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‘Vive le Québec libre!’


MONTREAL — Quebec’s majestic cathedrals are for sale.
Their tall spires dominate the skylines of the hamlets along the St. Lawrence River, symbolic of the role they once played in this French-speaking province. But now many are vacant, making them tempting targets for vandals — and developers.
From the driver’s seat of his small Nissan, Michael Mazzalongo cranes his neck and points to an old Anglican church. Bored teens have broken most of its stained glass. It will become an apartment block as soon as the city’s historic preservation officials approve.
Mazzalongo and his wife, Lise, moved back to their native Montreal from California in 2003 to serve the church they helped launch 20 years ago in the community of Verdun.
“Quebec’s heroes are missionaries,” he said, though it’s hard to tell from the state of its churches.
eFrom the driver’s seat of his small Nissan, Michael Mazzalongo cranes his neck and points to an old Anglican church. Bored teens have broken most of its stained glass. It will become an apartment block as soon as the city’s historic preservation officials approve.
Mazzalongo and his wife, Lise, moved back to their native Montreal from California in 2003 to serve the church they helped launch 20 years ago in the community of Verdun.
“Quebec’s heroes are missionaries,” he said, though it’s hard to tell from the state of its churches. In 1534 Jacques Cartier planted a cross on the Gaspe Peninsula and claimed it for France. Adventurous clergymen sailed from Europe to settle the province and witness to its people.
Church of Christ members helped build Quebec. British engineer Philip Pratley moved to Montreal in 1906 and designed the city’s famous Jacques Cartier Bridge. His son, Hugh, built Montreal’s Champlain Bridge. The two men also helped build the city’s first Restoration Movement churches.
A century later, the province of 7.5 million souls — in an area more than twice the size of Texas — has about 20 Churches of Christ. Some are growing, but many are struggling to survive, with memberships of five or less. Most of the members — especially outside Montreal — speak French exclusively.
For many Quebecers, church is a bad word — literally. They utter French terms that refer to the Catholic faith as profanity. The animosity comes from years of domination by the church, which controlled most aspects of people’s lives, including schools, hospitals and social work programs, said Keith Percell, a missionary in the provincial capital, Quebec City, three hours northeast of Montreal.
Many people have exchanged church loyalty for nationalism, Percell said. In 1980 and 1995 Quebecers voted on a referendum to secede from Canada and form their own country. Both times the measure was defeated — by less than 1 percent in 1995.
Four out of five Quebecers claim Catholicism as their faith. An estimated 88 percent went to church weekly in the 1950s, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In a recent survey, the number was 20 percent — the lowest level of church attendance in Canada.
“They’re almost anti-religious,” Percell said, “but they’re searching. They’re hurting, hurting people.”
The church at Verdun has become home to hurting people, co-minister Roger Saumur said, but many others stay away.
“People have been abused by the Catholic church,” he said, “but in their minds the Catholic church isn’t the problem — it’s religion.” To reach the lost, church members must show Quebecers that what they dislike about religion didn’t come from the Bible, Saumur said.
COMMUNICATING A SIMPLE FAITH
A newspaper ad for “What the Bible Never Said” caught the eye of Claude Thibeault. His humble apartment is in Jonquiere, a six-hour drive north of Montreal through a wildlife refuge — where snowdrifts and wandering moose are common traffic hazards.
Thibeault and his wife, Martine, visited the small Jonquiere church and, after watching a few Jule Miller filmstrips in French, started studying the Bible.
Sitting at his kitchen table in a pair of house slippers — boots and scarves are stacked neatly by the door for the approaching winter — Thibeault grins as he remembers his opposition to baptism, and his minister’s refusal to give up on him.
“What convinced me the most was seeing Jesus get baptized,” he said through an interpreter — minister Jean Grenier. The Thibeaults were immersed in 1999.
Grenier, who trained at the Quebec City church before moving north to the banks of the Saguenay River, uses a high-tech approach to reach lost souls. He’s turned his home office in nearby St. Ambroise into a recording studio. As a speaker for Louisiana-based World Radio, he sends messages of faith across the Saguenay airwaves. The programs also are broadcast in French-speaking African countries, and Grenier has received e-mail inquiries from around the globe.
Grenier began searching the Scriptures on his own at 19 and was awestruck by the simplicity of their message. He advises his listeners to study on their own and ask questions. Many Quebecers who are disenchanted with church leave their faiths for evangelical groups with charismatic leaders, who essentially take the place of priests, he said.
“They just cannot understand the simplicity of faith,” he said. “What we need to see is the simplicity of the Catholic people with the zeal of the evangelical people.”
Quebec needs more ministers, but young Christians “can’t act on the faith of an evangelist,” said Yvon Beaudoin, a traveling preacher who ministers to small groups along the St. Lawrence River.
Churches of Christ also must do a better job of communicating Christ’s love to lost people, Beaudoin said. Many church members are well-versed in the arguments for baptism, but forget that those arguments alone don’t win souls.
“When we work for the church, it’s not only to prove we are correct,” said Robert Boisvert, a member of the Quebec City congregation. “People need to see my faith in my actions. And for me, I have some work to do.”
SMALL, SOLID CONGREGATIONS
Two hours before Wednesday night Bible class, Evangeline Kougioumoutzakis reads her Bible at the Quebec City church. Percell, the church’s minister, encouraged her to read through the Bible in a year. She’s writing questions along the way.
“She’s up to 1,757,” Percell said, a bit wearily. And no, he hasn’t answered them all yet.
When she’s not adding questions to her notebook, Kougioumoutzakis, a native of the Greek island of Crete, grades World Bible School courses. She has 8,355 students in French-speaking countries around the world — all seeking the truth she found in the Scriptures.
“When you search for the truth and you love the truth, you recognize the truth,” she said.
Quebec’s church members have strong convictions, Grenier said. He likens them to a landmark in Jonquiere — a small house that stands alone on the edge of a waterfall. The house’s owner dug deep into the sandy soil and attached its foundation to solid rock. When record rainfall overwhelmed the city’s dams recently, the tiny house stood firm as its neighbors, including the local bank, washed away.
In Montreal, the Verdun church has grown to 80 members, thanks largely to the city’s thriving immigrant population, which numbers about 600,000. Church members come from no less than 17 language groups, Mazzalongo said, and many find out about the congregation through its Web site, which includes video Bible lessons and sermon podcasts.
Monika Kalenda, who immigrated to Canada from the Democratic Republic of Congo, found the Verdun church through the Web site. She had tried other religious groups, but chose the church as her home because “I love the people,” she said.
Mazzalongo’s son-in-law, Hal Gatewood, moved to Montreal from Oklahoma about two months ago. In that time, he’s seen the Quebecers’ dedication to their church.
“People get on the bus and ride 30 to 40 minutes to get here,” he said. “And the joy that they have to see each other when they get here — it’s more than I’ve seen anywhere else.”
For more information on the Verdun congregation, go online to www.verdunchurchofchrist.ca.

Filed under: The Church in Canada

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