Church on a Cliff
As I stood on the Gaspé Peninsula, 17 hours by train from Montreal in Quebec, it seemed like I was on the edge of the earth. I was here to visit my friend Wendy, an Anglican priest for eight rural parishes in Gaspé. Wendy was a couple of decades older than me. She had had a career before the priesthood, a kid, a life. After seminary, she tried to become a priest in Toronto, but it turned into a bureaucratic mess, and eventually she went looking at other places. Few were as far afield as the Gaspé.
Near the town of Percé, there is a section of the rock cliff that they called Land’s End, a better name for this piece of the earth than for almost any other. The peninsula is surrounded by the Atlantic. It is intersected by the St. Lawrence, and three other, smaller and less storied rivers. The combination of fresh and salt water creates salt marshes near the edge of the ocean, and draws settlers. There have been white people here for almost 500 years, since Cartier in 1532. There have also been Micmac for a century or two before that, maybe more. Then, the fishing was good.
The fishing in Gaspé is less good these days, but there are still boats out there, catching river salmon and ocean lobster. It’s not only the fishing; much of the economy of the area is slowly grinding downward. There was a mine in Murdochville, in the center of the Gaspé region, as far from the ocean as you can get in Gaspé. It was shut down in the mid 1960s. After losing most of their employers, seven surrounding communities voted to abandon their towns and asked the provincial government to resettle them.There is still a forestry program at the local community college, and the trees are still there, but lumber is not as large of an industry as it used to be. There is tourism, of course–Gaspé is one of the largest natural harbors in the world, and there are cruise ships in for the first time this year. But there is some discussion that the French-speaking nature of the place might be off-putting to the mostly English-speaking tourists. A few years ago, a factory was set up to make the blades for industrial, wind-farm-style mills, but it’s still a relatively small site.
Wendy’s life before Gaspé was cosmopolitan. She went to St. Mary Magdalene, a church known for its ritual choir and use of incense, and the fact that a few governors general would show up for holidays. When we lived in Toronto together, studying for our theology degrees, we ate at the members lounge of the Art Gallery of Ontario. She went to the opera and the ballet. She was active in her neighborhood historical society. She’d have a martini at five, just after evening prayer. Seeing her in such a remote place was a delight and a curiosity.
There were elements of urbanity that never quite disappeared during my time in the cluster of towns that make up the peninsula: we had martinis at five (well, I had gin and tonic); she said evening prayer; we listened to jazz on CBC. But the psychic space of Gaspé was too complicated, had too much history to fully and completely disappear. You could see it in the layout of Wendy’s rectory: four bedrooms, built just after the war, with a study on the first floor. The priest used to have children; the priesthood hadn’t always been a second life.
Wendy was not an isolate, she did not live alone in the rectory, wandering around for no purpose. She was absorbed into the community, and the community allowed her a special place. There is something necessary to her work. You could see it in the events that we went to: she had 30 funerals that summer. That seems enough to say that the town was dying, literally. Many of those thirty families were returning bodies to the land that had birthed them.
There were also three weddings. Two were young couples, one was someone in their fifties. The older couple had been together for almost a decade, both divorced, and seeking a place to publicly declare their devotion to each other. Anglicanism provided that space. We drove up to the church near Percé, listening to old-school country music, and making slightly awkward small talk.
The third wedding couple was the most interesting. The bride was the daughter of Wendy’s closest friend in Gaspé. The church was in a national park, which had been developed around the same time as the Murdochville mine had been closed. I was told about how the government had bought these houses, had forced people out to make this park. The church was in a meadow, in the middle of a glade of pines. Bright yellow, and clapboard, it was the same style as the other churches I saw on that trip. I went through the graveyard, before the service—saw the young deaths of the fishermen who came from Jersey and Guernsey. The service itself was small, tight, intimate, and in both French and English.
At the reception afterwards, I sat at the table where I didn’t speak the language, and they didn’t speak the language. We tried to work out a mutual interest. Eventually, the person to the left of me started talking about how there was a librarian who was in charge of ordering books for the entire regional Gaspé system. She said that there used to be up to 60 per cent English speakers in places like Douglastown, and now there were not enough speakers to maintain a regular purchase order for books and other media—less than 12 per cent.
There were churches that had 50 people, and churches that had 20, and there was conversation about how to maintain services, because no matter how good Wendy is at helping members of those churches find their own vision, she needs to deliver the Eucharist, she needs to marry and bury. The undercurrent to this conversation was the shutting down of parishes. It is expensive to keep the lights on, to do the basic repairs, to clean these churches, which are often between 100 and 150 years old. So there is discussion of folding one parish into another. Sometimes, the role is not only funerals for people living there, or coming home, but funerals for institutions as well. Thinking about the history of that place—the shutting down of towns near Murdochville, the bitterness about that national park—I realize that having another institution, someone from out east, or Quebec City or Montreal, must feel painful. Even more so if one thinks about how much life is left in Gaspé.
Quebec’s young people are becoming more secular. If they are coming back to Gaspé, they sometimes go to church for the events of their lives—there are a couple of baptisms this fall, but they do not make a weekly pattern of churchgoing. There needs to be someone there, to bless babies, to marry and bury. Wendy has a friend who does some services in the United Church, some in the Anglican, and was hired to do chaplain work in a hospital. There still needs to be someone to do that work as well. Lastly, Wendy is a good priest, and the work she does is exquisite. It would make the world less beautiful to have her not do this work.
The work in Gaspé then, is work of great tension, and it seems to me like a metaphor for the situation of Christendom as a whole. To survive, the church must on some level do missionary work, bringing in people who might not feel called to that life, even if they rely on the church to officiate rites of passage. But how would the church convince them to make a life in it? Can this church be comfortable being the “faithful remnant,” in the words of conservative Roman Catholics, in their discussion of the European church? What would that faithful remnant look like, at the edges of the earth, in rural Quebec?
Gaspé seems to be untenable—a place that is dying but still very much alive, broken but with a rippling vitality. The delight of spending time in these rural churches is the acknowledgement that human life is both timeless and shifting. The ocean swallows the land, and the land stands stalwart against the ocean, and there is this marsh between them, a marsh that someone has built a church on, even if the building seems against the parable of Christ, in Matthew: “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” The house has been built, the house will be rebuilt, and the house will be maintained. This does not seem to me foolish, but a necessity built on love.
Anthony Easton is a writer, artist, and curator from Toronto, Ontario. He is interested in issues of popular culture, American faith, earnestness and the intersections between secular and social life.