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Light from the Cross on Mount Royal

We have been reminded by “L’Église catholique à Montréal” that the cross on Mount Royal, a Montreal landmark, celebrates its centenary in 2024. Benoît-Marc Boyer writes, “Its tradition dates back to the founding of Ville-Marie in the days of New France. In 1642, Jeanne Mance, Paul de Chomedey … and a few others created a city of faith, peace and mutual aid. As early as the first winter, when a threatening ice-jam was averted, people planted a cross on Mount Royal as a sign of thanksgiving. This was on January 6, 1643.”[1]

Marguerite Bourgeoys had not yet reached Montreal when the first cross was raised on Mount Royal: “I only arrived in Montreal thirteen years later,” she writes. However, her writings contain a vivid description of the event in the context of her account of her own re-erection of the cross shortly after her arrival. “The first year they were in Montreal, they made a cross which M. de Maisonneuve carried up the mountain – no light burden up a path as steep as it was. The others carried the pieces of wood for the pedestal… All this was done with great fervour.” An altar was built on the site, Marguerite tells us, and this became a place where the first Montrealers could go to pray for the realization of the purpose for which Ville-Marie had been founded, the transmission of the Christian faith to the First Nations of New France. In her account one can almost hear the voices of Jeanne Mance and Maisonneuve as they share their memories with her around the fire some evening soon after her arrival in Ville-Marie: Maisonneuve recalling that the cross was heavy and the way up the mountain steep and rough, Jeanne Mance recalling, perhaps with a smile, that she once had to prompt the boy who served the Mass because he did not know the responses. The note of affectionate remembrance and a touch of humour certainly underlies this passage.

“None of these people ever saw the result of their prayers,” Marguerite writes, probably thinking primarily of Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance. Her next words express her belief that those prayers had not been in vain. They also offer a clue to where that first cross was located: this was the first place that First Nations people came to be instructed in the faith “even the girls, by the sisters of the Congregation.” (WMB, 19, EMB, 37) She is referring to the Mountain Mission of which the two south towers still stand on Sherbrooke Street West near Atwater Avenue.

Marguerite does not say when it was that Maisonneuve first told her about the erection of the first cross: it may even have been on the ship on her way over from France. She tells us, “After my arrival, M. de Maisonneuve sent thirty men to keep the promise he had made to take me up the mountain.” Disappointment awaited them, for they found that the cross had been removed by hostile Indigenous people. She continues, “People were urged to build a new one there and I was assigned to do this. I took Minime [Gilbert Barbier] and several other men and we were there for three consecutive days. The cross was erected and there were stakes to enclose it.” (WMB 19-20, EMB, 38)

During those three days Marguerite had a personal experience so important to her that it is mentioned in key texts in four other places in her writings, a moment that she understood as a confirmation of her vocation to Montreal. It was, like the “touch” of grace at the rosary procession in 1640, one of the great mystical experiences of her life. Among the debris left after the removal of that first cross on Mount Royal she found an artifact that must have been placed there when it was erected and had somehow survived the weather and depredations of the intervening decade. This was “the picture that M. de Maisonneuve’s sister, a religious of the Congregation of Troyes [gave him] him before his departure; it was in poor condition. Written in gold letters around the picture were the words: ‘Holy Mother of God, pure Virgin with a royal heart, keep us a place in your Montreal.’ And that very year, I was deeply moved at the sight of the statue above the portal of Notre Dame in Troyes during the Rosary procession.” At that moment, Marguerite recognized that her call in 1640 was a call that would bring her to Montreal where, already, from the very beginning, a place was being kept for her, truly a moment of light from the cross on Mount Royal. For Marguerite, this was a moment truly illumined by the cross on Mount Royal.