Quebec – An Ursuline Epic Part Eight

Who does not want to pass that massive inner door, which guards the inviolate cloisters of one of the most romantic buildings in the world, which has been a gate of honour for every Governor-General of French or British Empire, and for every Royal party that has set foot in Canada, and which the personal command of kings and viceroys alone can open ?

Visits are rare and visitors of high distinction and the whole convent is astir to give befitting welcome. A word through the double-screened wicket to the left, a word in reply from the in-visible nun on watch, two strong turns of solid, double locks ; and the door is flung wide, and reveals a semicircle of bowing and smiling Sisters. You enter, and it instantly swings to ; both keys turn firmly, and you stand there a wondering moment, with the same sense of mingled strangeness and familiarity as you had when your first glimpse through a telescope at night carried you off to the scene of things unrealized.

The next minute a nun is asking if this is your first visit to Quebec, and if you had a rough crossing. The Superior is a little ahead, doing the honours with inimitable grace. The corridor is high and well-lighted ; it looks into the sunshiny garden ; the pace is quickened, and you move on, a willing captive to the charm of such unexpected gaiety. You turn a corner—what can you be coming to now—a ball-room.? The same brou-ha-ha of intervolving sound, and the same little puffs and gusts of laughter—only with less forced notes, the same fleeting little calms i You step in, just in time to catch the point of that capital story about the shy visitor who got lost in the cloisters, and mistook the right door, and . . and here, at your very elbow, actually is a nun with whom you have danced in many a ball-room, and who remembers perfectly how often that splendid two-step was encored !

Over at the other end of the room the respectful little semicircle has been instinctively reformed.

In spite of the horrors surrounding them and the fate which sent twenty-five of them to the guillotine, these faithful nuns did all they could to safeguard the property and revenue of their sisters in Quebec. Half of their letters are filled with accounts of the business precautions taken by their indefatigable dépositaire, La Mère de Ste. Saturnine, then in her eightieth year. The other half alternately freeze the blood and set one’s veins on fire with indignation.

On the 13th of January, 1793, the nun who then signed herself ” ex-Superior of the Ursulines of the Faubourg St. Jacques,” wrote to the Superior in peaceful Quebec :—” Dear Reverend Mothers, you have doubtless heard with grief of the destruction of all the religious houses n France. Our monastery has not escaped the common fate. Your compassionate hearts would have bled to see the cloister-wall broken down, and ourselves forcibly driven out from our asylum. To our great regret we are all scattered . . . beg our Divine Lord to grant us grace to make a holy use of the heavy trial He has sent us. All the clergy we knew have disappeared ; we cannot discover any who have escaped the massacre of the 24th of September. Our venerable confessor and our two chaplains were certainly among the victims. . . I recommend myself to your good prayers as one already dead, for although my health is fairly good, which seems a miracle, considering my seventy-four years and cruel situation, yet I may not be among the living by the time this reaches you. The holy will of God be done. If I were younger I might try to accept your invitation.” The letter was not delivered till after her death, as presentiment had told her. But neither correspondent could have imagined beforehand what adventures that farewell message was to undergo. it was carried over to England by some refugees flying for their lives, and confided to the care of a shopkeeper, who mislaid and forgot it. Finally, one day in 1802, nine years after it had been written, an English merchant, who had found it in London, called at the convent and gave it to the third successor of the Superior to whom it had been addressed !

The annals contain some curious entries about distinguished visitors. Thus it is recorded that when King William IV paid a visit, as a young naval officer of twenty-two, the nuns found him “most affable and gracious, although a sailor.” Fours years later, in 1791, came the next member of the Royal Family, Queen Victoria’s father, then called Prince Edward, who was colonel of the 7th Fusiliers stationed at Quebec. The good Mothers were delighted with him. He took refreshments with the bishop in the Superior’s room, and bought some bark work for which he insisted on paying twenty times its value. Again, in 1860, the greatest of all their public receptions was given to King Edward VII, then on his Canadian tour as Prince of Wales. The annalist records with pardonable pride that the Prince spent two whole hours in going over the convent, after the ceremony, and that. “he showed as much interest in observing the plain apartments, the bare floors, the simple cells, as any one of us might have felt in seeing Windsor Castle.”

The Refectory is where “plain living and high thinking” are practised in excelsis. Here are the signs and symbols of both. This room looks centuries older than the others. It is in perfect fitness for its present use ; but it is long and comparatively low; quaint steps lead down into it from its garden door, the ceiling is massively ribbed with huge dark beams, and the whole appearance of it is distinctly mediæval. The tables are long, bare, immensely heavy; so, too, are the deep and narrow benches. You can’t imagine that chairs and carpets have ever been invented. The table is set for supper. There are white water jugs at intervals ; and heavy semi-globular pewter salt cellars on thick stems and solid bases. These are over two hundred years old. At every place there is a little birch-bark bread-basket, used to “gather up the fragments that remain.” A lectern, like a witness-box in shape, serves for the lectrix who reads aloud during meals from some book of devotion. It is all so simple, and so unstudiedly natural. A nun explains the bill of fare, and the great difference between fast and feast days. You would mistake the feast for the fast days, if you had not heard about the latter first ! But it seems that, beyond marking the difference in the calendar by difference in diet, the Refectory is merely a place to refresh one’s body for the sake of one’s soul. “Won’t you give us the pleasure of your company at dinner ?” laughs a nun who has not been cloistered many years ; ” you’ll be better afterwards than if you dined at the club.” And so you would.

As you approach the class-rooms there is a quick, settling shuffle of little feet, a tap with a wand, a soft “Hsh ! “—and there is the nun at her desk, and all the girls standing before her, exactly as teachers and taught stand for inspection all the world over. The prize-winners wear coloured scarves over their left shoulders , but they are wisely not ” shown off” before the visitors. A half-holiday is asked for and granted in honour of a distinguished guest; and instantly every girl is dropping pretty, smiling curtseys to a running accompaniment of multitudinous Mercis!

“It would be such a privilege to be allowed to present the novices.” So the party goes on to where fourteen are being marshalled in an adjoining corridor. Two broad sunbeams are pouring steeply down into the far end of the long room in which you are waiting ; and as the timid little procession begins to move in, beneath the high window, veil after mist-like veil becomes an aureole in the transfiguring light. One face and figure arrest your eye. The colour comes and goes, shifting incessantly under the rich, warm, half-Italian complexion. The neck strains a little, and pulses fast; though the face is calm enough, and the delicately poised figure is almost still, it sways so imperceptibly. What is her beauty doing here, secluded and immured from every hope of triumph ? Look again. She is evidently interested in all that is taking place but, just as evidently, only in so far as these outside interests relate to her vocation. ” Vocation ” is the dominant in the rhythm of her whole expression. Some other novices catch their breath with shyness before answering your questions but her words are as untroubled as her brow. Is this the “Blessed Damozel” that haunted the imagination of Rossett with a vision of earthly beauty looking back on us

From the gold bar of Heaven ? The wonder was not yet quite gone From that still look of hers. Her eyes were deeper than the depth Of water stilled at even.

There is an astounding volume of sound from what must be four-handed piano-playing in the music room. No wonder : it is a fourteen-handed performance ! The solitary harp looks neglected in its corner. Is it out of favour, even in convents, nowadays ? At one time it was the chosen instrument to give languishing, romantic finish to a lady-like education. Perhaps its truer virtues will be recognized again, and the fit though few will re-awake its glamour as bards and angels are famed to do.

A hurrying little group meets you in the passage. They had forgotten the Indian pupil ! She is a curiosity now perhaps the last of her race to be taught there—within a few short steps of where Marie de l’Incarnation used to gather so many round the famous ash tree. She is a new-comer ; and the convent is almost as strange to her as to the visitors who cluster round. One of them knows some words of her native tongue. Her eyes look far out beyond her surroundings as she answers. Is it only a freak in the association of ideas that always makes certain Indian languages set your fancy wandering among wind-swept pines and ” the voice of many waters ” ?

But there are so many things to see! The corridors seem unending they are so long, so many ; weather-beaten grey outside, solid through and through, as if they had grown, rough-hewn, from the rock of Quebec, and had been hand chiselled afterwards, just to humanize them. Every window gives a glimpse of the golden-tinged block tin roofs, with a steep pitch and studded with little pointed windows. The stairways are innumerable. One is called after St. Augustine—a great hero in all convents—and on the landing is a statue of St. Joseph, which was placed there in commemoration at the jubilee of 1689. The Blessed Virgin Mary, of course, watches over the Community Hall, in her quality of Perpetual Superior. A bell is ringing-it is the same one that is rung at four o’clock every morning of the year. You confess that the last time you heard it at that hour you were coming home from a dance. ” What different worlds there are in this one,” says the nun beside you ; and then adds quickly, “but innocent pleasures are very good for refreshing the mind—we take a great deal of pleasure in our garden.” Another nun, with a turn for ornithology, regrets that as the town spreads further and further, all round the convent, the birds get fewer and fewer. ” They would come back if they could : this is their sanctuary.”

These things excite your own interest. But what interests the nuns most of all ? Probably the Chapel of the Saints. A very ancient and highly venerated statue of Our Lady of Great Power stands benignant in the centre of the altar. The whole breadth of the wall on either side is covered with pictures and relics. In every other niche, too there are relics in pious plenty. Some of them were added during the lifetime of La Mère Marie, like those of the martyrs, Justus, Modestus and Felix, which her son, Dom Claude Martin, sent out in 1662. An Ursuline of Metz sent out a relic of St. Ursula herself. All that is mortal of St. Clement is here, by permission of Pope Innocent XI. In 1674 the collection was already so rich that it was decided to build a special chapel in its honour. Since then it-has increased enormously in value to the devotee. Here are the trophies of the Holy War, of the war from which there is no discharge but death, the war against the Powers of Darkness and the principalities of this wicked world : relics of Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits who so often befriended the Ursulines ; of the “most lovable” Saint Francis de Sales ; of the great St. Augustine ; of the foundress of the Ursulines, St. Angela de Merici ; relics of all ages and all countries, from the first century to the “twentieth and from Canada to China ; and, shedding a diviner virtue on them all, genuine particles of the Cross of Christ and of His Crown of Thorns.

Will objects connected with Marie de l’Incarnation soon be numbered with relics of the saints ? You cannot help hoping that they will, so eager are her followers in this just cause. Her tomb is already a shrine for nuns and pupils. . . . But here is something different, something to bring you back to secular affairs, and waken memories of the heroes of world-history. It is the skull of Mont-calm, a gruesome relic of that vivid personality. The chaplain keeps it in the same room as Father Resche used during Wolfe’s siege of Quebec. A curious link between a changeful past and present was supplied by the life of Father Daulé, another chaplain, who was born at the end of the Seven Years’ War and died as France and England were about to send an allied army to the Crimea. You will find a deeper and less mortuary interest in the grave than in the skull. La Guerre est le Tombeau des Montcalm. At Bougainville’s request the French Academy had composed a Latin inscription for a memorial tablet shortly after Montcalm’s death and Pitt had willingly given permission to have it sent out to Quebec and erected there. But many delays occurred ; and the present tablet was only unveiled on the hundredth anniversary of the burial, at a service held with all the magnificent rites of the Church which the hero loved so well. The elaborate inscription recites Montcalm’s titles to remembrance at full length. But it is little more than a good official document. Lord Aylmer, a British Governor-General, inscribed on the grave a terser tribute, from one soldier to another’s fame.

No other spot of equal size in the whole New World touches the heart of universal history so nearly as this old chapel. It is just beyond the cloisters : you remember how the nuns responded from behind the screen of their own chapel at the funeral of Montcalm. Enter alone, with the essential genius loci—half sacred and half secular—full upon you. Three stone walls are your house of defence against an intrusive world. The fourth is as physically firm as the rest ; but, by every appeal of altar, arch, pillar and aspiring height, it lifts you above all mere mortality and the flux of living pettiness. Look round you now. The sacred pictures glow with the inspiration of self-sacrifice in the cause of God. Some are themselves the tokens of daring devotion, having been saved from the fury of the French Revolution by a former chaplain at the risk of his life. A jewelled corona hangs from the ceiling by long silver chains. Within it burns a perpetual ex voto flame, to remind all time how human love and heavenly were blent there long ago, in the parted lives of Marie Madeleine de Repentigny and her dead affianced hero. And, facing each other from the two side walls, not forty feet asunder, are the grave of Montcalm and the pulpit from which Wolfe’s funeral sermon was delivered. This consecration of an entente cordiale d’honneur unique in history is surely the fit reward of those two commanders whose whole careers were a dedication to their respective countries’ service.

MORTEM VIRTUS COMMUNEM FAMAM HISTORIA MONUMENTUM POSTERITAS. DEDIT

“Quebec” is the ancient Indian name for the “Narrows” of the St. Lawrence, that mightiest of rivers, which has been the highway of empire since Canadian history began. And at these “Narrows” the Old World and the New, the past, the present and the future, still meet and intermingle as they never have and never do elsewhere. A half-mile from the convent the full flood tide of immigration is surging inland to the future home of a great nation now in the strenuous making. But no new-comer to this harbour of a hundred fleets can fail to notice the sheer, grey Citadel, crowning the seaward summit of those Heights of Abraham whose moving story has so long been a part of universal fame. Nor can anyone see this walled city, let the eye dwell on Nature’s exceeding strength and beauty within the vast mountain ring of the Laurentians, know these for the eldest of the everlasting hills, and then not feel how the most modern self transcends its wonted boundaries of time through all its endless kinship with the immemorial past and illimitable future.

Re-enter now the high-throned Upper Town, which is girt like a giant armed. Seek its heart once more. The sacred solitude does not chill you now, as it did when you came here first, out of mere bustling curiosity. Your feet no longer seem muffled in the dust of death. Greatness no longer seems departed ; but omnipresent, immortally alive. For here, in this veteran chapel, which has braved so many dread ordeals with the heroic Ursulines, the twin renown of Wolfe and Montcalm becomes a shrine of memory, where the pilgrims of all chivalry can find inspiration for the exalting service of every age.

One step beyond, within the cloisters, a living link brings this Valhallan past almost as close in the body as you have just felt it in the spirit. Here is an aged nun who perfectly remembers the tales of former days, told her so often by La Mère de St. Ignace, who saw Montcalm’s shattered corpse lowered into the grave after the Battle of the Plains. While Mère St. Ignace herself heard the still older tales of Geneviève de Boucherville, who saw the perpetual Lamp of Repentigny first lighted more than two hundred years ago, and whose father remembered the time of Champlain, whose tercentenary of the foundation of Quebec is being celebrated in this present year of grace. The combined ages of these four human links already exceed three hundred and seventy years. Long may this mighty span continue to grow with the life of the survivor !

A few steps more, and you are again in the historic garden, with its intimate memories of La Mère Marie. Here, between her intercessions to the King of Kings, she formed the statesmanlike resolve to persuade Canadians that, if they would be steadfast through the appalling devastation of famine, war and earthquake, they could make Canada the Land of Promise for countless generations. And here the nuns still come to reinvigorate mind and body ; and for the solace of the soul. Here is a haunt of ancient peace, in which to ponder great, still books of meditation. Here is the old French cross, upheld by a pedestal made from the original ash-tree, beneath whose shade La Mere Marie taught and exhorted her faithful converts. Near by is the corner of wild garden, as wild to-day as when the little Indian feet brushed so deftly through its springing flowers, never treading one down because she loved them all to grow there as God Himself had planted them. And here, where the very ground seems native to the Golden Age, the nun who passes by in venerative mood might well apostrophize the first great Ursuline of Canada in words addressed to another spirit of the same deep constancy and calm :

Thy soul within such silent pomp did’st keep, As if humanity were lull’d asleep, So gentle was thy pilgrimage beneath, Time’s unheard feet scarce make less noise, Or the soft journey which a planet goes: Life seem’d all calm as its last breath.

A still tranquillity so hush’d thy breast, As if some Halcyon were its guest, And there had built her nest : It hardly now enjoys a greater rest.

But the garden wakens deeper memories than these. Are not its walls the harp whose unseen, æolian strings have echoed to the voice of cloister melody from morn till eve, year after year, and in five years of jubilee ? At dawn the Godward day begins:

Ad Te de lute vigiles

During more secular hours there are the busy hum of school and rippling treble of an interlude of play. But, where all is done ad majorern Dei gratiam, even these sounds become attunable to the dominant strain of a glad Te Deum or the full self-surrender of a suit preferred before the Throne of Grace :

O Cor amoris victima.

At dusk the whole Sisterhood commits soul and body to Heavenly safe-keeping for the night :

In manus tuas, Domine.

And is not all this but one accordant note in the full chorus of praise addressed by a single Church in a single tongue to the one true God—a chorus of praise unwearied for nineteen Christian centuries, and unwearied still, as, with the sun, it passes from choir to choir unceasingly, among the Catholic faithful the whole world round ?

And even when her Chapel is dim and silent, and the midnight garden is only a hushed seclusion at her feet, the watching Ursuline is brought home to the Divine Infinitudes by her very Convent. Here, from her roof-side window, again within the stupendous colosseum built by Titanic Nature round the arena of Quebec, she finds all that Earth can show her of Eternity :—the home of a vanished past, lost to all record or tradition ; the home, too, of deeds to stir the hearts of men while history remains the scene now of quickening life along the great ship-bearing River, in the busy streets, and among the girlhood at school beside her : and then the hills, the old, the everlasting hills ; and the primordial tides, throbbing so far inland with the full pulse of the Atlantic ; the wide, wide sky; the universe of stars; the view of all immensity.