|Archbishop (now Cardinal) Gérald Cyprien Lacroix, together with Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson and Supreme Chaplain Archbishop Lori, visit the tomb of St. François de Laval, founding bishop of the Québec Diocese. (Photo by Daniel Abel)
With outstretched arms, a relief image of Christ welcomes pilgrims to the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec. The image is depicted on a massive bronze door that was commissioned for the 350th anniversary of the historic parish, which was established Sept. 15, 1664.
Underwritten by the Knights of Columbus, including state councils throughout Canada, and crafted by Montreal-based artist Jules Lasalle, the Holy Door stands as a symbol of communion amid this grace-filled jubilee year. The seventh Holy Door in the world and the first in the Americas, the door was ceremonially opened Dec. 8, 2013, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and will remain open until Dec. 28.
“This has been an extraordinary year for the universal Church and especially the Church of Québec,” said Bernard Labrecque, a member of Charles-Neuf Council 11693 in Charlesbourg and a volunteer for the jubilee.
This year, as thousands of pilgrims have participated in events to celebrate the mother parish of the United States and Canada, the Church in Québec has also welcomed the announcement of a new cardinal and two new saints: a bishop and a nun who were instrumental in establishing the faith in 17th-century Canada.
As Father Denis Bélanger, rector of the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec, noted, the convergence of so many causes for celebration is “no small thing.”
CRADLE OF CANADIAN CATHOLICISM
After the first settlers came to New France in 1608, religious communities soon followed: the Récollet Fathers in 1615, the Jesuits in 1625, and the Augustinian nuns and the Ursuline sisters in 1639.
In 1658, François de Laval was consecrated a bishop at age 35 and appointed as apostolic vicar to the fledging Church in New France. In 1664, five years after arriving, he established the parish of Notre-Dame de Québec (originally called Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix, or Our Lady of Peace). A decade later, he was appointed the founding bishop of the Diocese of Québec, which was the largest diocese in the world at the time, covering most of North America.
“As one of Bishop Laval’s successors, I feel a particular bond with him,” said Archbishop Gérald Cyprien Lacroix in a 2012 interview. “I admire his audacity, his courage and his determination to help the Catholic Church take root here and to spread the Gospel.”
In 1874, the Vatican named Notre-Dame de Québec Cathedral a basilica to underscore its historic role in the establishment and expansion of the Christian faith in North America. The archdiocese officially became Canada’s primatial see in 1956, and the cathedral was declared a historic monument 10 years later.
Preparations for Notre-Dame’s 350th anniversary festivities began in 2012 with the promotion of a jubilee pilgrimage itinerary for visitors. Titled “On the Path of Our Pioneers in Faith,” the pilgrimage features six historic religious sites, retracing the journey of the founders of the Church in New France.
In August 2013, work began on a side chapel of the cathedral-basilica to create a new passage for the Holy Door. Earlier that month, at the 131st Supreme Convention in San Antonio, the Order launched a two-year Marian Prayer Program featuring an image of the painting of the Immaculate Conception that hangs above the main altar of the cathedral-basilica.
“Consider visiting Québec sometime in 2014 for a pilgrimage that could change your life,” said Archbishop Lacroix, addressing the convention during the launch of the prayer program.
“Come with your family, your parish, your councils and assemblies, your diocese. Come to the beautiful city of Québec and let the Lord renew your faith,” added the archbishop, who is a member of Charlesbourg Council 6289.
Accepting his invitation, the Order’s leadership gathered in Québec in November 2013 for their midyear meeting, which included a guided tour of the cathedral. During the event, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson praised Bishop Laval as “a man of courage, a man of vision, a man of evangelization.” Noting that Venerable Michael McGivney began his seminary studies in Montreal, the supreme knight called the Order’s founder “a spiritual son of Blessed Bishop de Laval and the French Catholicism of his day.”
Finally, on Dec. 8, 2013, Pope Francis announced the beginning of the jubilee year, and the Holy Door was officially opened.
The historic Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec, a popular pilgrimage destination during its 350th anniversary, began its jubilee year festivities with the opening of a new Holy Door on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, 2013, and will conclude Dec. 28, the feast of the Holy Family. (Photo by Daniel Abel)
A RARE RITE OF PASSAGE
So what exactly is a Holy Door? This is a question that Knights like Labrecque have been asked frequently, for they have helped usher thousands of people through the Holy Door over the past nine months.
“I tell them passing through the Holy Door is like passing through the gates of heaven,” Labrecque said. Inside, a person finds the final destination of his pilgrimage, “a place to gather as one universal, Christian family.”
When he first announced the plan for the Holy Door in 2012, Archbishop Lacroix noted it would be a “a humble door, a narrow one, recalling the invitation of Jesus to ‘enter through the narrow door’ (Lk 13:24).”
Since Holy Doors are open only during a holy year or a jubilee, passing through one is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many people. Authorized by the Vatican, there are only seven Holy Doors in the world. The others are at the four major basilicas in Rome; in Ars, France; and at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Pilgrims who pass through the Holy Door during a jubilee year may receive a plenary indulgence under the usual conditions, including confession, reception of Communion and detachment from sin.
In addition to visiting and gaining the indulgence for themselves, many pilgrims have carried others spiritually with them, helping souls in purgatory find their way to heaven.
One prominent example occurred earlier this year after a devastating fire ravaged Résidence du Havre, an elderly housing complex in L’Isle Verte, on Jan. 23, claiming the lives of 32 senior citizens. In March, a group of pilgrims each held one of the victims in his or her heart while passing through the Holy Door a moving tribute to those lost in the tragedy.
To date, more than 150,000 pilgrims have passed through the Holy Door since it opened, representing nearly 40 percent of all visitors coming to see the cathedral. Even tourists, coming solely for the attraction of the Holy Door, have multiplied this year. Compared to the first six months of 2013, the cathedral saw a 45 percent increase in visitors during the first half of 2014.
Among those visitors have been numerous Knights of Columbus groups, often recognizable by their Immaculate Conception prayer cards, distributed for the ongoing Marian Prayer Program.
PILGRIMS, SAINTS AND BLESSINGS
On Feb. 22, the Church in Québec, and indeed all of Canada, rejoiced as Pope Francis made Archbishop Lacroix one of 18 new cardinals.
The following month, a relic of St. André Bessette, the beloved French-Canadian Holy Cross brother who was canonized in 2010, visited the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec for three weeks. Denis Lavoie, a member of Charlesbourg Council 6289, carried the reliquary into the cathedral behind an honor guard of Fourth Degree Knights.
At the start of the jubilee year, Cardinal Lacroix had requested that Lavoie find and manage volunteers who would guide pilgrims through the Holy Door and answer their questions after their passage a task requiring more than 2,500 volunteer hours.
“Ninety-five percent of the volunteers for the jubilee are Knights of Columbus,” Lavoie said. “Our spouses are also very important. They get us going on the days we’d rather stay home.”
The Church in Canada welcomed the announcement of two new saints on April 3, when Pope Francis signed canonization decrees for Bishop Laval and Ursuline Sister Marie de l’Incarnation, who had arrived in New France 20 years prior to the pioneering bishop.
Three months later, on July 11, Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, apostolic nuncio to Canada, celebrated a Mass commemorating the anniversary of the dedication of the original church of Notre-Dame de Québec to the Immaculate Conception in 1666. The procession included the same cross that St. François de Laval had used for the original dedication.
In his homily, Archbishop Bonazzi asked, “Why did the first missionaries of Canada, the Canadian martyrs, St. Marie de l’Incarnation, St. François de Laval … leave their homelands? Because they were captivated by one person: Jesus Christ. This cathedral-basilica was built in order to help us discover a personal relationship with the Son of God.”
The event also included the presentation of a commemorative plaque, honoring major donors to the cathedral, including the Knights of Columbus.
Finally, August saw a celebration marking the 375th anniversary of the arrival of the Augustinian nuns and the Ursuline sisters, and a novena for the feast of the Assumption took place Aug. 6-15. Even more events are planned through the close of the jubilee year Dec. 28 (see sidebar).
The jubilee continues to bring a multitude of blessings to the Church in Québec and to the many pilgrims who come to the basilica, thereby realizing Cardinal Lacroix’s wish that the jubilee draw North Americans closer to their faith. As he noted at the opening of the Holy Door in 2013, “When people decide to embark on this journey toward encountering and following Christ, anything becomes possible. A new world can be achieved.”
MARTINA DE VRIES is the director of the Corporation of Religious Heritage and Tourism of Québec.