In Cardinal Ouellet’s rural hometown, dreams of a brighter future quickly fade

LA MOTTE, QUE. — The Globe and Mail

Lise Breault looks across the street from her store, Chez Flo, to Saint Luc church in La Motte, Que., where Cardinal Marc Ouellet was ordained. (Les Perreaux/The Globe and Mail)

They didn’t dream of getting rich, exactly. They are much too modest for that.

But for a month, some people in La Motte dared to hope a Canadian pope might bring a brighter future for a village of 439 clinging to existence.

There was the farmer who had visions of selling a few more of his organic vegetables to new restaurants catering to papal tourists. The church volunteer who mused about reinstalling pews, turning a part-time community centre back into a full-time church. The shopkeeper who hoped her general store, the only business in town, might finally be snapped up after five years on the market, allowing her to retire.

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Then there were the plans much further from any drawing board. Doesn’t every pope need a hometown museum, Mayor René Martineau wondered aloud. Maybe the casse-croûte fast-food restaurant that had shut down years ago could reopen. Mr. Martineau even got a call from a real-estate developer inquiring about building a motel in town. The mayor laughed him off. “How about we get a pope first,” he told the developer.

Instead, the circus left town within 12 hours of the puff of white smoke. The day after Cardinal Marc Ouellet was passed over, the only trace of papal frenzy were tracks that were frozen solid into the church parking lot from television-network trucks.

“It’s over as quickly as it began,” said Réjean Rose, the organic farmer and one of the dreamers.

Just the day before Cardinal Ouellet was passed over, Mr. Rose sat at his kitchen table and flipped excitedly through history books and old tourist brochures.

He pointed to a photo dated 1920 of “Le Colonel,” a tour boat that plied the waters of Lac La Motte. The small ship regularly departed from nearby Amos packed with ladies in fine dresses and gentlemen wearing formal straw boater hats. They would disembark for a picnic near the picturesque village of La Motte. “Who says we couldn’t do that again?” Mr. Rose asked.

Sitting 600 kilometres away from Montreal, La Motte was probably never going to see the millions of tourists drawn to the European hometowns of Benedict and, especially, the beloved John Paul II. At the tail end of a long, hard winter, with drifting snow, bare trees and icy, rutted roads, it’s easy to miss La Motte’s charms.

But for three years running, the village has won Les Fleurons du Québec, a summertime green-thumb contest among the province’s prettiest, flowery towns and villages. The village also plays host to an annual food, art and music festival called La Route du Terroir that routinely draws more than 5,000 people on a single weekend. “You have to come in the summer,” said Mr. Rose’s partner, Johanne Morin.

But it would be a mistake to think the vast majority of the people who live in the northern village hoped the papal frenzy would become permanent. One afternoon after the last TV crew was gone, the naysayers began to emerge from their homes and trickle into Chez Flo, the general store that is the only business and social hub in the village. They were still reticent to be named rooting against the hometown boy, but even a onetime La Motte economic development officer was pointed in her view: “Thank God this didn’t happen. It would have ruined us.”

“Since [Ouellet] lost, this view seems to be nearly unanimous,” said Florent Breault, who owns the store with his wife, Lise. “There are a lot of people who are very happy this didn’t happen. They got a taste of how it might go, and they didn’t like it.”

The Breaults were among the most vocal supporters of Cardinal Ouellet’s candidacy. They readily admit they had a stake. Their store has been for sale for more than five years and the couple, he 68, she 64, are eager to retire from their 100-hour work weeks. Mid-conclave, they received a call from a potential buyer, who offered $269,000 for the store and attached house. Since Pope Francis was named, the potential buyer hasn’t called back.

“I was really hoping this would be our chance to slow down,” Lise Breault said.

People in La Motte are fiercely protective of their way of life. Before Mr. Rose and Ms. Morin could set up their tiny, two-hectare farm in 1998, they had to win a referendum on whether to grant them the right to cultivate crops in a rural area that was designated “village.”

They grow peppers, tomatoes and garlic among a menu of vegetables distributed weekly to 180 subscriber families through the summer. It’s not exactly factory farming.

“A pope could have really transformed the atmosphere for small business,” Mr. Rose said. “We would have gone from a little village with only one service to, who knows?”

Mr. Rose noted that Pope Francis is 76 and has had health problems, while Cardinal Ouellet is only 68.

“I think this will come up again. The new Pope has only got one lung. Cardinal Ouellet will be next. We can wait. We’re not going anywhere.”

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