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Gilbert Pelletier sits in L’Église de L'Isle-Verte, awaiting word on the fate of his aunt. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Gilbert Pelletier sits in L’Église de L'Isle-Verte, awaiting word on the fate of his aunt. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Quebec fire: Mourners number in the hundreds Add to ...

Lauréa Dubé came to town reluctantly, but after a long life of backbreaking work on the family farm, the Résidence du Havre seemed a nice place to rest.

Ms. Dubé barely had time to catch a breath between giving birth to her nine children, with sugar maples to tap and livestock to tend in the rolling country inland from L’Isle-Verte, Que., according to her nephew Gilbert Pelletier. “She had just an enormous capacity for work. There were a lot of hard-working women in her family, but I think she was the toughest on her body,” Mr. Pelletier recalled on Friday.

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Mr. Pelletier said Ms. Dubé, 80, is among the roughly 30 people missing after a fire destroyed the facility early Thursday morning. Like family members of many other residents, he was waiting for official confirmation on Friday on the fate of his aunt.

People are very guarded up and down this shore of the Lower St. Lawrence as they stand by for news, but a picture of the eight confirmed dead and dozens missing and presumed gone is slowly taking shape. The details that are emerging are of people who lived their lives in traditional roles almost forgotten in modern urban Quebec: The men were farmers and mariners, fishermen and lumberjacks. Many of their wives worked themselves to the bone on the homestead, caring for immense families with eight, 12 even 16 children. Almost all belonged to a Catholic church they believed in until the end.

The great number of offspring left behind means hundreds of people from multiple generations are engaged in mourning that is spreading across the continent.

Ms. Dubé is but one example: Mr. Pelletier said nearly two dozen family members are travelling from Ontario, Florida and across Quebec to gather at the family homestead. “It’ll be quite a crowd,” said Mr. Pelletier, 78, who was clearly gratified at the show of generational, cross-border solidarity.

The relatives will return to the home Ms. Dubé only reluctantly left with her husband, Raymond, about a decade ago. In fact, Mr. Pelletier said, when Raymond died less than two years after they arrived at Résidence du Havre, she joked that she should move back to the farm, which is up a butte called Côteau des Érables. “It was too late,” Mr. Pelletier said with a smile. “Her son had already took over.”

The inferno that has left this community in mourning inevitably draws comparisons to the derailment, explosions and fire last summer at Lac-Mégantic that killed 47. People in L’Isle-Verte make similar connections.

“In Mégantic, they lost youth and the future. Here, it’s age, it’s wisdom and it’s history. These people were our reference books. They kept us in touch with our past,” said Marielle Marquise, a retired schoolteacher and lay minister at the town’s stunning 168-year-old neo-Gothic cathedral.

(Official provincial heritage documents say the church is called L’église de La Décollation-de-Saint-Jean-Baptiste – the Church of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. The parish tourist brochure calls it L’Église de L’Isle-Verte.)

Ms. Marquis was a regular visitor to many of the residents whose families were far away. She also lost a cousin.

The disaster will trigger an abrupt generational change for many families, noted Céline Brilliant, a church volunteer. “When there’s no more grandfather and no more grandmother, you lose your rallying point, and families drift apart,” she said.

Ms. Marquise expects to be busy conducting funerals in her role as a lay minister. On Friday, she joined Mr. Pelletier to open the church, which remained the town’s most vital institution for most of the people at the residence – even as their children and grandchildren abandon regular church service, like most Quebeckers.

Father Gilles Frigon, the parish priest, said the residence was full of the devout, even though most of them could rarely get out to mass. Instead, he went to them. His last service at Résidence du Havre was on New Year’s Day. “They are very religious, very prayerful people,” he said. “The choir was singing. We had a wonderful, joyous celebration.”

Father Frigon said the absence of their children and grandchildren from Sunday service should not be taken for a lack of faith. In this area, unlike bigger cities, people still overwhelmingly mark major rites of passage in church, he said. “They have lost their Sunday habit, but they’ve kept their baptisms, their marriages and their funerals,” he said. “And they still have a lot of faith and values from the church.”

The priest has called in backup from Montreal to help deal with mourning and the rush of funerals.

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