He was a puff of smoke away from becoming the most famous Canadian to ever walk the earth. Instead, La Motte and a mother get to keep a favourite son.
As the world learned Wednesday that an Argentine to be named Pope Francis was the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s mother, 91-year-old Graziella Michaud, smiled serenely at the image on television. She greeted the news with joy, according to her son Louis Ouellet. “I am keeping my son,” she said simply.
“It was a magical moment,” said Roch Ouellet, another brother of the Quebec cardinal who was considered one of the front-runners at the Vatican conclave. “It was also a moment of relief that we were able to tie up this great event. … I hope we will be able to breathe now.”
In La Motte, the result was greeted with both disappointment and overwhelming relief. The quietude enjoyed by its 450 residents would have likely been destroyed by pilgrims, even if they had also brought economic opportunity.
Cardinal Ouellet’s family had openly mourned the prospect of losing their brother to gain a pope.
Moments before the new pope’s identity was revealed, 13 residents of La Motte wandered into their town’s half-used church for the announcement. It was the first time they’d gathered in any number. Soon they were shedding tears, often in relief.
In their sudden need to share the experience, the La Mottois were joined by millions of Canadians glued to television sets to watch white smoke and learn that Cardinal Ouellet had fallen short of the papacy.
With 14 million followers, Catholicism is Canada’s largest religion. A small fraction of them actually attend church, so national pride probably explained Canadian interest more than faith.
The weeks since Benedict XVI stepped down has been filled with a whirlwind of attention on Cardinal Ouellet’s family and hometown, with dreams of economic opportunity, and fears over a threatened way of life. While much of it remained friendly, scrutiny brought obvious tension to some.
As Cardinal Ouellet’s family members planned to share their reaction to news of a new pope, they made it clear they would not tolerate questions about the cardinal’s brother, Paul, and his conviction years ago on allegations of sexually assaulting minors.
Roch Ouellet abruptly cut off questioning when asked about his brother’s conviction and its effect on Cardinal Ouellet’s chances to lead a church riven by sexual-abuse scandals. Townspeople had been asked to avoid talking about Paul Ouellet by the media handlers brought in by the town.
Over several days, residents of La Motte were steadfast in their refusal to address the issue. “Had no effect, I’m not talking about it,” said Raymond Desrosiers, an otherwise gregarious 69-year-old churchgoer who served at mass for the cardinal last year.
Not everyone was leading the cheering for the hometown boy. Jean-Rémi Asselin knows the cardinal and sat on school committees with his father, Pierre. He openly hoped Cardinal Ouellet wouldn’t get the job for his “own tranquillity of spirit.”
“The church has a lot of problems to resolve, and doesn’t seem particularly ready to face them,” said Mr. Asselin, 80, who added he has drifted away from the church as it has refused to modernize. “This is 2013. This is not the Middle Ages.”
René Martineau, the part-time mayor of the town whose day job is running a local greenhouse co-operative, shook with nerves in interviews and admitted “recent weeks have been a whirlwind” of conflicting emotions. “At least now we can control our future, rather than suddenly having events in control of us.”
He gushed his appreciation that Canada and the world had peered in on his little town and helped deliver a blast of renewed pride.
Marthe Béliveau, possibly the village’s most fervent believer, sat in a front-row seat watching the news from the Vatican and teared up when she heard the new pope was an Argentine. But she didn’t stay crestfallen for long.
“Cardinal Ouellet lifted us up. We would have loved to have him as pope, but now we’ll get to see him again,” she said.
Cardinal Ouellet is nearly a decade younger than Pope Francis, so it’s not impossible he will be in the running again, the mayor pointed out. “Cardinal Ouellet put our town on the map. And probably in 10 years we’ll start all over again,” he said. “We’ll be ready.”
Roch Ouellet appeared to grit his teeth at the mere suggestion. “Calm down, calm down,” he said. “Let’s let Francis do his job, and let the family catch its breath.”