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Andre Chalifoux blows kisses at his wife Cecile Fortin in front of their decorated home in St-Valentin, Quebec on February 10, 2011. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail/Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Andre Chalifoux blows kisses at his wife Cecile Fortin in front of their decorated home in St-Valentin, Quebec on February 10, 2011. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail/Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Saint-Valentin, Que., has its heart set on becoming the capital of love Add to ...

The snowbanks and farmhouses are decked out with Cupids and red hearts. Love is in the air - along with a stiff February wind chill.

Residents in this Quebec farming village do more than swap boxes of chocolates on Valentine's Day. They live, after all, in a town named for the patron saint of love. So here amid the grain silos and snowmobile tracks, a February tradition has taken root - a celebration of love, Le Festival de la Saint-Valentin.

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"The idea," festival president Pierre Beaulieu said earnestly, "is to promote love."

The mayor painted hearts on the hockey rink ice. Long-married couples will celebrate their unions at church on Sunday. And the post office has been busy postmarking the town's name on valentine cards mailed from across Canada and as far away as France.

No one risks mistaking Saint-Valentin, a one-road village with no grocery store or gas station, for Paris or Niagara Falls. Still, it's a wonder this pocket-size corner of Quebec with fewer than 500 souls rallies in the depths of winter to celebrate Cupid at all. The centrepiece of Saint-Valentin's 10-day fête is the annual Mass for Lovers - not just for young fiancés, but married couples marking wedding anniversaries. This year's event will be presided over by the region's recently installed bishop.

In an avowedly secular province with abysmal church attendance and one of the lowest marriage rates in the Western world, this is no small feat.

"It's one of the rare occasions when the church is full," said Luc Van Velzen, a local volunteer firefighter who helps organize the celebration in Saint-Valentin, an hour's drive south of Montreal.

Mr. Van Velzen got the idea for the lovers' mass while vacationing with his wife in Saint-Valentin, France. He sets out each year to find fiancés and offers them a celebration of their coming nuptials, followed by a free brunch at the village sugar-shack. "It's like a wedding rehearsal without the stress," he said. "It's their day and we want to spoil them."

Cécile Fortin and André Chalifoux will be at mass Sunday to mark their 45th year of marriage. They already spent weeks decorating the exterior of their home in Valentine's Day motifs of lights, cutouts and a pair of life-sized mannequins. The Nativity crèche on their front lawn was removed after Christmas and replaced by a Valentine theme.

"People can't believe there's a place called Saint-Valentin that really exists. I just want to show it off and share it," said Mrs. Fortin, 67. She and her husband are exchanging sapphire rings this year for la Saint-Valentin, as the holiday is known in Quebec, and look forward to the bishop's blessing at the Sunday mass.

"I want to thank the Good Lord that I'm with my husband. We're still lovebirds," she said. "I've learned that marriage is like a garden. You've got to tend to it."

The town does seem to attract its share of romantics. Last year, a man in his 50s dropped to his knees while visiting Les Fraises Louis Hébert, a berry grower that produces wines and local products. Owner Robert Hébert was concerned. "I thought he was fainting." In fact, the man was proposing to his companion.

At the post office, postmistress Liliane Baribeau stamps mail with the Saint-Valentin postmark; over the years, valentines have arrived from as far as Japan, sent via Saint-Valentin just so their recipients will see the special stamp on the envelope. Other mailings are from Quebeckers who drive from out of town so they can get the postmark and mail it to a spouse who lives under the same roof. Lucine Desjardins and Pierre Juteau made the one-hour drive from Montreal to send valentines to their three grown daughters in Quebec.

"We adore our children and we just want to show it," Mrs. Desjardins said.

Saint-Valentine isn't all sweetness and light these days: There's a protest brewing over wind farms in the area that is dividing local opinion. But the mayor insists it won't get in the way of the town's 17th annual Valentine celebration.

Quebec is a province of festivals and, by most standards, Saint-Valentin's contribution is modest. There are carriage rides, a crafts fair and a dinner-show on Monday with crooner Michel Louvain. But at the town hall, bedecked with a banner proclaiming "Saint-Valentin, Village of Love," Mayor Pierre Chamberland sees bigger.

"We are the only ones in North America with this name," he said. "My dream is to become the capital of love."

 

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