Published in the Montreal Gazette on June 22, 2013

With the advent of summer and another St. Jean Baptiste celebration, it is perhaps timely to look back at a somewhat different commemoration of this momentous holiday – the one that took place in June of 1874. It contrasts sharply with more sterile and scripted observances we know today.

That year, the fortieth anniversary of the founding by Ludger Duvernay of the St. Jean Baptiste Society, the association decided to stage a mammoth production the like of which had never been seen before in Montreal. The memorable event was styled “La Grand Fête Nationale des 24-25 juin 1874” and was open to all those throughout North America who could trace their ancestry to French Canadian origins. So successful were the preparations for the gathering that the city’s population increased 50% during the festivities as some 60,000 visitors (half of whom were franco-Americans) came to Montreal to participate.

The rapid influx into the municipality of so many pilgrims posed logistical problems with regard to accommodation. In fact, so serious was the situation, the authorities had to requisition the Crystal Palace on St. Catherine Street (a small scale local replica of the structure built for London’s 1851 Great Exhibition) as a temporary place to lodge those unable to find a room of their own elsewhere in the city.

(below, inside the Crystal Palace which stood on the south side of St. Catherine, just west of University Street)

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On the day of St. Jean Baptiste, the public started gathering as early as 6:00 A.M. along the route of the traditional march.  The colourful procession (which was a full four kilometres in length) was the longest up to that point in the history of Montreal. The starting point was St. Laurent and Craig (today St. Antoine). It was said that virtually every house in the city was decorated for the event, including those of non-francophones residents as well.

The parade slowly wound its way through the streets of the town until the first marchers arrived, around 11:30 that morning, at Notre Dame Church. There, a High Mass was celebrated in honour of the idyllic affair. The choir of the Collège de Montréal provided the beautiful musical backdrop for this Solemn Eucharist with the whole religious and patriotic service ending shortly before 3:00. Incidentally, it is perhaps interesting to note that in his rather lengthy 1874 homily Reverend M. Deschamps invoked the word “Canada” on 18 different occasions while the term “Quebec” drew a blank.

With the Mass concluded, all streamed out of the church and headed for the ‘Champ de Mars’ where many flag-waving speeches were delivered, the first of which was by former Montreal Mayor C. J. Coursol who was at the time the president of the St. Jean Baptiste Society. Several of the orators were exceptional, and this at a time of neither public address systems nor tele-prompters.  The immense gathering on the ‘Champ de Mars’ broke up around 4:30 P.M. and most returned to their abode for a well-deserved rest.

That evening, a gala dinner-banquet was held in the grand hall of the Bonsecours Market that served in those days as Montreal’s City Hall.  Some 1300 people attended. After the meal, the requisite toasts were proposed, the first of which was to Queen Victoria and the Royal Family. Many others followed, including one (in the presence of the consul-general) to the American President. The U.S. diplomat, William A. Dart, thanked the guests, in English, for their kindness. Such was the benign spirit of the evening that there was even an enthusiastic salute to the federal government in Ottawa!  In fact, the only lament spoken by the organizers of the event was the conspicuous absence of a representative of France.

The following day, Thursday, June 25th, a great assembly of French Canadian notables was held at the Gesù Church on Bleury Street. Styled “la première convention générale des Canadiens”, the congress quickly entered into a series of speeches, the most important of which was delivered by former Quebec Premier, Pierre Chauveau, who unabashedly extolled the importance of education in the development of the province.

For the less literary types, a ‘musical jubilee’ was held that same day on St. Helen’s Island. However, getting to it proved a considerable planning achievement in itself. At an early morning hour, revellers started converging at the wharves waiting for the various vessels to ferry them to the picnic-concert on the island. Over 15,000 people were taken there in this fashion, there being no bridge to the site until the 1930’s.

Once there, however, an orchestra of over six hundred musicians who presented the works of Verdi and other renowned composers entertained the crowd. The musical performance ended at 5:30 and the complex task of transporting everyone back to Montreal went on well into the night.

All in all, it was one of the great St. Jean Baptiste celebrations in Quebec history – remarkably, and easily, accommodating at that!

(below, Viger Gardens where other events related to the St. Jean Baptiste celebrations of 1874 were held)

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