Two Solitudes

The Madonna of the St. Denis Bar-BQ

A review of The Madonna of the St. Denis Bar-BQ by Huguette O'neil

Published on October 1, 2004

The Madonna of the St. Denis Bar-BQ
Huguette O'neil

DC Books

(Reviewed with Travelling Light)In Canada, when we speak of “two solitudes,” we generally think of our anglophone and francophone populations, two cultures separated by invisible barriers. However, in Quebec there exists a different set of solitudes. For most of Quebec’s existence, the province has been fundamentally Catholic, and these two slim books, both set partly in Montreal, paint a dramatic picture of the two halves of the effect the Church has had.

On one side we have Tony Walsh. An unassuming saint of a man, his path through life led him from a searing experience as a 17-year-old British soldier in World War I, to Canada where he taught in a First Nations community, and finally to a life of radical poverty in Montreal, where he founded Benedict Labre House. His centre fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless, and spread the gospel of social justice. Walsh didn’t plan to be a leader. His brand of leadership seemed to be an innate part of his DNA. “It was not that he directed events and caused them to happen, though sometimes he did,” writes John Buell. “It was that he had a way of preparing people, and that around him things crystallized and developed. This may indeed have surprised him.” Walsh’s strength came from his interior life, daily Mass, and finding quiet times for prayer and meditation.

On the other side, we have Huguette O’Neil’s mother Bertha, the heroine of O’Neil’s memoir, motherless at 13 when her 39-year-old mother died following the birth of her eighth child. While Bertha’s father mourned and shed tears “over his inability to act other than according to God’s will, as instructed to do so by the chaplain,” the children were scattered and young Bertha was sent to an orphanage. Deprived of affection, she grew into an emotional cripple who turned to alcohol when her husband died at 55, leaving her with two girls to raise. Although Mass was part of her life, and she was buried with the full rites of the Catholic church, her religion “was one of superstition and social propriety. One had to be seen in church on Sunday in order to be in the neighbours’ good graces.”

Travelling Light’s author is a professor and writer who met his subject in 1952 and worked closely with him in Montreal, absorbing Walsh’s attitudes and approach to life while keeping his distance from Walsh-the-young-man. “I wish now, for the purpose of biography, that I had questioned him thoroughly about himself and his life before Montreal and even before Canada. But once our working relationship was established, I felt I should not intrude on his time…And true to my promise, I didn’t pry into his past.”

On the other hand, the history of Belle-Moue – a short form of belle-mouman, or mother-in-law, a nickname bestowed by her son-in-law – is explored by her daughter, a feminist writer who served on the Quebec Council on the Status of Women. Huguette O’Neil analyzes her mother and her grandmother and contemplates the emotional leftovers of an era in which “little Bertha’s mother, extremely pregnant, found herself being asked by her confessor if she was doing anything to obstruct the course of nature and warned about committing such a mortal sin.” Bertha, says O’Neil, was left with an innate fear of living. While O’Neil manages to explore the ravages of her mother’s life with wisdom and tenderness, in refusing to model herself after her mother, O’Neil says, “I rejected the woman.”

Here, then, we find two radically opposite points of view, two dissimilar personalities, chronicled by distinctly different writers. Taken individually, they offer insights into the effect of life’s defining moments. Taken together, they are Quebec. mRb

Joan Eyolfson Cadham is a freelance writer from Foam Lake, Saskatchewan who has spent many hours on the pleasure side of the counter of Montreal pastry shops.



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