“He always got more fish that I did,” Louis says. Cardinal Ouellet has said he was praying while his line was in the water.
Cardinal Ouellet has described the family atmosphere as religious but not especially devout; he was favoured by a grandfather who doted on him. His family also had a bookshelf stocked with encyclopedias, and Marc’s father – Pierre Ouellet, a self-taught farmer whose rose to become a financial inspector and director-general of the school board – brought home magazines such as the worldly Paris-Match and Cinémonde.
Young Marc followed world events, and marvelled when John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, was elected to the White House in 1960.
“He was always reading a book,” his mother recalls.
But the future cardinal’s road to Damascus began on an outdoor hockey rink in the Abitibi town of Cadillac, when during a friendly match the 17-year-old’s skate got caught in a crack on the ice.
“My brother was the star of our team. He was a good scorer. When he fell to the ice, we knew it was over,” recalls his younger brother, Roch. “As soon as he took off his skate, his leg swelled right up. We could tell it was broken.”
During his convalescence, the injured player began to read Saint-Thérèse of Lisieux, to pray and to contemplate. “There was a calling. A search for meaning,” he told the newspaper Le Soleil in 2005. “I wanted to give my life to something important. And faith had always been part of my world.”
According to Roch, “Papa wasn’t too keen on the idea of Marc becoming a priest” – until Marc, still a teenager, worked up his courage and told Pierre that his choice was irrevocable.
He was ordained in 1968 in the Église Saint-Luc, and that year, as Quebeckers were abandoning the church in droves and counterculture fervour gripped capitals around the world, he became vicar of the St. Sauveur church in Val d’Or, about an hour’s drive away from La Motte.
His ministry work included the church choir, catechism in local elementary schools, and boat trips for youngsters on local waterways. It was short-lived, but his stint put him in direct contact with ordinary people’s daily problems.
“Things were already changing. We had long hair, and the church was becoming less popular,” recalls Rénald Perron, who was then a 12-year-old in the choir. “But [then-Rev. Ouellet] let it go, so that we’d stick around. There was a pool table in the presbytery, and he let us play there. He was young and easy to approach, and was a good listener. We adored him.”
Then, nearly as suddenly as he appeared, Rev. Ouellet was gone. In 1970, the year Quebec went through the upheaval of the October Crisis, he left the province to teach in a seminary in South America – experience that now looks good on his papal résumé and launched his ascent through the Catholic hierarchy.
He returned to Canada on and off, but by the time he became Archbishop of Quebec City in the 2000s, his conservative views had put him on a collision course with secular Quebec.
In 2010, when he called abortion a moral crime even in the case of rape, a deluge of condemnation poured down from politicians, women’s groups and media commentators, one of whom likened the Catholic primate to an Iranian imam.
Some church observers say the Cardinal’s long absences from Quebec put him out of touch with his home province. Even most of his siblings have followed the majority and abandoned religious practice.
“We’re a close-knit family and we love one another. My brother is a believer and a man of immense faith. I respect that,” says Roch, a retired school-board manager whose picture windows open up onto birds feeders spread amid a stand of trees.
“I think he’s nostalgic for the days of Catholic fervour that once existed in Quebec. But, like it or not, that’s not the reality any more. Not just for me, but for all Quebeckers. And I hope we don’t return to a time when religion ruled our lives. I want my freedom.”