It is 5 a.m. the morning of the 19th. For much of this trip this has been the default time for writing my “Thoughts”. Christine remains asleep a few feet from me while I am treated to the sight of night slowly yielding to day. I often go to sleep with no intention of writing, but I awake, sometimes long before 5, and find that my “Thoughts” have been composed somewhere in the recesses of my subconscious. I get up, pull out my iPad and begin to type. It works, but how?… it’s a mystery.
Yesterday, as we left Trois-Pistoles Quebec my eye was drawn to the steeple that commanded a view above the village. There is not much to see in Trois-Pistoles but Trip Adviser mentioned a Basque cultural center, a Basque cheese “Fromagerie”, a small micro-brewery, and the church. The micro-brewery was closed when we arrived late on the 17th as was the cultural center. We are watching our weight so no cheese. The church held the number one spot for recommended things to see and do in Trois-Pistoles.
As an aside, there is a lingering Basque influence in this area that predates the 16th Century arrival of Jacques Cartier. Basque whalers traveled seasonally to these waters in hunt for the leviathans.
As a second aside, “Trois-Pistoles” is the name of a remarkably strong and complex beer crafted by the Canadian brewer, Unibroue… but not in Trois-Pistoles. For you aficionados it is worth seeking out on the shelves of discerning liquor stores and taverns in the States.
Now, about that church. Église Notre-Dame-des-Neiges was completed in 1887. It is truly monumental, far out of scale for the small town in which it is situated. It appeared to be closed, but we checked the doors and found that one side-door was unlocked. In my youth churches were always unlocked as the needs of those seeking a place for prayer were not constrained to banking hours. Perhaps Trois-Pistoles lacks the usual small population of miscreants who, if given the opportunity, deface and steal from houses of worship. Perhaps we were the coincidental beneficiaries of someone’s inadvertent omission… but as a good man in Puerto Rico told us earlier this year, “In life there are no coincidences”.
Upon entering the church we were treated to the most spectacular old world interior of any church that we have seen in North America. The long rows of pews appeared each individually carved. They gleamed mirror-like with flawless varnished surfaces. The towering pillars were hand painted with a faux marble finish and supported the lofty ceiling vault and dome. Remarkable!
While the overall impression was breathtaking, I found my eye drawn to the details of the church… the statue of Christ crucified,
The ornate confessional booths,
The Baptismal Font that had no doubt greeted thousands into the “fold”, and the galleries and pipe organ,
The Alter and Canopy,
The spiral stairs to the lectern used in former days to deliver the Gospel and homily to the congregants,
And then there was the very curious small pew standing alone in the back of the church. My first impression was that it was reserved for sinners ostracized but not excommunicated for some spiritual failing. There was a sign written in French on the pew. With the aid of Google Translate we learned the truth:
This was the bench of the Vire-chien, or “dog-guard”. It was occupied by the Church Constable whose tasks consisted in maintaining order in the church, opening or closing the doors during events such as weddings and funerals, regulating the heat as needed, and preventing dogs from entering the church. Tradition held that dogs entering a church were the harbinger of misfortune in the village. The Vire-chien wore a tricorned hat with a gilded silver-colored ribbon. The hat matched his long frock coat, which was of black wool. The costume was abandoned in the twentieth century, but perhaps the position of Vire-chien remains to this day.
Finally, there were the ubiquitous votive candles, a standard feature in most Catholic churches. These were particularly beautiful and well executed under the sympathetic gaze of the Virgin Mary.
I like churches for what they say about the people of a community. My thoughts about organized religion have become “complicated” over the years and don’t warrant airing here. Nevertheless I was gifted as a child with traditions of contemplation that still resonate with me. One of those is the lighting of a candle. The solitary flame brings a somber focus to my thoughts. In the course of the last few months a number of friends have exited from this life. A few days ago I paid homage to a remarkable woman who died 25 years ago. I recall the memories of those dear to me, now long passed. My wife and I have the blessing of being together in good health, being companions in travel, friends and lovers in life. So much to put upon the shoulders of that single flame…
Peace Everyone. Pete
PS. We crossed into the United States last night.