Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 17, 2004
Spartan austerity surprises
Disastrous fire destroyed one third of the city, finally stopping right at the church
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Just two blocks from the St. Lawrence River and the city's famed seawall/promenade, the graceful silver spire of Rimouski's St-Germain Cathedral dominates the centre of this busy administrative capital of eastern Quebec.
The origin of the name of the cathedral is to be found back in sixth century France. Germanus of Paris, named as the city's bishop by King Childebert I, became the royal chaplain in 555. He exerted great influence for good on the royal family and eventually by his example of humility and austerity convinced the king to be more generous. Germanus put up beggars at his home and acquired a reputation as a successful confessor as well as for his charity to the poor.
Childebert granted him an abbey outside the city which was greatly expanded by Germanus. After his death and burial there, the establishment was renamed St-Germain-des-Pres.
Old abbey roots
In some respects, the roots of the Church in Canada are to be found in the extant old abbey church. A prominent painted plaque there records the elevation of Francois de Laval in 1658 as bishop and vicar apostolic of New France at St-Germain-des-Pres rather than at Notre Dame Cathedral. In Quebec in 1674, Laval was named Canada's first bishop.
Perhaps it's not surprising then that, 37 years later, Rimouski's first church would bear the name of the left bank Parisian abbey. A second wooden church was replaced in 1826 by a larger, stone structure. Today, this building still stands where it has served since 1972 as the Musee regional de Rimouski. Many of its interior artifacts were removed when, in 1862 a large fourth stone edifice was completed just east of old St-Germain's.
This new church became a cathedral with the establishment of the Rimouski Diocese in 1867, the year of Canadian Confederation. Quebec native Jean Langevin became its first bishop. In 1946 the see was elevated to an archdiocese extending for 240 km along the St. Lawrence River south shore from beyond Riviere-du-Loup almost to Ste-Anne-des-Monts. Its Catholic population of 144,000 is served by 111 parishes that spread inland as far as New Brunswick and Maine.
St. Germain Cathedral faces north across the open park of Place des Anciens Combattants to the river and the city's promenade. It borders on Ave. de la Cathedrale, an historic thoroughfare that marks the limits of a disastrous 1950 fire that was stopped at the cathedral after destroying one-third of the city.
The building is of Neogothic style making use of many medieval forms. It is faced with grey stone and topped by a distinctive bell tower that was modified in 1891 to include both gothic and baroque elements.
Entering the church for the first time is a shock for many visitors. Unlike so many of its peers in Quebec, the airy interior of St-Germain's is a picture of Spartan austerity. Gothic arches, colonnaded side-aisles and a ribbed nave vault are all painted off-white with pale gold trim.
The building underwent major interior renovations in 1967 to conform with Vatican II directives. A spectacular baldachino and ornate reredos were removed. In their place, fortunately not discarded, is the 1921 Casavant organ whose pipes, inset in gothic arches, form a dramatic background to the sanctuary.
The altar is flanked by a lonely pair of carved wooden statues of the crucifixion and St-Germain. The saint's life is portrayed in a series of impressive, narrow stained glass windows. And, another fine statue of St-Germain survives to greet visitors in the adjacent rectory.
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