Snub Part Five: Church and State
By Rob Labelle
The Snub saga began as a written history of Montreal’s paleolithic punk rock band: The American Devices. The title, Snub, makes it pretty obvious I was embarking on a personal account. No genealogical trees, no discographies or videographies, the story is more a chronology of hurt, attempts at personal vindication and outright bitterness. That’s why after four installments (which readers may remember from previous Fish Piss issues), I’m still no closer to recounting the ins and outs of dragging our so-called lives through the swamp land of Montreal’s so-called ‘music scene.’
With this chapter, I thought I’d take a bit of an historical sidetrack, delving into the social environment splattered across the stage of my childhood and that of the other Devices at the time when we were first sticking our little toes out the doors of our snug suburban bungalows, the first time Rick Trembles trembled, the first time my quixotic bowl-haircut bangs were dishevelled.
I hate to do this to y’all, but something inside demands I evoke the spectre of the Catholic Church. Yes, I know it’s a bore and I can almost hear the Fish Piss pages flipping to more alluring stimuli, but hang on; it’ll be educational, and maybe even just a little fun! Today, the Church’s grey eminence floats like a low-lying cloud hovering about the mountain, crowned by the Hydro-Quebec cross. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that cross were finally taken down? But as with some of the surprising ‘liberal’ reactions to 9-11, I bet even the most hip Plateau-ites would be up in arms if one evening we were suddenly presented with only the antennae and their solemn red bulbs.
Back in 1962, however, the Church was much more substantial. Solid as grey granite, and dangerous when threatened. Which it was. In that year, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (five popes after the first council in 1870 and the pope for whom the Dorval high school, whose alumni includes many an American Device accomplice, is named), with the aim of replacing “severity and condemnation with mercy and understanding” and to “find ways by which the Church can better present itself to the world of today, and reach into the hearts and minds of men.” While the Catholic Church was struggling to make itself more relevant, the unchecked power it had entertained in Quebec since the founding of New France was facing its own local crisis. In addition to the rise and political promotion of Quebec nationalism, The Quiet Revolution would succeed in a few short years in extricating the state from its traditional intertwined relationship with the Church. “Le ciel est blue, l’enfer est rouge,” was the call from the pulpit before the election days throughout la grande noirceur of the reign of terror presided over by Premier Maurice Duplessis, “informing” the faithful of God’s will in the voting booth. When the ‘rouge’ Liberal government of Jean Lesage finally gained power with its the slogan “Maitre chez nous,” masters of our own house, the Church’s role as stable master for an entire population of renewable cheap labor was shaken to its very foundations. As these same faithful miraculously began to stay away in droves, the color that had been equated with the Liberal party began to grace the balance sheets of every paroisse in the province.
Desperately, and in the spirit of Vatican II, local Church authorities tried to regroup to find new ways to “reach into the hearts”– and caisse populaire accounts– of its dwindling faithful. The hulking and costly stone churches that dotted Montreal and dominated every village in the province became the stage for less divine events. The clergy, or rather, their thankless minions culled from the Catholic Widows Leagues or the Society of Failed Nuns, discovered that if parishioners could no longer be led to the collection plate on Sunday morning, perhaps their wallets could be loosened over the bingo tables on Monday evening.
A “new look” was also promoted. Many of the great churches were torn down, to be replaced by structures designed in a style imagined to reflect the new era. If the parish accountant had been recruited from the ranks of the emotionally disenfranchised, where the Church had found its new architects was anyone’s guess. In what seemed a vengeful attack on the population for its infidelity in the voting booth, the picturesque towns along the St. Lawrence, with their clusters of traditional slope-roofed homes, began to look as if they had been descended upon by cinder-block birds of prey with gaping beaks poised to swallow up any remaining parishioners. This invasion of Romulan space vessels gave the Church at least one foot in the avant-garde by pre-dating Star Trek by several years.
Along with Quebec’s old churches, the Catholic schools were also being torn down. But rather than being too big, the old schools were now too small. The baby boomers were in full swing and more room was needed. And though Catholic Church coffers were reduced, the government was making huge contributions to the school system, which was still under the reins of the Church diocese. With no room to build in parish yards, these new buildings were located in the outer edges of Montreal’s sprawling burbs, land expropriated from farmers who had been living in border-line poverty for generations, and part of the trend to pave over some of the richest farmland in North America. Safety code prohibited more than two floors, so these new schools spread themselves across the fields like slinking reptiles, their minimal slits of windows the result of theorists who had convinced Catholic school board planners that limiting the view on the surrounding fields of trampled corn and half-dug foundations would increase student scores. The Church agreed, and old, papery hands rubbed with anticipation. These, after all, were the children whose parents were straying from Sunday mass. With 400 years of fear-mongering now beginning to fail them, the hope was that in combining the full weight of catechism with new teaching techniques-sensory deprivation combined with the rampant use of overhead projectors; perhaps a more indelible stamp could be left on this generation than on the last.