicle on crucifixion representations.


Second episode
Calvary monuments
Calvary monuments

Calvaire du cimetière de Saint-Hubert, Longueuil (arrondissement Saint-Hubert). © Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Québec, 2003. Source: Répertoire du patrimoine culturel du Québec

More than just a symbol, the Calvary, with Jesus present on the cross, is a depiction of one of the most important events of the dogma of the Roman Catholic religion.

The term Calvary means “skull” and comes from the Latin calvaria. Similarly to the biblical Hebrew term gulgôlet (or gulgûltá in the Greek form of the Aramaic), it also designates the hill on which the Romans crucified the condemned and criminals. In addition to being shaped like a skull, the soil of this hill was also littered with human bones as a result of the purpose for which the site was used. Therefore, Calvary refers to both the scene and the site of the crucifixion.

The representation of the Calvary first appeared in religious iconography at the start of the Middle Ages. The church gradually adopted the Calvary to demonstrate the death of Jesus which preceded his glory, proclaimed by the resurrection.

Calvaire Albert Mondoux (détail), Yamaska-Est. Par Dominique Charland. © Johanne Picard, 2003

Recalling the words of the gospel of Luke – “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – Jesus is sometimes shown suffering, eyes looking toward heaven. When He is shown with His head lowered, this evokes the time when, prepared to die, He humbly said, “It is done.” Most often, His eyes are closed, marking the end of his agony. A halo or rays of the sun are occasionally added to symbolize His belonging to the Kingdom of Heaven. Thus, the different moments in the crucifixion are shown in the iconography of the Calvary, with Christ suffering, resigned or triumphant. Various details are also included in the scene: Jesus always wears a perizonium, a loincloth that covers his nakedness. Relatively often, He also wears a crown of thorns, which the Roman soldiers placed on Him to mock His royalty. Generally, the injuries caused by the nails that held His hands to the cross and His feet to the suppedaneum (support), and by the spear wound to his side, made to ensure He would die, are visible. Finally, several of these monuments present people who attended the crucifixion, such as the two thieves, the threee Marys, the Apostle John and the Roman centurion.

Calvaire du cimetière de Saint-Isidore, Municipalité de Lac-des-Aigles (Bas-Saint-Laurent). © Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Québec, 2003. Source: Répertoire du patrimoine culturel du Québec

Making such a “life-sized crucifix” is often more costly than a simple roadside cross. The body, usually sculpted by an artist, requires technical know-how and knowledge of religious iconography. This means that the form of the Calvary belongs more to the culture of the elite than popular culture. Moreover, it is often religious communities, churches and bishoprics that order such monuments although ordinary men have erected them to acknowledge favours received. This was the case of the Calvary located in Yamaska-Est.

There are many such monuments on Canadian soil and they are often located on small hills or mounds that recall Golgotha. During parish activities organized for Good Friday, the procession of the Stations of the Cross often ends there. This type of monument, which leads to the worship of the dead, can be found in most Roman Catholic cemeteries.

Finally, it should be noted that the time of the crucifixion precedes the resurrection. Calvary monuments inform believers about the circumstances in which Jesus died in order to reveal Himself more thoroughly through His resurrection.

The faithlessness of the men who condemned Jesus is transformed, through the mystery of His resurrection, to reveal this Son of God, Saviour of humankind, promise of eternal life…

We invite you to return on October 5 for a chronicle on cemeteries.

  • PORTER, John R. et Léopold Désy. Calvaires et croix de chemins du Québec, [Montréal], Éditions Hurtubise HMH, 1973, 145 p.
  • SIMARD, Jean, L'art religieux des routes du Québec, [Sainte-Foy], Publications du Québec, 1995, 56 p.

Third episode

Charnier du cimetière Saint-Mathieu. Municipalité de Beloeil. © Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Québec, 2003. Source: Répertoire du patrimoine culturel du Québec

Burying a body is not just a means of disposing of it. For Roman Catholic believers, as in the case of Jesus, this step evokes the placing of the remains in a tomb and the passage to a new life. Since the inhumation of the first Christians in the Roman catacombs, placing the bodies of baptised deceased individuals in consecrated soil was a practise that spread slowly and then progressively became a dominate tendency since the fourth century.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, death occupied a very important place in the lives of the settlers in New France. In keeping with the religious practices of the time, death was viewed as the crown of existence. The final judgement was taken very seriously, even to the extent of determining daily actions. Moreover, the cemetery was a place that was visited frequently, both to pray for the souls of the deceased and to gather one’s thoughts and mediate on the vanity of the world.

The seigneurs and the priests, who were privileged, were often buried under the church floor. The other settlers were buried in the cemetery where the consecrated space was surrounded by a stone fence. One of the few rare complete examples of such a fence forming a parish enclosure is found in the Église Saint-Mathias-sur-Richelieu. In the middle of the 19th century, for health reasons, people stopped burying bodies under or near the church. Instead, cemeteries were built at the edges of cities or villages.

Starting in the 70s, in Quebec, mechanical machines were used, enabling grave diggers to dig in winter. Before that, during the cold season, the bodies of the deceased would have to be stored in a charnel house until the spring. This small, stone building, evidence of another time, could contain the remains of up to 10 people. It was generally equipped with a solid iron door with a lock.

Nom de l'artiste: Émile Brunet. Monument funéraire à Fred A. Lallemand, 1934. Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, Montréal. Source: Écomusée de l'Au-Delà

An open-air museum, the cemetary is a space for art and history. The epitaphs, the writings found on tombstones, confirm family links and histories and sometimes provide anecdotes for those who read them. These funeral monumenets are veritable works of art. For example, the monuments made byÉmile Brunet, renowned sculptor, include about forty monuments found in the cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges.

A green space in the heart of the city, a site that is organized and governed by laws, the cemetery is a site of commemoration (with its markers and monuments), prayer (with its mausoleums, Calvary representation and chapel) and culture (with its various forms or landscaping, works and columbaria).

Pillaging, vandalism, the threat of overpopulation and pollution are realities which this constantly growing city cannot escape. Certain religious practices pertaining to funeral rites are now being called into question as a result of environmental concerns.

At present, innovative designers are producing biodegradable coffins, equipped with soil and a tree seed, so that eco-cemeteries will be filled, in a few years, with rows of trees rather than tombstones. In this way, the idea of life after death is sustained in the avant-garde design of the romantic space of the “final resting place”…

We invite you to return on October 19 for the next chronicle on chapels.


Fourth episode

The early Christians first built altars in the Roman catacombs to celebrate the Eucharist during funeral and commemorative ceremonies. Following this, the Catholic mass was celebrated in basilicas and later churches built for that purpose. At that time, the sacrament of baptism was celebrated in a small building separate from the church, called a baptistery. Then, following the example of the building erected by Charlemagne to house the cloak of St. Martin of Tours, a relic, in the ninth century, the term “chapel” was used to designate buildings which, without being the main seat of a parish, were nevertheless equipped with altars for Christian worship. As a result, throughout the Roman Catholic diaspora, chapels are found in private homes, cemeteries, colleges, convents, hospitals, prisons and even along roads…

In New France, even before churches were built, as a result of the embryonic Episcopal structure and the needs of worship, numerous chapels were established. From Hudson’s Bay to Louisiana, the mission of New France was served by Récollet and Jesuit missionaires who reached out to the newly settled colonists and the Native populations to be converted. The first chapels were established in the forts that were built to defend the settlements and in Amerindian missions. In the newly emerging seigniories, chapels were often built in the seigneur’s home, to be followed by structures built on land ceded to the community.

Chapelle de procession Saint-Anne, Municipalité de Neuville. Crédit: © Ministère de la Culture, des Communications et de la Condition féminine, Jean-François Rodrigue, 2005. Source: Répertoire du patrimoine culturel du Québec

Starting as of 1658, secular priests were gradually appointed in the territory as it was designated an apostolic vicariate (Pope Alexander VII appointed François de Laval to serve as the vicar). The diocesis of Québec, which was established by canon law in 1674, permitted the establishment of parishes and, consequently, the construction of parish churches. Communities with smaller populations were served by the closest parish priest, who would travel to the “service chapel” or the “service church” depending on the dimensions of the place of worship.

In Montreal, people first went to the Hôtel-Dieu chapel for services and then, as of 1675, pilgrims were allowed outside the palisade to go to the small Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours chapel. In the countryside, on the property of the farming sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, an oratory, was established in the house. Finally, on weekdays, in the winter, in the parishes, ordinary masses or more modest marriages were usually celebrated in the sacristy chapel. Small processional chapels could also be found in the parishes. They were erected in honor of particular saints and served as a relay point for carrying the Holy Sacrament during processions during the Feast of Corpus Christi. At Saint-Étienne de Beaumont and Varennes, it is still possible to see such chapels at each end of the village, although several parishes had only one procession chapel and the villagers took pride in erecting wayside shrines for the pyx, decorated with flowers and ornaments, at the front of their properties.

Finally, large chapels were also built to satisfy the needs of the large numbers of pilgrims that visited them. The best known is certainly St. Joseph's oratory. Brother André, who was behind the original construction, was canonized there on October 17, 2010…



Brother André had the oratory built in 1904 so that the faithful to come and pray to St. Joseph on the flanks of Mount Royal. As a result of the large number of pilgrims and the increasing renown of Brother André, the chapel was expanded and equipped with a heating system, then expanded yet again with the current building, which was built from 1924 to 1967. It is the largest site of worship dedicated to St. Joseph in the world. It is also considered a basilica (church named by the pope as having a particular dignity).
Feast of Corpus Christi commemorates the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist, in the form of the consecrated bread and wine. Celebrated with pomp, the main activity in this feast is the procession of the pyx (with the consecrated host).
The priest would prepare for worship in the sacristy. This building would be located next to the chevet of the church and it contained the sacred vases and sacerdotal vestments and often the baptismal fonts.
An oratory is a small chapel, a place of devotion that invokes divine protection. It contains a small statue or image of a saint. The most famous Chapel in Canada, however, is a large one although it was originally a small chapel, a small oratory, built by Brother André, at the start of the 20th century, to pray to St. Joseph.
St. Martin served in the military under Constantine and Julian. He wanted to go into the religious life but had to respect a decree by the emperor requiring the sons of veterans to join the military. One winter day, while going through the gate at Amiens, he met a naked man who had not received any alms at all. Martin understood that this poor man was reserved for him. He took his sword, and cut the cloak he was wearing in two, giving half to the poor man and putting the other half back on. The following night, he saw Jesus Christ wearing the cloak which he had given the poor man and heard him tell the angels that surrounded him, “Martin, who is still just a catechumen, covered me with this piece of clothing.” The holy man did not bask in his glory. Knowing how great God is, he was baptized, at the age of 18, and served in the military for two more years before becoming an acolyte of the Bishop of Poitiers, then bishop of Tours. [Jacques de Voragine].

Following this, he founded several rural churches in Gaulle and a monastery. Two major miracles are attributed to him; he apparently brought two men back from death. As of that time, he became renowned and the sick and unfortunate flocked to him.

St. Martin’s cloak is kept in Charlemagne’s private chapel, the Chapelle palatine d'Aix (which became Aix-la-Chapelle), in Germany. It was incorporated in the current cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle. Charlemagne’s remains are also found there.
Embalming with formaldehyde (which is highly toxic) and the burying of coffins (often massive, varnished and decorated with pieces of metal) are major pollutants for the water table and the soil in general and as a result of the emanations produced. Cremation is not much “greener” since it involves the use of significant quantities of fuel and the production of smoke, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses.
Urns containing the ashes of the deceased are displayed in columbaria. This type of monument first appeared on Quebec soil once the practice of cremation was accepted by the Roman Catholic religion. Today, more than half of the bodies of the deceased are cremated. The urn is then buried in the ground or placed in a columbarium. The columbarium generally consists of a series of glass-enclosed compartments where people can see the urn containing the ashes, a photo of the deceased individual, a few small objects that belonged to him/her, the name of the individual and the date of death.
The Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, located on Mount Royal, Is the third largest cemetery in North America and the largest in Canada. More than one million people have been buried there since 1855, when it was inaugurated following the closing of the Cimetière Saint-Antoine (now Place du Canada).
Émile Brunet was born in Huntingdon in 1893. He was eight years old when his family moved to Montreal, opposite the Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges. He worked in the shop run by his uncle, Joseph Brunet, who carved tombstones. His first sculpted work was the monument for the Patriotes, at Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu. He also produced the monument for war heroes at Longueuil, the monument to Marie de l’Incarnation, in Quebec, and the monument to Frère André, in Montreal, to mention just a few.
The church and the stone wall of the cemetery at Saint-Mathias form a parish enclosure that illustrates a type of landscaping inherited from the Middle Ages. Even the orientation of the church choir, facing the rising sun, a symbol of the resuscitated Christ, was respected. The church was built in 1784-88 (facade modified in 1817-18) and the wall that encloses the cemetery was erected in 1817-18 and affixed to both sides of the church facade.
Dominique Charland, a patriote imprisoned at Trois-Rivières, promised to erect a Calvary monument if he were freed. Acquitted, he kept his promise. The Calvary was erected in 1838.
John was the only one of the twelve apostles present at the foot of the cross. Jesus entrusted his mother to John before dying.
The three Marys are the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Mary the wife of Cleophas.
The two thieves were bandits who were crucified on the same day as Jesus. Traditionally, they are portrayed on each side of Christ, arms tied by ropes. Dismas, the “good thief”, is shown to the right of Christ and looks calm whereas Gestas, the “bad thief”, is shown to the left and has an agitated expression.

According to the Gospel, when the three individuals were already on the crosses, the bad thief mocked Jesus, saying "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us." But the other, repentant, rebuked him saying, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal." Then he said to Jesus, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus replied, "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (St. Luke, 23:39-43)
The intersection is where the upright and the crossbar meet. A heart is often shown there since love is common to men and God.
The sign of the cross is a gesture that professes faith. Christians make the sign of the cross by touching their forehead first, followed by the heart, the left shoulder and then the right shoulder, evoking the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). This gesture confirms that they belong to the “Body of Christ”, namely the Church.
A Latin cross is a cross in which the lower arm is longer than the others. It is sometimes called the Christian cross or the cross of the Passion. It refers directly to the death of Christ, nailed to the cross, the emblem of the Christian religion.