Having some time to spare Friday before my flight home, I spent most of it visiting three of Montreal's notable churches. I'm not a churchgoer myself, but I find that sites for worship are usually worth seeing, sometimes inspiring. That doesn't leave much time for souvenir shopping, of course. Guess whether I care.
One of the city's most celebrated shrines, Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, happens to be across the street from the hotel I stayed at. The cathedral was designed as a sort of scale model of St. Peter's in Rome, and even has the same kind of high-Baroque canopy over the main altar. (Oddly, it's laid out on a north-south axis, rather than the traditional east-west.) I stopped by at about 10 a.m.; there were three or four worshipers in the pews; otherwise I had the place to myself.
Replica or not, the Mary Queen of the World is large and impressive. Also a little stern: all that marble suggests the no-nonsense God of the earlier generation of Roman Catholics who had the place designed.
Faded wall paintings in the transepts depict incidents in the Catholic Church's history in Quebec. One politically incorrect mural is of two martyred missionaries being burned at the stake by Huron Indians. Now that we know the Native Americans were all Boy Scouts oppressed by the savage whites, it's surprising the diocese hierarchy hasn't ordered it whitewashed. Maybe they've forgotten it's there.
I walked to Vieux Montréal, the oldest part of the city, and revisited the 19th century Notre Dame Basilica. It's one of the two loveliest Gothic Revival churches known to me. (The other is Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.) Notre Dame's exquisite proportions, heavenly blue apse, and medieval-style detailing can't help lift flagging spirits and overcompensate for tired feet.
Only thing was -- last time I went there, maybe a dozen years ago, I just entered and drank it all in amid near-silence. This time, there was a $5 admission charge, posters pitching regularly scheduled sound-and-light shows inside, and a dozen tour groups being lectured on what they should point their cameras at.
The upkeep on these historic buildings must be costly. Still it saddens me when spaces formerly addressed to God are turned into tourist catchment areas. But French Canada seems no different from Europe in its modern skepticism and indifference to religion.
Back to downtown. St. George's Anglican Church, also Gothic revival of approximately the same period as Notre Dame, is now surrounded by our new high-rise temples housing financial institutions and the law firms that buttress them. It's currently surrounded by fencing and hemmed in by scaffolding, undergoing what is probably a much-needed renovation. At least it isn't being torn down, like the many similar churches that a plaque informed me had once dominated the area.
Although the main entrance was blocked by the fence, a sign directed me around to the back. I was admitted by a woman working in the church office. The interior is somber, but its dark old woodwork hints at time-defying continuity. Not surprisingly, the style is English Victorian (the Anglican church is the New World offshoot of the Church of England). Its current congregation has probably signed on to the social reform/aid to the Third World gospel, but as long as its interior is left intact, "the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection" will cling to its surfaces.
When I flew home that night, the air was marvelously clear. As we climbed to cruising altitude, the light-map of Montreal receded; soon we were over the Adirondacks, invisible in the darkness, with only a few scattered drops of illumination below signifying small towns. After a while, the great urban patches of the East Coast appeared. From 32,000 feet I observed the white and amber electrical embroidery, sectioned by veins of red tail lights. Soon it was almost like one continuous city, broken only by rivers and lakes, jigsaw-puzzle pieces of night under the wing, matching the night above.