Montreal’s Oldest Church: Our Lady of Good Help (Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours)

As a Catholic, there’s something comforting about facing the windswept contours of Canada’s St. Lawrence River, in all its power, and then seeing the Blessed Virgin Mary keeping watch from atop a chapel, leading us to her Son, Jesus Christ.

The chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours (Our Lady of Good Help) is Montreal’s oldest stone church, sitting for hundreds of years as a beacon of hope. It celebrates a special milestone this year…having acted as a refuge for residents, pilgrims, sailors and travelers arriving by the Seaway.

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“The chapel is celebrating its anniversary this year and it’s 250 years. Just the number 250 — it’s huge, and then people say, what? It’s been there that long? And it’s still there, it’s still there and it’s growing, it’s growing, it’s growing, and that’s a little bit different because a lot of churches are having financial difficulties.”

Carole Golding, Pastoral Coordinator, Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel

Today we’ll explore together a fascinating chapter of Catholic history in North America, and learn that key to the story of this chapel, and the Catholic community of Nouvelle France, is St. Marguerite Bourgeoys. She was the first teacher of the colony of Ville-Marie, and founder of the Congregation of Notre Dame, and who was laid to rest on the site she worked so hard to consecrate for the Lord, with help of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

“Marguerite is a perfect symbol of resilience: never give up… maybe what God didn’t allow in Troyes [France], is waiting for you in Nouvelle France. Maybe Mary is waiting for you there because no matter how hard life can get, Mary is with you and your faith will always sustain you always and it feeds you.”

Carole Golding, Pastoral Coordinator, Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel

A statue of Mary with her arms wide is on top of the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours in Montreal.
A statue of Mary, Our Lady of Good Help, wide is on top of the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours in Montreal. (Photo: Tony Ganzer)

The chapel and the big picture

The Blessed Virgin Mary looks over Montreal’s present and future, and stands as a beacon from its past…guiding us to her Son. The original chapel of Notre Dame de Bon Secours was founded by St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, building a foundation for this chapel and community that has survived war, fire, and the many difficulties of early colonial life.

This statue of the Blessed Virgin overlooks the Old Port of Montreal, where sailors and settlers would arrive after facing the grueling path to the New World.

This place represented peace. Refuge.

And it still does, in a way.

Montreal is a vibrant city, and the oldest quarter has its share of foot traffic: tourists, locals, pilgrims. The historic port, market, neighborhood, can feel quaint at times, and overwhelming at others. The chapel gives space for a quiet moment with God.

You may remember our episode from the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, the site of the only Catholic Church-approved Marian apparition in the US. That site has since been renamed the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion to reflect the place where it occurred, but it doesn’t take away I think from the original devotion to Our Lady of Good Help at that site, and the importance of the devotion here in Montreal.

To learn more about the history of this chapel, and its founder St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, I spoke with Carole Golding, the pastoral coordinator at the chapel. Carole was incredibly kind in greeting me and my family for Mass at the chapel earlier this year, and she was kind enough to walk through the history of this place and of St. Marguerite.

A large image of Mary is above the altar in Notre Dame de Bon Secours chapel
The altar at Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel in Montreal. (Photo: Tony Ganzer)

Marguerite Bourgeoys and the colony’s chapel

***Rough Transcript Follows***

Carole Golding: “Well everything goes back to Marguerite. Marguerite Bourgeoys is the founder of this chapel, she is also the founder of the Congregation of Notre Dame. Marguerite Bourgeoys arrived in Montreal which was then called Ville Marie uh in 1653 about 11 years after its foundation. She came at the request of the Maisonneuve [colonial founder] to become a teacher here for children all the sisters of the congregation are teachers and education is important to them, so she arrived in Ville Marie, but there weren’t any children yet to teach to, so she became a little bit responsible for Monsieur de Maisonneuve’s estate: taking care of the staff, helping the people that were there, so in a sense she was the first social worker in Ville-Marie also. So a couple of years went by and when she came here she found out that at Ville-Marie was by at the waterfront, as you know, still is, and they were living in a fort because there was war at that moment in our history and it was dangerous to be outside of the fort.

The Maisonneuve had an experience where one Christmas in 1652 the fort was almost flooded and they prayed to Mary. Mary was a big, big part of the Catholic faith for the French and they promised Mary should you save us from this we will plant a cross on the Mount Royal, which is our local mountain here. Of course they were saved and of course they planted the cross but said cross was damaged over the years by people because like there not necessarily somebody standing guard by the cross all the time. So when Marguerite came to Montreal, her first pilgrimage was to the cross because it was the first pilgrimage place in Ville Marie. She went there with a couple of gentlemen from the colony to repair the cross and restore it this trip gave her the idea the dream of building a pilgrimage chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary outside of the fort but in Ville Marie. So that’s where the dream came from and it was important to her to have something for Mary, specifically for her.

And we refer to Our Lady of Good Help because if we remember in history this was a little in France there was a reform of the Catholic faith and Mary took a very, very important part in this, yeah so this is a little bit like the after effects or the the waves of this that follow into time, so the devotion to Mary was very important and this why this Chapel is dedicated to Mary. It’s also when people got to Ville Marie the first thing they saw is the chapel and still see when they arrive by the water back then people were not taking a bus or their car to get here, the only way to get to Ville Marie was by the waterfront, and there’s a huge statue of Our Lady of Good Help outside and it’s Mary with her two arms open welcoming anybody who comes by. So sometimes those trips work pretty hard uh with the conditions, lack of food, too close one another, disease, so for the sailors on those boats when they saw Mary with her beautiful arms open it was like a sign of salvation for him, so Mary brings us good help, so it’s that simple of a reason. Actually the chapel today is still called the Sailor’s Chapel because of that, and that’s why we have little boats hanging around in the chapel right now there are nine boats hanging which date from the 1700s to today and they are given to us by groups and most of them have little pieces of paper, little rolls of paper inside where people indicated their thank yous to Mary or their prayers, the date and their names. So it’s part of our history.

The chapel’s purpose

Tony: That’s beautiful, you know Nouvelle France, Quebec, at that time was still very religious um and it sounds like this Chapel being created was really a hub for the faith in Nouvelle France. Can you talk about a little more about that role: you say it was kind of like a beacon for visitors coming in, to this area um do you think it was, an anchor point to use a, to use a nautical phrase, that somewhere where people could feel safe and and some relief after these long journeys?

Carole: Yeah, well I think yes the safety part, and the safety part and also like the tranquility and the peace you still feel today when you come in, it is still there, it’s like part of the atmosphere. It’s a small chapel, it’s not a huge building. And the Catholic faith was so important it’s the only reason they came to Montreal was Catholic faith. It’s called Ville Marie: you just look at the names of the streets, I’m not explaining this to children, most of our street names are named after saints, and that’s not a coincidence, and slowly people were coming in and they started with doing one mass, and then two masses a day, and then it became so big that there were masses a couple times a day here, and it was part of their daily life to be thankful to Mary, because conditions were hard. We’re so lucky today, we we live in this world where everything is easy, where going somewhere is safe. They didn’t have that but they had their faith and their prayer to hang on to something positive. At some point it slowed down a little bit as the Bon Secours area was growing, you know the market came into place and everything like that so Monsignor Bourget who was the second Bishop in Montreal uh this was around the period where people were getting typhus, he also got sick, so Monsignor Bourget prayed to Mary to get better from the typhus and he promised her three things should he survive: number one a statue a golden statue for Mary in the chapel; number two a painting uh describing the collaboration between the different uh congregations of sisters and priests that were literally taking care of the ill on the streets, you see them laying on the street and sisters taking care of them there; and he would also invite everybody to come back to the chapel as a pilgrimage because a pilgrimage– doing a pilgrimage is a step a little bit more than just attending a religious place. There’s an intent in it, there’s a feeling of going towards, so that was very positive. We all know that he survived he was better and promises were kept, and and people are still going on today to this chapel every week. The painting is beautiful, it’s in the entrance of the chapel, but if people are not curious and they don’t look up they don’t see it because it’s on the ceiling. Monsignor Bourget being with a little bit of sense of humor asked the painter to paint him into the painting so you can see on the ceiling taking care of the people that were sick. He was a a very expressive person, but that did a lot for the history of the chapel.

Life of Marguerite Bourgeoys

Tony: That’s great, I wonder if we could talk a little bit more about St. Marguerite and kind of how how was her, her identity and her interpretation of her vocation, how did that represent kind of the faith at that time, because you know to to hear that a sister would want to to go and you know venerate a cross on top of Mount Royal, that makes sense but to go farther and say we need a chapel we we really need this initiative it seems to represent almost that frontier spirit that we had at that time in history.

Carole: Exactly and if I might Marguerite was not a sister when she did that.

Tony: Ah!

Carole: Marguerite became a sister very later on in her life.

Tony: Okay, right.

Carole: Marguerite was born in Troyes, in France, and knew from a younger age that faith was a very important part of her family it was part of everybody in the family. She was looking to see what she would do. Marguerite even applied to become a Carmelite, but she was refused. Marguerite was working with the external Congregation of Notre Dame in Troyes that’s where she met the Maisonneuve’s sister Louise de Maisonneuve, so that’s how they got involved with de Maisonneuve and going to Ville Marie. She applied for another community and that did not work out what Marguerite wanted was something different because the communities back then were all cloistered, and Marguerite being such a person that was filled with Mary’s vocation wanted to be more of the visitation type, of being able to go out and meet with the people, and she did not want to be remaining in one specific place. That being said she went to a pilgrimage at Notre Dame de [] in October of I’m bad with the dates 1640 if I’m not mistaken, and passing under the portal because they have to go outside it was just filled with too many people, when they had processions back then everything all of the life stopped yeah something religious or spiritual was happening and the importance was put there. So Marguerite turned around and looked up at the portal and she saw Mary, and she called it from that moment on her touch of grace.

At that moment she knew she was going to give her life to God, and that was going to be the only thing of importance in her life she was 20 years old, 20 years old and she had that dare she had, excuse the language, the guts to do this, the strength, the resilience, because when she first came here wanted to build a chapel the priests that were here were saying oh no we have a church we don’t need anything more especially not from a lady. She never never give up, she’s one of the strongest women I’ve ever known, she’s resilient. She’s quite a businesswoman–the sisters have never borrowed money, everything was trade, they did a lot of, she would cook and sew for the men of Nouvelle France if they helped her build a wall everything was trade and exchanged all of the time.

She actually went back to France a couple of times, Marguerite did the trip from to seven times wow in her life that trip was about three and a half months long in the worst conditions possible, so she did that all of those times that’s a couple of years of her life she went back to Troyes to get more sisters to help build the community here. She went to Troyes and she brought back some young ladies because if they wanted families they needed young ladies for the young gentlemen that were living there, so it’s only by 1655 that she was able to build her school. The first chapel they began building in 1655, but the official days of the foundation is ’57, we have to understand back then there was only about 160 people in Ville Marie so maybe there was one carpenter, half a plumber or something, it’s not what we think of today okay. Unfortunately as it does did happen back then a lot there was a fire and the first Chapel was burned down in 1754.

Nobody gave up in the meanwhile Marguerite went back to France again because she was also at the same time trying to get permission to build a community permission for the chapel, so she kept going back and forth and all was trying to get more people so they were able to start again the reconstruction the chapel in 1771, and then slowly it became what it is today, slowly the offerings started to come in. uh We spoke about the boats uh that are there uh the first series of boats came from the Zouaves, which were the soldiers to the Pope ah and up until COVID they still came to the chapel once a year every year, the descendants of these gentlemen and they would come in with their uniforms, playing music in the streets and all Old Montreal around here just turns around and looks and they want to come and see. It’s there you can feel it, you can feel it.

And when they restored the chapel in 1996, they restored the chapel in part of where the museum is today, they found the foundations of the first chapel. They were not aware that they were exactly on the same site and that’s still in our archaeological site today that people can come down and see and you see that the first chapel was a little bit more oval and it was about a third of the size of today’s chapel, and you see where the rows were, but there were no benches in the chapel people had mass standing up. But it makes it so concrete because in the land there’s also little pieces of burnt wood, nails and screws from the burnt down building so it’s amazing to see.

Tony: Wow, gosh uh you know just a last thought on St. Marguerite on this section, is there something else that you think people should really keep in mind about her legacy and her example because it really seems like she was a character you know a humanitarian, a social worker you said, um but also very much a doer, that she she looked in the face of you know these norms which are so outdated when we think back of what a woman can do and she just she took on her vocation and her mission for God and she made so much happen in the face of you know stubborn man right?

Carole: I think that Marguerite is a perfect symbol of resilience never give up never give up and her spiritual counselor in Troyes [] Marguerite was questioning herself after being refused it was hard on her to become refused, and we don’t know to this day the reason to refusal so it was hard for her so she was questioning herself. Marguerite always took counsel and before she made any important decisions and at that point he told her well maybe what God didn’t allow in Troyes is waiting for you Nouvelle France. Maybe Mary is waiting for you there. And the most important figure to Marguerite was Mary. The most important figure to the sisters today is Marguerite, because no matter how hard life can get, Mary is with you and your faith will always sustain you, always and it feeds you.

The Catholic faith in Quebec and laïcité in France

Tony: Beautiful, beautiful, you know thinking about France nowadays oftentimes the conversation about France is in, in a religious sense, is about how so few people are with the faith uh especially the Catholic Church of course is a long you know cry from where it used to be in that country and people talk about laïcité; this idea of secular you know religion, but Quebec is still very much a hub at least it seemed to me on my own pilgrimage um of the faith. That there are so many holy sites and there are so many just faithful Catholics still. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that just the strength of the faith right now in Quebec and also how the chapel is is fitting into that right now?

Carole: Well I can say a few words, however they are my impressions I’m not the local expert on the subject. We did have uh that’s a couple of leaner years okay there was a split between the civil and the religious site here in Quebec. Faith is still strong but it is has evolved it has changed a lot, it’s not the same devote fate that it was year ago and it takes different forms of expression today and I think our chapel is the best example of that. Marguerite Bourgeoys has taught us to be welcoming to everyone without judgment and this is what the chapel does, we have a small community that gathers every weekend they come from all over the place some of them drive over an hour to come to mass here and they respect the culte [French term for worship/religion] as it used to be and we’re still doing it and it’s important to them. The other part of Bon Secours chapel is we are open to people that want to come in, stop, breathe, meditate, pray, just close their eyes for two seconds in this world that has become so fast and so filled with everything. We are located in an area that is touristic, so of course that does help a bit, but we’re also neighbors to a shelter for men, so they’re also part of our clientele that come in every day. And every single human being that comes into this place feels one form or another of spirituality and faith and everybody shares it and I think because people picked, they elect to come here we’re not a parish, so people elect to come here it makes it different, it makes it stronger, and it makes that that faith will survive in the years to come.

Tony: And that sounds like how it started, that the chapel was very much an anchor a place of peace for travelers…

Carole: I keep thinking of the first communities sitting down here looking at places and looking at things evolve, and things grow a little bit by themselves. We’re there we do our job on Sunday mornings but now people are getting attached, people know us people turn around, and I turned around last weekend and oh geez there’s only three children today, how come? Well when we started, when I started here we didn’t have any children, there’s young families that are getting attached to this place or coming back, are offering to help, want to get involved, talk to one another. And when Mass ends and we open the two doors to the chapel outside we only have three small steps as you know outside yeah people gathered there and talk, it’s a community. And in summer I have at least three picnics in our yard in the back for people after Mass to come, when we have groups that come in groups can come in for visit a complete visit they can come we can plan Masses for them if they want to celebrate here at the same time or just a rosary should they prefer, but we also do pilgrimages with them in the streets of Old Montreal, call it Following Marguerite Bourgeoys and we’ve established partnerships with the other places around here where we can have a visit at the museum in the morning, have lunch in a restaurant, and then go for the pilgrimage around that town. We also spoke with the city there’s a couple of places where people can have a picnic and it’s all to be open and to be there and to be recognized as a place of faith in Montreal.

Tony: That’s that’s so great and it’s great to hear there’s all this activity um in a special year for the chapel and and you know for the mission, do you want to talk a bit about your your anniversary that you’re already starting to see kind of an influx of visitors for?

Carole: Yes well we can certainly speak about it a couple times the chapel is celebrating its anniversary this year and it’s 250 years, just the number 250– it’s huge and then people say, what? It’s been there that long and it’s still there there it’s still there and it’s growing, it’s growing, it’s growing, and that’s a little bit different because a lot of churches are having financial difficulties, a lot of them are having hard time uh recruiting again post-COVID because it’s been very difficult on some communities, our priests are not getting any younger, the sisters are also getting older and some of them have stopped working with COVID and we understand it but we’re growing and we’re there for people and we can keep on doing it and I think it’s very important.

Jeanne Le Ber

Tony: Is there anything else you want to say we’ve we’ve kind of gone through a a very quick version of the history of the chapel and Marguerite, but just uh for listeners who maybe are just now being introduced to the story do you have any final thoughts for them?

Carole: Well I want to mention somebody else that’s in the chapel that was a friend of Marguerite, Jeanne Le Ber. Jeanne Le Ber was the first recluse in North America and her remains are in the chapel and she was a student of Marguerite Bourgeoys in the first school here in Ville Marie and she stayed in a small room attending the first original chapel and where she had a cot to lie on, a small window so she could sleep looking at the altar, and she spent her life doing that. To us it’s important because Jeanne represents the person that is quieter in her faith that is more centered that is stopped, and Marguerite is the other side of faith the one that goes out in front of people so the two of them together make something complete. And we got quite a surprise this year because on May 17th they reopened the process for Jeanne to become a saint eventually, and we even had part members of Jeanne’s descendants family that came in from Troyes to be at the opening of this process, so it’s a great collaboration and it’s a great place to be in.

My thanks to Carole Golding for speaking to me about this wonderful chapel and about St. Marguerite. Please consider visiting the chapel if you are in Montreal, or consider taking advantage of their virtual tour on their website.

As our series from Wisconsin really brought home: we’re all on the pilgrim journey in our own way. We’re not all walking the same path, we’re not all connecting to God in exactly the same way, but if we’re willing to listen and heed God’s call, he’ll reveal the contours of his plan in front of us. For St. Marguerite, she built a community and a chapel that continues to ignite the faith today. And for you and me…who knows how our faith and willingness to do God’s work might ripple far into the future.

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