Published in The Montreal Gazette on March 26, 2016
For those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, Easter has always been associated with the return of spring, and a much – anticipated milder climate. Yet Easter, as a religious observance, has nothing to do with the weather, and is, of course, as old as Christianity itself.
In the Edwardian Era, Easter was an intensely lived experience, both inside and outside of Montreal’s numerous and celebrated churches.
As a consequence of the absence of radio and television in the very early 1900’s, the Easter weekend (and the period leading up to it) was given broad coverage in all of the city’s many daily newspapers.
For instance, on Monday, April 24, 1905, the Montreal Star reported extensively on the various sacred services that took place in the city the day before, which that year was Easter Sunday. At St. James Cathedral (today, Mary Queen of the World), the detailed account not only included what hymns the choir sang but also the content of the sermon the cleric preached.
The well-balanced article concluded with a large photo of Edwardian Montrealers leaving the morning service at St. James Methodist Church (today, United) on St. Catherine Street West. Elegant Easter, ankle-length dresses predominate the beautiful picture.
That same newspaper also remarked frequently on the duration of a particular Edwardian Easter service, as it did in April of 1908 while noting a three-hour long Good Saturday rite held at Montreal’s Church of St. John the Evangelist. By all accounts, the church of founder-rector Reverend Edmund Wood was full, with others taking the seats of those unable to remain for the entire service.
That same Saturday afternoon, Roman Catholic Archbishop Paul Bruchési visited two city jails “where he spoke words of cheer and consolation and had the prisoners venerate the cross.” Such acts of humility were not an uncommon occurrence on the part of clergy in the early 1900’s.
But then, just as today, Easter was more than a spiritual commemoration. It was also in many ways a very worldly event. Church services of virtually all denominations saw congregants attired in their exact Sunday best, with most women wearing exceptionally fashionable clothing and large, stylish Edwardian hats. Dressing casually on Easter Sunday was just not an option for congregants.
The holiday was also the occasion for relatives to re-establish contact after a long, cold winter. This was frequently done through the post office, which was observing a marked increase in business in the early 1900’s. The Easter postcard was just one aspect of this upsurge in volume.
Described by critics as a fad, the spring holiday picture card was all the rage in both Britain and much of North America. However, most postmen, who felt that it was adding as much as 10 percent to their daily workload, abhorred it.
Many affluent Montrealers enjoyed travelling at Easter. On April 9, 1909, the Star reported that some 20,000 Montrealers (or about four percent of the town’s entire population!) had left the city the day before by train for a long Easter weekend. Six thousand of them alone headed for New York’s Grand Central Terminal.
On that very same evening, the Canadian Pacific felt obliged to adjoin some 32 additional sleeping cars in order to accommodate the demand. “The exodus of people from this city yesterday on holiday trips,” continued the newspaper “is without a parallel in local railway annals for the continuous outflow and for the large numbers.”
Not all-southbound travel was innocent, however, as many voyagers were using the trek to engage in some cross-border shopping at the same time. By 1910, the phenomenon had gotten a little out of hand, especially with regard to those who ventured to New York City.
At that time, many Easter travellers from Montreal were under the mistaken belief that they were permitted to return to Canada with $100 (today, the equivalent of over $2000 in today’s currency) in personal effects. “As a matter of law and of fact,” argued the Montreal Star in an editorial dated March 16, 1910, “every cent’s worth of goods purchased during a few days’ visit to New York or any other American city and which is not reported to the Customs officials for appraisal and collection of duty is liable to seizure and confiscation.”
Consequently, for Easter 1910, the federal government promised a much stricter enforcement of the law.
For those who couldn’t afford the trip to Manhattan, there was always local Easter shopping in our own city. On April 16, 1908, the same broadsheet gave a detailed description of the contents of several storefront windows that graced downtown Montreal. All such casements were especially festooned for Easter.
In the report, particular attention was paid to the Hamilton Dry Goods Company and the James A. Ogilvy & Sons stores, both then found on the north side of St. Catherine between Mountain and Drummonds Streets. Writing of the former shop, the paper recounted: “In the windows are filmy scarfs that would add to the effect of any dress, or there are feather boas for whoever prefers them. Then there are patterns which show the new veilings, there are big lace collars and pretty little ‘Merry Widow’ bows.”
The display windows of at least another dozen retail businesses were described with intricate precision. Clearly, Easter shopping was very much part and parcel of the holiday and seasonal happening.
With King Edward VII’s death on May 6, 1910, the final Edwardian Easter Sunday took place only forty days earlier, on March 27. In Montreal, the weather was said to have been the “finest in many years.”
While this city, unlike New York, did not have a formal Easter Parade, Montrealers, nevertheless, always took advantage of fine spring weather to stroll the streets in order to be seen in their finest spring attire. On Easter Sunday 1910, tens of thousands of residents meandered along both St. Catherine and Sherbrooke Streets just to look good and be seen to look good, with no particular hurry to get home.
With the advent of the Great World War in 1914, it was, sadly, perhaps one of the last times to do so.
Below, congregants leaving, after 1906 Easter service, St. James Methodist Church on St. Catherine Street. When constructed in 1887, it was said at the time to be the largest Methodist Church in the world!