It must have been cold, too cold for a large gathering, on the 23rd day of December 1708 such that the only documented witnesses to the burial of Marie De La Mare were Jacques Villaneuve and Charles Boismé. A week earlier, the burial of Marie’s daughter, Louise, was attended only by her brother in law, François Bedard, family friend and neighbor Jean Garneau as well as Charles Boismé. Ten days prior, the burial of Marie’s son-in-law Joseph Verret was attended by Charles Villeneuve, brother of the aforementioned Jacques, the ever-present Charles Boismé and many others (“plusieurs autres”). Finally, just weeks later, François Bedard and Boismé witnessed the burial of Guillaume Regnault.
It would be a mistake to conclude that all of these attendees were family friends, Boismé in particular. He appears over and over again in the records as an attendee to these inhumations. Sometimes he was the sole named witness with the burial of Marie De La Mare’s grandson Jean-Baptiste Verret being one such example. Assuming Boismé was not some 18th Century predecessor to Bud Cort’s character from the 1971 movie Harold and Maude with a ghoulish penchant for attending funerals and witnessing burials, we must conclude Boismé performed some role for the parish. According to David Gosselin’s note in the Dictionnaire Généalogique Des Familles de Charlesbourg, Boismé “resided in the neighborhood of the old cemetery” and was the first known “beadle” of the parish performing various functions in support of the community.
The cemetery was located next to the old church which was first built in 1695 on land obtained by the parish of Charlesbourg. Guillaume Regnault signed the document of transfer on behalf of the parish fabrique on June 24, 1686. According to Reine Malouin the use of the old cemetery predated the construction of the church by twenty years. Unfortunately, the passage of time has all but erased specific traces of those buried there.
Although the community used the cemetery until 1894, the site encountered difficulties as early as 1726 when Monsieur Eustache Chartier de Lotbinière, archdeacon, visited Charlesbourg and ordered the cemetery closed until repairs could be made. The repairs must have been made as the cemetery remained in use by the community for another 168 years but not without controversy. The decision to stop using the old cemetery caused conflict between some within the community as Pierre Villeneuve, a church warden and secretary of the Municipal Council, had to write to the Bureau of Hygiene to close the cemetery to prevent the parish priest from continuing to bury parishioners at the site. The case even went to Superior Court where a judgment allowed for the transfer of the parents of those who wished to exhume and relocate them in the new cemetery. Today, one can visit the site of the old church and cemetery in le parc du Sacre-Coeur.
Archaeological excavations occurred in 2007 and the remains of the former church, the cemetery as well as some burials were uncovered. A monument was erected to “recall the story behind the site. Concrete and turf slabs are reminiscent of a church floor. The trees and their foliage represent the roof while the benches symbolize the steles and the pews. The backlit glass modules are an extension of the apse of the old church.”
Just as the monument tries to recall the “story behind the site”, I have endeavored to recall the lives of Marie and Guillaume based upon the scant documentation I have been able to uncover. Just as their children and friends must have done during the winter of 1708-1709 in which Marie and Guillaume completed their journey together, it seems appropriate to attempt to measure the significance of their lives to the extent that we can.
It is understandable to emphasize their pioneering and foundational role they played in the establishment of a European presence in Canada. Yet, they were rather ordinary people who likely would have left little trace had it not been for Guillaume’s time as a soldier in the Carignan Regiment and Marie’s role as a fille du roi, two aspects of their lives that tell us very little about who they were and which give just a hint as to what their lives were like.
Even so, the Carignan Regiment and the filles du roi though much celebrated today might not have reached such popularity without the work of Abbé Groulx who sought to address what he perceived as a crisis of French Canadien identity, a crisis that was 200 years in the future when Marie and Guillaume were laid to rest a few weeks apart in the winter of 1708-09. Groulx’s effort to create a Franco-American nationalism, which inspired the work of Benjamin Sulte, Régis Roy and Gérard Malchelosse, cast the Carignan Regiment as the fathers of a noble race that was suffering under the Protestant British Rule. Writing in the early 20th Century, Roy and Malchelosse claimed that “this valiant Carignan blood pulsed more strongly yet in the breasts of our dear Canadians in 1914, when they set foot on the sacred soil and could say, ‘France, we are here! We are the descendants of those soldiers you sent us in 1665 to suppress the barbarous hordes which threatened our land, and we have come to you in your hour of peril.’” As Jack Verny noted, the exploits of the Carignan can hardly be described as valiant as they very nearly came to ruin due to incompetence and achieved very little in terms of military objectives. Similarly, we must be wary of our own efforts to commemorate at the risk of substituting myth for history.
And Marie? Her membership in the filles du roi no doubt resulted from circumstances she would gladly have avoided. She was as vulnerable as possible and subject to the whims of others. We should not forget that the arrival of the French on the North American continent contributed to the displacement and deaths of a multitude of indigenous peoples. In this respect, Guillaume and Marie were useful pawns in the French Crown’s effort at settler colonialism. While the French were never as committed to the North American empire project as the British and there were some important differences which I shall not go into here, the consequences of their activities cannot be ignored.
It is easy to get caught up in our ancestry, to be proud of our pioneer ancestors whose names are etched in monuments or on a street corner, but commemoration is not history and in and of itself does not do enough to help us understand the historical moment in which they lived.
If we can understand the history of our ancestors we can perhaps understand that ancestry does not just consist of a bunch of people who lived a long time ago who have nothing to tell us about ourselves or the historical moment we live in.
While it seems obvious that the lives of our fathers and mothers influenced us, we must not forget that they too had fathers and mothers who shaped them. That legacy influence forms a line back through the centuries both biologically, psychologically and historically. Thus, while today is a new day, it is not completely new. Our experiences and our identity are not shaped in isolation and our present day is not completely unprecedented. We are never completely alone in our life. When we uncover our family’s history, we cast a lifeline back in time and there are people there who can catch it and help brace and anchor us in the stormy seas of the present. The more accurately we know our past, the stronger that line will be with a lesser chance of breaking and setting us adrift. We should heed the advice of the poet William Stafford
“And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider –
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe –
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”
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