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Montreal, Québec

Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel (The Sailors' Church)

Small ship votives hang from the vaulted ceiling of this port-side church with a Latin inscription on the wall, "Pray for us fishermen in the hour of our death." 

Construction started on Notre Dame du Bon Secours, one of the oldest religious landmarks of Montreal, in 1655 under the instigation of French nun Margerite Bourgeoys, founder of the Congregation of Notre Dame de Montreal, who rallied the colonists to established a sanctuary devoted to the Holy Virgin.

After one of her journeys to France, Margerite came back with a wooden effigy of the Blue Lady and placed it on the main altar of the small church, which soon became a spiritual focal point of the Montreal community. The 16th-century statue enjoyed unusual popularity and feverish veneration among the locals after the European relic survived a fire which destroyed the chapel in 1754, “miraculously” standing intact in the lukewarm ashes of Notre Dame’s embers.

The chapel was quickly rebuilt, and through the decades was modified and embellished. At the time, an increasing number of settlers were crossing the Atlantic: New France, new fate, as long as one survived the perilous ocean journey. Fronting the harbor, Notre Dame du Bon Secours often became the first dry and steady step for newcomers in the country, who would go by the church to pray for their fortune.

As a thankful gesture for their safe trip, sailors commissioned boat models to be hung in the chapel as ex votos, an unusual display that soon attracted pilgrims and curious travelers. To emphasize the position of Notre Dame du Bon Secours as the patron church of sailors, Monseigneur Ignace Bourget, Bishop of Montreal, offered a Stella Maris, a statue of the Virgin Mary as the Star of the Sea. Placed on the roof of the Chapel, the Virgin Mary keeps welcoming travelers with open arms and her wise overlook on the port.

In a small adjoining museum, tucked in a small back room, are 58 small scenes. These charming dioramas featuring dolls were made by nuns (and their friends and families) in the 1940s, and tell the life story of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, from her birth to her death. Some are delightfully folksy, and others are quite impressive, but all demonstrate, through hundreds of hours of careful and detailed work, a loving and passionate devotion to a French nun from the 1600s. 

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