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Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet in Rome, Italy on June 4, 2009. (Vandeville Eric/ABACA/Newscom)
Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet in Rome, Italy on June 4, 2009. (Vandeville Eric/ABACA/Newscom)

Can the Cardinal who couldn't save his Quebec church save the Vatican? Add to ...

Cardinal Marc Ouellet is a man of the cloth and a deep theological thinker, but he is not above using e-mail. And this week, amid feverish betting reminiscent of the lead-up to the Super Bowl, the Cardinal sent a message to his family back in La Motte, Que.

With all the talk that he is a contender to succeed the resigning Pope Benedict XVI, the 68-year-old Cardinal told those closest to him that the best response was no response. “The coming month will be rather tough, given the novelty of the situation, and speculation is rife,” he wrote to his siblings and 90-year-old mother.

Bombarded with interview requests, he chose instead a week-long retreat of “profound silence.”

“It’s the best preparation,” he said, “for what will follow.”

This was a characteristic route for Cardinal Ouellet, a man known for both spiritual inquiry and mistrust of the media. And it was equally apt that he turned to his family roots in rural Quebec at a time of turmoil.

He was produced by the village of La Motte, 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal, in rugged Abitibi, whose picture-postcard lakes and forests personify the soul of traditional Quebec. It was here, amid a large and loving family of eight children, that he first felt his calling.

“It was all inside of him,” his mother, Graziella, says with a smile from a rocking chair in her lakeside home. “When he wanted something, he was determined.”

But it is also here that the hearts and souls of Catholic Quebeckers have slipped from the church’s grasp, transforming what was once arguably Canada’s most devout province into one of the most secular.

You wouldn’t know it to look at La Motte: Its tiny, no-stoplight centre, as in most Quebec villages, is still dominated by a wooden church, its spire soaring above the snow-blanketed fields and farm buildings.

Within its sanctuary, a young Marc Ouellet, in a Catholic family typical of its time, attended mass each Sunday, with siblings and mother and father side by side in their own paid-for pew. Cardinal Ouellet has made regular returns to the Église Saint-Luc.

Yet today that church is just a memory. Two years ago, it became the La Motte Community Centre.

Faced with bills to pay and plummeting attendance, the church was legally handed over to the village; the pews were sold off and the space for confessionals converted into a bar that sells beer for $4.25 and port for $5.

The centre stage has been taken by live shows and religion relegated to the sidelines: The 22-foot-tall taffeta curtain in the back is opened every second Sunday to reveal the original church altar, where an itinerant priest in his 80s gives mass to about 15 to 20 aging parishioners.

And so it goes in Quebec, where Catholic adherence has been in steep decline ever since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when Quebeckers rebelled against the church’s dominance over social and political life.

The fate of the Église Saint-Luc serves as a cautionary tale for the church worldwide, confronted with vanishing flocks in onetime strongholds.

“We saved the church by adapting,” says Pierre Labrèche, a mop-haired mail carrier and storyteller who also heads the community centre’s board of directors. He is placing bistro tables around the former church sanctuary for an upcoming bluegrass concert.

“We’re in a society that’s more and more secular, and the church has to adapt to new realities to survive,” he says. “If we didn’t make the changes here, maybe our church would have been turned into condos, maybe it would have been demolished.”

Quebec’s convulsive changes were already under way by the time Cardinal Ouellet went the opposite way from most of his generation and chose the priesthood, eventually to gain his current prominence as a multilingual, rigorous theologian with a place in the Pope’s inner circle.

He had been an athletic, hockey-loving boy who hunted partridge, worked summer jobs fighting forest fires and even enjoyed the company of young women on occasion. He had spent hours fishing with his older brother, Louis, passing a single fishing rod back and forth.

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