Exploring the Rich History of Montreal
Montreal celebrates its 375th anniversary this year, and the city’s festivities and exhibitions are paying particular attention to its diverse neighbourhoods and communities. This prompted me to hit the pavement, armed with a camera, to explore that diversity. I began by asking myself what precisely the anniversary commemorates. What happened back in 1642? The answer: A privately funded religious enterprise founded a mission on Iroquois territory.
A century earlier, in 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier had visited the northeastern region of the New World, declaring it a possession of the king of France. Cartier encountered the Hochelaga settlement on an island now known as Montreal, but it was no longer permanently inhabited in 1642. The Iroquois nation used it as their hunting grounds and it was a dense forest. This did not, however, prevent the Société de Notre-Dame de Montreal pour la conversion des Sauvages de la Nouvelle-France from buying the island as private property. Under the society’s auspices, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, Jeanne Mance and about 40 people founded the Ville-Marie mission in May 1642 at what is now called Pointe-a-Callière. Their goal was to evangelize the First Nations peoples and form a society devoted to God. The colonists built a fort to guard against frequent attacks from the Iroquois, and several of the new arrivals somehow managed to survive those first difficult years.
Some 11 years later, dozens of new colonists joined the other French settlers. Among them was a young Marguerite Bourgeoys, who felt called to teach the children of Nouvelle France. She established a school and found patrons to build the island’s first stone chapel, Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours. The vestiges of this chapel lie under the present-day chapel at the east end of the Old Port.
This seemed like a good place to start my explorations. These days, the Old Port looks like one big tourist attraction, but it features the chapel at one end and the Pointe-à-Callière museum, built above archeological remains of some of the earliest buildings, at the other. At the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, you can visit the crypt and the ongoing archeological dig under the building.