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On the trail of the saints

On this, the final long weekend of summer, follow the saints and the saintly through the Townships, from the abbey of St. Benoît du Lac overlooking Lake Memphrémagog to the town of St. François-Xavier de Brompton near Sherbrooke

By Helga Loverseed

A while back, the holiday of St. Jean Baptiste got me thinking about its origins. We claim that day off as a quintessentially Quebec celebration, but, in fact, several other countries honour John the Baptist. In Norway, for example, where I spent my childhood summers, they commemorate St. Hans (short for Johannes, i.e. John and hence Jean) with a midsummer night’s bash featuring bonfires, sing-alongs, eating, drinking, dancing and an accordion or two to help the party along.

Our holiday actually goes back much farther than Christianity. It dates to a time when the pagans, glad to be free of the long, dark nights of winter, celebrated the summer solstice. By the time the 17th century rolled around, it had evolved into a celebration of St. John the Baptist, and it was brought to Quebec by Roman Catholic settlers from France, who were pretty keen on saints.

Saints and spiritual references still abound in Quebec culture, and nowhere is this more evident than in our place names. In the Eastern Townships alone, about 30 villages and towns are either named for real or imagined saints (villages were often named after local priests or respected worthies who helped to build the community) or have some kind of religious moniker – from Ste. Catherine de Hatley (named after St. Catherine of Sienna, a 14th-century mystic) to Notre Dame des Bois, a picturesque hamlet at the foot of Mont Megantic.

Searching for saints might be a fun way to explore the countryside. My meanderings along the Townships’ backroads didn’t turn up any genuine holy characters (with the exception, perhaps, of the monks who live in the abbey of St. Benoît du Lac), but I did find reminders of a more sacred era – a statuary of the holy family, chapels, old wooden churches and wayside crosses embellished with pierced hearts – as well as some “heavenly” views.

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