Opinion: In Quebec, a once-beloved Christmas tradition fades away
Montreal, as anyone familiar with its architecture will understand, was once called the city of a hundred steeples. It earned that nickname after a visiting Mark Twain marveled at the sheer number of church spires he could see from his hotel room.
“It’s the first time I’ve been to a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window,” the American humorist joked in 1881 at a banquet held in his honor at Montreal’s Windsor Hotel.
In fact, the heyday of church building in Montreal had barely begun when Twain made this remark. The city had less than 200,000 inhabitants at that time; In 1951, after a wave of urbanization led rural Quebecers to take factory jobs in the city, she had 1.4 million.
And many more churches. The largest of them all, Saint Joseph’s Oratory – a remarkable feat of engineering and willpower – was built into the side of Mount Royal in the early 20th century. The cross on its dome remains the highest point in the city. The consecration of the church in 1943 also coincided with the peak of religious practice in Quebec, now known as Canada’s priestly province.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal now has 214 churches, but most of them are eerily empty. The Journal de Québec recently reported that only five Montreal churches plan to celebrate midnight mass this year, a development that speaks volumes about the decline of Catholicism and the rise of secularism in modern Quebec.
Midnight Mass has long been as much a part of Québéco’s tradition and identity as the French language itself. No self-respecting French-Canadian dared to miss it. Children were awakened from their sleep and taken to church in the dead of winter night to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Depictions of midnight mass were a staple of Québécois art and literature before the Silent Revolution. Even after most Quebecers broke with regular church attendance decades ago, midnight mass remained an untouchable ritual.
That was then. The Journal de Québec found several dioceses in the province where only one or two churches plan to hold midnight mass this year. The newspaper estimated the total number of such masses scheduled for Christmas Eve in Quebec at around 50. Not long ago there would have been more than 500, and one would have had to come extra early to get a seat.
Quebec has gone from having the highest percentage of active churchgoers in the country to the province where religion counts least in the lives of the average citizen. Even the “cultural Catholicism” of the post-Quiet Revolution era – characterized by Quebecers’ continued adherence to certain religious traditions as a sign of identity rather than faith – is on the wane, as evidenced by the decline in mass midnight celebrations.
More than half of Quebecers (53.8 percent) are still considered Catholic, according to the 2021 census. But that proportion has fallen dramatically from 74.7 percent in 2011.
According to a 1957 study by sociologist Reginald Bibby, a full 88 percent of Quebecers reported attending church services weekly. Statistics Canada found that in 1985 only 48 percent of Quebecers age 15 and older participated in religious activities at least once a month. In 2019 it was 14 percent, by far the lowest rate in Canada.
“Quebec differed from the other provinces because it had the highest proportion of people who also reported having a religious affiliation and who considered their religious or spiritual beliefs not very important or not at all important in their way of life,” StatsCan- Analyst Louis Cornelissen wrote in a 2021 report on religiosity in Canada.
Younger Quebecers are much more likely than their elders to say they have no religious affiliation. The difference likely has something to do with a 1998 constitutional amendment that replaced Catholic and Protestant school boards with French- and English-speaking ones. Fewer French-speaking Quebec millennials were educated in Catholic schools than any previous cohort. As a result, they have no connection to the Catholic faith—or any faith at all.
At the same time, waves of non-Catholic immigrants have made Quebec a more religiously diverse province. Non-Catholics in Quebec are more likely to attend regular religious services and view religion as an important aspect of their identity and life. Quebec alone today has more than 400,000 Muslims after thousands of French-speaking Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians have immigrated in recent years. These demographic shifts are behind the cultural clash surrounding Bill 21, the 2019 provincial law that bans some public employees from wearing religious symbols.
Francophone Quebecers have embraced secularism with the same fervor with which they once practiced Catholicism. Midnight Mass was bound to feel the effects at some point.