Hustak, Alan. Saint Patrick's of Montreal: The Biography of a Basilica. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1998. ISBN 1-55065-100-5. Pp. 176. CA$ 17.95
In his "Biography of a Basilica," Alan Hustak has presented an historical examination of the culture and ethnicity of Montreal's Irish immigrants and their descendants. Their stories and trials were not unlike those of many of North America's nineteenth and early twentieth century immigrants. Similar stories are recounted, for example, in such works as Robert Orsi's Madonna of 115th Street (London: Yale, 1985), a history that expresses the hopes and frustrations of Italian immigrants to New York City. Could not such a story also be written about Saint Patrick's of Ottawa, named a basilica on March 17, 1995?
Saint Patrick's of Montreal is equally a history of the religious leadership of the Irish Catholic community and is in fact a biography of its pastors. For throughout most of the basilica's history, it is the priests who play a pivotal role in defining and defending the direction of the Irish Catholic community, encouraging its identity and speaking as its representative to a majority French-speaking diocese.
It is interesting to note that unlike many stories surrounding Catholic establishment in a new world, the controversies recorded here are not often those of Catholics in opposition to Protestants. Rather, their problems have to do with the religious orders, the diocese, and the majority French speaking Catholics exerting their own unique identity. The Irish Catholics of Montreal were already long familiar with such situations. They came from an Ireland that had penal laws against Catholics. The building of their particular church, conceived in 1841 and completed six years later, was their struggle to establish their Catholic and ethnic identity in an environment that was not ready to accept another type of Catholic identity. Hustak speaks of this endeavour from chapter to chapter as he outlines the labours of the pastors of Saint Patrick's who devoted their lives in service to the Irish community. One visiting Irish priest, M. B. Buckley, summed up the situation of Montreal's Irish Catholics when he noted in 1870, "A great antipathy seems to exist between the French and the Irish, clearly not on religious grounds, inasmuch as both are Catholics; but the feeling illustrates the truth that men's minds are embittered as much, if not more, by political and national prejudices as by difference of religious faith" (p. 57). Buckley also noted that efforts had been made to blend the two nationalities, but "oil and water are not more dissociable." One can not fail to recall and be haunted by this statement when considering the relationship between French and English speaking Canadians today.
The establishment of a Catholic identity for the Irish immigrants rests with the support they received from the Holy See in 1872. It was decided that the English speaking people in Montreal had the right to their own church building, even though the bishop of Montreal had decreed otherwise. This would eventually lead to other English speaking Catholic churches constructed near French speaking ones and the multiplication of services to the communities, some of which exist to this day.
This book is helpful for understanding the situation of a minority religious group under the strong leadership of its pastors. The reader will discover that community not through the biography of the church itself, but through the biographies of its pastors, whose leadership exerted a strong faith identity for their people. The nomination of this church as a basilica on March 17, 1989 was indeed appropriate. Saint Patrick's has continued to be known for its dignity, as well as important and significant as a place of worship.
Can the story of Saint Patrick's assist Canadians in general, as well as Catholics in particular, in understanding the cultural diversity that has both enriched and enraged the Canadian mosaic? In this short, yet interesting 176 page history, it may be possible to come not only to a better knowledge of what the life of faith meant through the years to this particular community, but how similar our own faith journeys may be today.
Dr. William J. Turner, Pastor.
Church of St. Mary, Chelsea, Michigan.
Dr. Turner is a graduate of the McMaster University Doctor of Ministry Programme (1997); his thesis was entitled "A People's Sense of Sacred: Catholic Identity and its Relationship to the Catholic Church Building."