I don’t know why other people go to Quebec, though I imagine the food (who doesn’t like French fries smothered in gravy & interlaced with cheese curds, that is, poutine?), the architecture, the very special Quebecois version of French, the ubiquity of maple syrup, and the chance to buy a statuette of a dancing polar bear all figure in the decision.
Those things alone would warrant a visit, but Quebec is also home to The Ursuline Chapel and the Musée des Ursulines. The first Ursulines came to Quebec in 1639, led by a 19 year old widow, Marie Guyart (1599-1672) who was told in a dream that her mission in life was to head for the wilds of Canada, a region populated with bears, beavers, elk and heathens, and teach the heathen girls the finer arts.
The chapel’s altar is one of the oldest and finest examples of woodcarving in North America, and the nuns gilded it themselves. I have heard of beekeeping and brandy-making monks, and teaching and nursing nuns, but never before of gilding nuns. Already back in France the Ursulines were gilding, and they brought the skill with them to Canada. In 1717 they opened a gilding workshop in Quebec City; shipments of gold and silver leaf sailed over from France.
On our first day in Quebec we walked over to the Ursuline monastery & musée and there I beheld the dreaded sing: Fermée. This could have been predicted. When I went to Bruges in January, the Memling Museum was closed for the month. When I was in Florence, the statue of David was undergoing body-toning and getting highlights. I arrived in Santa Cruz a week after the surfing museum washed out to sea. In Rome every building was covered in scaffolding to be ready for the Jubilee Year. In Vera Cruz a renegade Christo imitator wrapped the huge Olmec heads and the whole site was closed to the public.
You can recognize the pattern.
And now this, the Ursuline Musée was closed for renovations. So if you want to see gorgeous painting of Saint Agnes looking like Snow White, or the porcupine quill** boxes made 150 years ago by the jeunes filles of the Ursuline convent, I suggest you try in 2011. The elderly lay sister I spoke to said that she too was desolée it was closed, and then shrugged.
But at least there was the chapel.
According to the sign the chapel was open daily from 10 to 12 and again from 1:30 to 5. At 4 PM I eagerly pulled at the great red door. It was locked.
Poking around and asking, I learned that the nuns* were having a conference, hence the chapel was locked.
Fine, we have time, I thought.
The next day, after dining on mussels and more poutine, we headed back to see the Ursulines. But the chapel was still closed during the hours it was meant to be open. Zut alors! It seems the nuns were still having a conference, but I was assured the chapel would be open tomorrow at 10 or maybe 10:30, no one seemed sure about that.
There are, of course, other things to do in Quebec besides pulling at locked chapel doors, and we did them all afternoon.
The following morning, our last morning, we returned to the chapel at 10 AM. The doors were locked. This was dismaying. I was once again desolée.
It was not meant to be.
We checked out of the hotel, got into the car, and one more time, having driven in three circles, CSB brought me back to the chapel. And mirabile dictu, it was Ouvert.
I went inside. I admired the gilt altarpiece and thought of all those gilding nuns. I tiptoed around the monolithic black granite tomb of Marie de l’Incarnation, formerly Marie Guyart. I wondered at the painting of the Anchorite Pleading for Admission of a Penitent*** to a Convent. I had a very nice chat with the elderly lay sister about woodwork and gout. Then I returned to the ever-patient CSB, and insisted he go inside too. Just for a minute.
*Six of them, it would turn out. Average age: 79.
** This reminds me of the recent preponderance of porcupine roadkill in the north country, and a discussion with CSB about the wisdom of stopping to extract quills from a dead porcupine. He suggested that pulling at the quills might trigger an involuntary reflex by the porcupine carcass that would cause quills to be launched in my direction. I had not considered this possibility.
***The very infamous Egyptian courtesan Thaïs.