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Early Years in Canada
After landing in Halifax, we moved to Montreal where my father found work with a sugar refinery. We lived in a rooming house in downtown Montreal and at first, I went to French kindergarten, where I learned to speak French. It was cold and snowy. We went sledding in Percy Walker Park that at the time seemed huge. My toes froze in leather boots and I had problems keeping the red woolen tights in place. Years later I went to see the park again. It was a tiny half-block of hillside deep in the city.
My father then found work with a tea company where they recognized his engineering training and I attended the Trafalgar School for Girls in Montreal. It was an Anglican school for girls, in the best traditions of British private schools. We wore uniforms, said morning prayers and sang Anglican hymns. My favorite was Holy, Holy, Holy usually sung to the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers, a tune the student piano player knew how to play.
We went to performances of the Montreal Symphony and we learned to make sculptures out of clay. We climbed ropes in gym class and walked two-by-two in order of size, smallest to tallest, into the gym each morning for prayers. When I was six, my mother decided I should become a ballerina and twice a week I took ballet classes. Later she told me she had wanted to become a ballet dancer had not been very good at it so I was to be the dancer in the family. At first my mother took ballet classes at the same studio but then gave up to spend her time sewing costumes, which, now that I think about it, was surprising since sewing had never been her hobby in her youth. But she was always very good at whatever she decided to do, which was not true in my case because I was not good at ballet. Anyway, she continued to aggressively promote my career with the ballet mistresses, despite the fact that I was short-sighted, tended to be plump, had weak ankles and could never remember the steps.
By the time I was about six years old, we had moved to the fourth floor of an apartment building in Montreal. My father planted morning glories in boxes on the balcony leading to the iron fire escape and mother started a garden in dirt plot a block away. We were there when my father found my grandmother who had survived in a deportation camp.
The arrival of my grandmother changed my world. Suddenly she was teaching me the catechism and preparing me for my First Communion. My grandmother spoke English beautifully and had been trained as opera singer, although she was never allowed to pursue any type of career. She was the most elegant woman I ever met. She sat bolt upright and talked about her days in her youth when there were balls and elegant gatherings. After her “coming out” ball, she said, “There was one carriage for me and one carriage for all the flowers I had been given.”
I believe I took my First Communion at Saint Kevin's Catholic Church up the street from our apartment building. Since then, I have loved the smell of incense, light shining through stained-glass windows and the deep harmonies of the pipe organ.
My brother, Andy, was born while we there and then we were four. My mother was entranced with her bouncing baby boy and we moved to a larger apartment in the Town of Mount Royal, a well-to-do suburb of Montreal. I was taken out of the Trafalgar School for Girls and sent to the local public school. Now, I was in a totally new environment and I did not understand it at all. My daydream life took over. I retreated to it and into every book I could find. I read voraciously.
My father then decided we would no longer be Roman Catholics so we joined the Anglican Church. I got the impression he felt the local priest was meddling in his family life; also, in Québec if you were Catholic, you went to a Catholic school and my father thought the Protestant school system was better. He insisted that we speak English at all times, rather than French or Polish, because, he said, the continent is English-speaking and we would be better off speaking English. I also thought he felt he would have a better chance for advancement as an engineer at the Brooke Bonds Tea Company where he had found work and where the British-based management was all Anglican.
My mother took us to the Church of St John the Evangelist in Montreal, now the only Anglican church in Montreal to practice the High Church Solemn High Mass, very close to the Roman Catholic liturgy but spoken in English. For the first time I understood the words -- back then masses in the Catholic churches were still recited in Latin. My mother signed me up as a Canadian Girl Guide and I fell in love with the woods, pitching tents and camping.
We moved to our first house, really a cabin, in St. Eustache Sur Le Lac, later called Two Mountains or Deux Montagnes, Québec when I was 12 so I went to Lake of Two Mountains High School. My sister, Veronica, was born soon after the move. St. Eustache and St. Eustache Sur Le Lac were on the St. Lawrence River, across from the island of Montreal.
I thought a great deal about religion as puberty loomed and I had a hard time reconciling the idea of a universal force and all the differences I saw between people. I was an avid reader of Amazing Stories and other science fiction magazines so I coupled my conceptualizations with newly acquired scientific concepts. Then I thought of the prism. I saw God as a white light filtered through the individual prisms of each person. I thought that the things we did could block parts of the color spectrum causing us to lose our sense of the white light.
In Two Mountains, my mother took us to All Saints Anglican Church up our street. She taught Sunday School and made friends with the priest and his wife. On Christmas Eve, we celebrated according to the Polish, and Catholic, tradition of exchanging presents and eating fish. We went to Midnight Mass at the Anglican Church while my father did dishes. On Christmas Day we ate turkey and plum pudding, British style.
Shrines, Saints and Summer
The fields around St. Eustache were narrow strips of farmland, each strip fronting the river. Over decades, each time a farmer died he divided the land between his surviving sons with each farm having access to the water. The land was bountiful and the summers short and hot. Starting in July, roadside stands were loaded with lush tomatoes, fat corn, melons, squash peas, beans and lettuce. Then, at end of the September the weather snapped cold and by the end of October the river began to freeze. The roadside stands closed, not to reopen until March and the marketing of maple syrup, maple sugar and maple toffee, created during “sugaring-off” parties where farmers gathered the sap, boiled it and poured it onto the snow where youngsters burned their fingers as they pulled it into toffee.
Between June and September I wrote my bicycle up dirt roads through fields and lush birch woods . Later, my friends and I would ski over the hard-frozen snow to a slope up the railway tracks and, although expressly forbidden to do so, skated on the river until it, too, was covered with snow.
The woods and many paths were marked by outdoor shrines, often holding a plastic or wood sculptures of the Madonna or Saint Francis. I saw flowers left on the small ledges before the statues but I never saw anyone stopping at them. They too, would be covered with snow when the season changed but they survived as testaments to faith in the narrow farmlands.
My closest friend was the daughter of a family who had a summer cottage by the beach where we baked, swam and splashed to the raft all summer long. Wealthy French families had summer homes along the lake’s edge. They were boarded up and shut down once the snows fell and we all went back to our respective schools, Protestant and Catholic. While my parents did not seem to approve of the people I met at school, they encouraged me to play with the children of the wealthy French families. I don’t think they realized that that us “Anglaise” were given very little respect by the established French families and I don't think they understood the prejudice that came with the differences. Nobody seemed to mind summer liaisons because, come September, we all went back to our respective schools not to see each other until the lake warmed up in early June.
My friend and I spent our early teens swimming, sunning and talking all summer long. She was full of stories told her by the nuns at her school and who were, according to her, all martyrs. By the time we were 16, we played tennis at the Deux Montagnes tennis club and went to parties on estates hugging the water where we sat around bonfires watching fireflies. One summer she was devastated because her only brother, who was a student at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in Montreal had decided to a white monk. (I believe this order was also known as the White Robed Monks of St. Benedict.) She said he was headed to Africa and the life of service. She said this choice made her father very sad because her brother was the last in the family line. All the same, they all had to do God's will she said. In this case, God's will did intervene because her brother became ill while training in the monastery. He gave up his vocation for health reasons and I would like to believe he would later become a successful businessman and father. I always wondered what happened to Mariette and her brother but my path took me far away from that life and when I looked back, they had vanished in the sandstorm of time.
My father had a sailboat he kept docked at the yacht club in Oka, just up the highway. During the growing season, we could see Trappist monks tending their fields below the red brick monastery in Oka. They made and sold jams and jellies and were known for their Oka cheese which was savory and extremely odiferous. Rumor had it that a U.S. company wanted to market the monks’ Oka cheese, but could not get the monks to change their ways to confirm to current safety measures. It tasted delicious, but when packed, it made everything around it smell of dirty socks.
But those summers back then were lit with fireflies dancing in bonfire smoke at night, marshmallows and happy summer friends who spoke only French and were a world apart from the complex and demanding world the rest of they year between September and June when the river froze and the little beach lay under mountains of ice and snow. I was still struggling with ballet and was a member of the Junior Montreal Ballet Company. I was terrible on pointe and suspect I had been selected because my indomitable mother insisted and wrote a script for the company choreographer. I was best at parts that did not require too much actual ballet dancing and were called "character" dances.
Historical note: The Battle of Saint Eustache...
During the 1950s, the town of St. Eustache was still the site of a convent for Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, started in 1900. Today, the convent is the town hall and the sisters have moved to Manitoba.
. St. Eustache still features an historic church, its soot marks repainted with black paint each year. In 1837, French Canadian Patriotes, including Etienne Chartier, the local priest and a militant Patriote, jumped to their deaths from the church windows when the British crossed the ice, attacked the town and set fire to the building. The Battle of Saint-Eustache, fought on December 14, 1837, was a decisive battle in the Lower Canada Rebellion in which British forces defeated the principal remaining Patriotes camp at Saint-Eustache. After the victory at Saint-Charles, the British were in a position to prepare attacks on Patriote camps to the north, including those atSaint-Benoît and Saint-Eustache
Despite her worldly memories, however, she took the catechism very seriously.
We reviewed the sins and I remember her telling me that “the worst sins of all
are those of the mind.” I have since spent almost 70 years thinking about
what that meant. Then the day came when I sat in a pew by myself wearing a
white dress and a white veil behind a row of similarly dressed girls and boys in
dark suits who were flanked on either side by nuns. I liked the way the nuns
looked. They seemed like the definition of holy; I was not sure they had feet under the robes. In my childhood memories, nuns are everywhere, great flapping visions of sanctity, shiny faces in funnels of massive white wimples,
black robes fluttering in the wind against the snow and in the bright sunshine.
From their vast Quebec holdings, the Sulpician Order offered the Trappists a parcel of land at their property on the Lake of Two Mountains at Oka, Quebec. (Situated northwest of Montreal in the region of Deux-Montagnes). Naming the property La Trappe after Soligny-la-Trappe in France where the Order had been founded in 1662, the monks established the monastery. Within a few years, through an affiliation with the Université de Montréal, the monastery created an agricultural school under the name of Oka Agricultural Institute, and affiliated with the Université de Montréal. Along with this agricultural school, the Abbey supported itself by producing products such as Oka cheese and Port-Salut cheese.Type your paragraph here.
The Abbey of Notre-Dame du Lac
The Abbey of Notre-Dame du Lac (fr. Abbaye Notre-Dame du Lac),
known as the Oka Abbey (fr. Abbaye Cistercienne d'Oka), was a Trappist Cistercian monastery located in Oka, Quebec. The main monastery building is of grey stone and is accompanied by a dozen outbuildings, all of which are situated on a 270 hectare property.
Following the seizure of the Cistercian Order's Abbaye de Bellefontaine in Bégrolles-en-Mauges, Maine-et-Loire, France by the army of the French Third Republic, in November, 1880, the Trappists members of the Order living at the Abbaye were expelled from the country. After receiving an invitation by Father Victor Rousselot of the Grand Seminary of the Sulpician Order in Montreal, Canada, eight Trappists' Monks emigrated to Quebec in April 1881 to establish a new foundation.
The British force, led by John Colborne, numbered 1,280 regular soldiers from the 1st and 32nd Regiments of Foot
and reinforced by the newly arrived 83rd Regiment of Foot, supported by artillery and 220 Loyalist volunteers. The Patriote organization was primitive; many members did not even have firearms. They thought they could get 800 combatants, but eventually fielded only 200 men, led by Jean-Olivier Chénier and Amury Girod. They lay barricaded in the convent, the church, the rectory and the manor in the center of the village.
At the battle site, Colborne placed his troops around the village and had his soldiers advance systematically to tighten the vice on the defenders. Towards noon, he ordered the artillery to open fire on the center of the village and then to advance up the main street and break down the doors of the church, where many Patriotes had taken refuge. Two companies of the 1st Regiment of Foot were able to take the rectory nearby, and they set it on fire so that the smoke would make it difficult for those defending the church to see. The grenadiers of the 1st Regiment of Foot then took the manor and set it on fire as well. They were then able to enter the church through the vestry, which they also torched prior to withdrawing under the fire of the Patriotes in the balcony. Caught in the burning church, the Patriotes tried to get out by jumping from the windows, where Jean-Olivier Chénier finally attempted an escape. However, he was swiftly killed. At this point the British troops made a final assault in a merciless struggle. This disastrous battle for the Patriotes lasted at least 4 hours; 70 Patriotes were killed, against only three British soldiers.
In the days that followed, soldiers and volunteers terrorized the county of Deux-Montagnes. Saint-Eustache and Saint-Benoît were looted and burned. In Saint-Joachim, Sainte-Scholastique and Sainte-Thérèse, the army burned the houses of the rebellion's leaders.