When walking in the Quebec rural region, it won’t be long before you become aware of wayside crosses, or calvaires. These crosses are so much part of the landscape that have they been recognized as important items of the patrimoine, or national heritage.
There are about 3,000 croix de chemin (wayside crosses) along the byways of rural Quebec. All the crosses have a very precise significance. Sometimes religious, many crosses were planted as an act of devotion. The crosses provide travellers and locals with a reminder of their faith. The crosses are also served as a place to pray.
According to the Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America, the first crosses were erected by Jacques Cartier as a symbol of territorial appropriation. Later,the pioneers used them to mark the founding of a village and French Canadianpeasant farmers (then known as habitants) did the same upon staking their land claims. All sorts of reasons have led French Canadians to put up wayside crosses: farmers set them up close to their fields for divine protection; parish priests erected them to indicatethe site of a future church; parishioners raised them up on the halfway pointalong a concession or range road, where they would gather for the eveningprayer. Although wayside crosses are first and foremost religious objects, over time they have taken on a more heritage-oriented significance, their distinctive outline characterizing a particularity of the Quebec countryside that has come to be associated with the faith of the French Canadian forefathers.
The crosses often tower approximately 15 feet high. They can be simply painted white or lavishly decorate. Electric lights illuminate some. They are often flanked by colorful flower gardens. If a road is rerouted or a new building obscures it, some caretakers hire construction equipment to move the cross to a more prominent location.
The crosses intentionally placed to be visible because their primary purpose is to stimulate a pensée (a short thought) about God. Most of Quebec’s wayside crosses were constructed to mark or commemorate an event, as a gathering place for families in a rang, to fulfill a vow or to secure future protection.
In the 1970s, a survey of over 2,500 crosses found that in at least 62% of cases no one knew why a cross had been erected, though it was quite recent, usually within a generation.
St. Raphael’s Ruins
The historic site of St. Raphael’s Ruins, located at 19998 Country Road 18, is just beyond the Quebec border in Williamstown, Ontario. It is interesting to note (as shown in the video above) that Roman Catholic churches are built in the shape of a cross.
In 1970 a fire destroyed St Raphael’s roof, its 1830’s tower and all of its interior decorations. Fortunately the outer walls were spared and thus its plan, its impressive scale and its fine masonry work – three physical characteristics of Macdonell’s church – remain. (source: St. Raphael’s Ruins Website)
After the church burned down, the parish decided not to rebuild it. Instead, they repurposed the stone walls and hold different cultural events in the open space. It makes for a stunning wedding venue. Check with the parish for reservations to avoid conflicts.
According to the text on the plaque displayed in front of the ruins, the church ruins recall the early history of Roman Catholicism in Upper Canada. Begun in 1815, St. Raphael’s Church originally served as the centre of the colony’s largest and most important parish, and the administrative headquarters of the first Roman Catholic bishop, Alexander Macdonell. Situated in the heart of the historic Highland settlement, the parish was the cradle of Catholicism in Ontario. The ruins left standing after the fire of 1970 serve as a testament to Bishop Macdonell’s determined efforts to forward the interests of his faith.
According to the website, throughout the early 19th century, St Raphael’s constituted the largest parish of Roman Catholics in the colony. Its significance was reflected not only in the size of the church but also in the educational buildings that were associated with it. These included a large stone presbytery which Macdonell built for his own use in 1808 and which served from 1817 as a boys’ school; a single story building which once housed the former College of Iona, a seminary established by Macdonell to train young men for the priesthood; and a school building for girls of the parish (since demolished). These were among the first Roman Catholic educational institutions in the province. Macdonell’s account book indicates that payment for the first load of cut stone was made through the building contractor and master mason, Archibald Fraser, in the spring of 1816.
The Ruins was declared a National Historic Site in 1999.
In 1994 an independent body of local Glengarrians, The Friends of the Ruins St. Raphael’s Inc; was formed as a non-profit body dedicated solely to raising funds to stabilize the walls of the Ruins in order that they may be a permanent monument to the people of one of the founding settlements of the Canadian nation.
The stabilization goal has been reached.
Excerpts from Historic sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Agenda Paper 1996-1 written by Jacqueline Hucker, Historical Services Branch