Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 14, 2004
Wood carvers' delight
4,500 carved and guilded ceiling stars adorn 1779 fieldstone church
St. John the Baptist -- June 24
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
East of Quebec City, the nation's wood carving capital of St-Jean-Port-Joli is visited by thousands every year and almost all those who patronize the craft and work shops of the country's finest artisans end up at the parish church.
Its prominent bell towers and startling red roof make it impossible to miss in its setting right on South Shore highway 132 in the town centre.
Dedicated to St. John the Baptist, it was built in 1779 of fieldstone with low walls to counter the prevailing local winds. Transepts and a modest bell tower with two lanterns identified the church until 1815 when the nave was extended and a matching, but larger tower added. Part of the diocese of Ste-Anne-de-la-Pocatiere, it was designated an historic monument in 1963.
The seigneury of Port Joli was granted in 1677 and the land for the church donated later by owner Ignace Aubert de Gaspe. An earlier chapel had existed nearby in 1737, long before the municipality was established in 1845 and adopted the name of the parish church to become St-Jean-Port-Joli.
Visitors who are fortunate enough to encounter Sacristan Michel St-Pierre are in for a stimulating tour.
The building is a rare survivor of its era, many of its contemporaries having burnt down over the years. This is a constant worry here as the entire nave is wood, including the 4,500 little ceiling stars, which were individually carved before being gilded.
Prominent behind the altar is a large 1798 oil painting by Louis Dulongpre of the Baptism of the Saviour. It portrays the historic event when John first stated of Jesus that "he is the Chosen One of God"(John 1:34).
The Baptist was the precursor of Christ, "the voice that cries in the wilderness"(John 1:23) and is honoured twice in the Church year.
The traditional feast day (Aug. 29) celebrates his death at the hands of Herod and his entry into the kingdom of heaven. Observance of a saint's birth is less common and suggests that John was an extraordinarily important personage. His June 24 birthday is remembered with parades and other festivities in Quebec, a tradition that began with the founding of the St-Jean-Baptiste Society in 1835. Its objective was to help defend the religious, linguistic and cultural heritage of Canada's francophones.
In 1922 the feast day became a legal holiday in Quebec, but since 1960 the activities of the society have become largely secular.
In his Port Joli church, the saint is also portrayed in one of the brilliant stained glass windows of the nave and in an impressive 1948 wood sculpture by famed local carver Medard Bourgault.
While in the church, visitors may sit in the special box once reserved for Canada's last seigneur, Phillipe Aubert de Gaspe. He is perhaps best remembered for his early novel Les Anciens Canadiens.
Master carvers' artworks
Although the nave is spectacular, the real treasure of the church is hidden in the large sacristy behind the altar. Here resides a permanent exhibition - Works of Art, Words of Believers - of religious wood carving. It's an exquisite assemblage of dozens of prime artworks by the master carvers of St-Jean-Port-Joli. A variety of images and topics are grouped around a famous centrepiece Nativity scene, originally crafted by 17 local artisans.
Notwithstanding the historic/artistic value of the little church it is the focus of an active parish serving a Catholic population of 3,400 with daily morning Mass and four Eucharistic celebrations on weekends.