Marie-Claude Rocher, PhD
ABC Liberal Arts, Class of 1973
When I told prospective thesis directors that I wanted to do research on French-speaking Protestants in Québec, I was usually met with a quizzical, if not a downright skeptical look. Because, as everyone knew, all Protestants were English and any self-respecting Québécois would necessarily be francophone and devoutly Catholic. And yet. As a pastor’s kid myself, raised in the unmistakably French Église baptistel’Oratoire in Montréal, I assured them that such a social minority did indeed exist, and I even suspected it had been present on Canadian soil since the earliest settlements of New France.
And so, upon returning to Québec City after the two-year Liberal Arts program at Atlantic Baptist College (ABC), I enlisted as a history sleuth and pursued a BA and an MA in history, a post-grad degree in Museum Studies and a PhD in Ethnology – all at Université Laval – followed by a Postdoctoral SSHRC Fellowship at McGill University, in Montreal. The red thread through it all was the presence of French-speaking Bible-focused communities throughout the history of Québec, a little-known and hitherto un-researched subject in academia. It resulted in a number of articles, papers and conferences, five museum exhibitions, four symposiums, two interpretation centres and two books with a third in the works, coming out this summer. Probably.
The stereotyped association of language and religion is deeply imprinted on our collective memory. Small wonder, really: the very first Protestants, then called Huguenots, came from the war-torn kingdom of France and if, per chance, they had registered as Huguenots upon departure, they inevitably had become bona fide Catholics when they disembarked. There was to be no Reformed faith in the new colony, no Bible to be read or taught to children, no hymns sung, and certainly no pastors to marry settlers, baptize their newborns or inter their dead. Not until the early 19th Century did French Protestant churches appear, with certified pastors, generally founded by Swiss or French missionaries with an evangelical vision for the Americas…
So how, then, could a determined but lowly MA student ascertain the historical presence of French-speaking Protestants in Early Québec society? Ironically, the diocesan archives turned out to be the richest source: confiscated family Bibles, banned hymnbooks and theology pamphlets were kept under lock and key in the “Enfer” section of the Seminary libraries, and their administrative documents recorded faith renunciations, priestly warnings as well as a modest number of judicial prosecutions. Dubious but kind-hearted bishop-auxiliaries entrusted me with the keys to the secluded areas, along with white gloves and a ladder. I am grateful for their open-minded cooperation.
What I, with the many colleagues who joined me through the years, uncovered went far beyond the mere existence of a discreet and struggling social minority. We found a diversified faith community with churches rural and urban, country schoolhouses and larger colleges, farmers, teachers, journalists, businessmen, factory owners (who employed those who lost their jobs for “religious treason”) and, surprisingly, a few high-level politicians. Three of the five museum exhibitions displayed that dynamic 19th century French-Protestant population, while the other two (one in La Rochelle, France, and one in Québec City) were part of the 2008 celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of the founding of Québec. Today, a life-size “Snakes-and-ladders” game located in Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu, one of the earliest communities, walks tourists through parts of that ill-known history. And there is still so much more research to be done!
I was in the history research field for 33 years, first as a student and a TA, then as a lecturer (“chargée de cours”) and finally as Assistant Director in the Institut du patrimoine culturel de l’Université Laval. In that capacity, I was involved in various UNESCO projects and collaborated with fellow Institutes around the world.
Though it was a fascinating journey, it was not always an easy road, as spiritual growth and academic pursuits are sometimes difficult to reconcile. Faith, reason and research often collide; university colleagues are prone to dismiss what they deem naive, much as the church family tends, at times, to be wary of intellectual endeavours.
During my two years at ABC, I learned how history and theology could mingle quite naturally, with professors such as Ralph Richardson (New Testament) and Robert Wilson (History). Integrating doctrine and philosophy was perhaps a bit more challenging in courses taught by Stuart Murray. But “the crux of the matter,” as he would have said, is to affirm the centrality of the Word in human experience and to live out its reality in everyday life. That turned out to be the essence of ABC’s impact on my life. In fact, it had been one of my motivations for applying to a Christian college: to dig and delve into and think things through, and stake out my own place in the often-confusing world of all things spiritual. It was not my only motivation, though, and maybe not even the first. The idea of moving out “on my own” some 500 miles away from home with Jo Reynolds, my high school best friend, was quite appealing at age 16! As was the prospect of sharing two years with the friends Jo and I had made first at Camp Shiktehawk (Florenceville, NB, 1970, 1971) then in the ensuing group Carpenter’s Friends (Saint-John). Rick Tobias, best known for his spirited compassion as head of Toronto’s Yonge Street Mission for 23 years, and Bryan Hagerman, passionate pastor now counsellor psychotherapist, stand out among other remarkable persons.
Québec City has been my home since returning from ABC. Jean-Pierre Caron, my husband of nearly 50 years (gasp!), and I have three children and five grandchildren. I have been attending the same church forever, or so it might seem to the younger crowd. My own father was ordained there during my freshman year at ABC and I now serve as chair of the deacons Board and head of the social outreach team (comité d’action sociale). Our pastor Stéphane Couture’s keen mind and openness to challenging dialogues has helped me navigate through doubts, downfalls and dilemmas. Looking back and trooping ahead, I am thankful for God’s gentle providence.