When Jacques Cartier arrived in the New World in 1534, he promptly erected crosses, claiming the land for the King and for Christ. A century later, Samuel de Champlain founded Ville Marie (now Montreal) and raised a cross atop Mount Royal. Today, a large, electric cross stands in its place. Throughout Quebec, nearly three thousand roadside crosses mark the faith of past generations, even as the present generation has largely abandoned that faith. Although most are privately owned, they are widely considered to be heritage objects and efforts are made to preserve them.
In days gone by, travelers would stop to pray when they came to one of the crosses. In 1776, Thomas Anburey, observed,
These crosses, however good the intention of erecting them may be, are continually the causes of great travelling, which to persons not quite so superstitiously disposed as the Canadians, are exceedingly unpleasant in cold weather; for whenever the drivers of the calashes, which are open, and nearly similar to your one horse chaises, come to one of them, they alight, either from their horses or carriage, fall on their knees, and repeat a long prayer, let the weather be ever so severe.
Although this amuses me, I am well familiar with Quebec winters and so I sympathize with the author’s concerns.
The photo above shows a roadside cross not far from my home. When it was erected around 1800, this was a rural area, but the city has grown up around it. When the land on which it was erected was transferred to Hydro Quebec (the provincial electric power supplier), the maintenance and preservation of the cross was part of the deal. Recently, extensive roadwork led to the transfer of the cross to another location for several years. Eventually, it was refurbished and returned to its historic, rather unlikely location, much to the appreciation of local citizens.
The roadside crosses are generally of three styles. This one is typical of the first, most common type and is white with red trim. Often there is an embellishment of a fleur-de-lis or clover at the end of the posts. Notice the rooster atop the cross, which is an ancient French tradition. Some say it references Saint Peter hearing the cock crow; others that it symbolizes the new day after Christ died for our sins. The Sacred Heart at the center, surrounded by a circle with rays, symbolizes the Eucharist. In this example, at the bottom of the cross, there is a statue of our Blessed Mother, with a relic, enclosed behind a window.
Other roadside crosses in Quebec are similar, but this second style includes symbols of the crucifixion: a hammer, pincers, lance, and ladder. The people of Quebec had a very strong devotion to Notre Dame de la Salette (1846) and these symbols of Christ’s Passion are also associated with that apparition. They are a curiosity to many, as this particular devotion was mostly limited to France.
The third variation is the depiction of Calvary, with statues of our Blessed Mother and Saint John at the foot of the Crucifix. Other times, it is a traditional Crucifix alone. Although most of the roadside crosses are simple and stand alone, vulnerable to time and the elements, some are enclosed in gazebo-type shelters. This one is a remarkable example. How could anyone pass by without saying a prayer or two?
I love these expressions of devotion and Quebec is rich in them. A drive in the country will yield many treasures. I hope if you visit the area you will take a little time off “the beaten path” of the autoroutes and enjoy the beauty of the less-traveled roads. And for local readers — what could be a nicer way to spend a summer Sunday afternoon?
For more information, including lots of pictures please see: