How a 300 Year-Old Church with Three Names Tells the Bloody History of Québec

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It's been standing on the banks of the St. Lawrence River for more than 300 years, attracting worshipers to the base of the cliff in Quebec City. Today, the church is known as Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, but its had several names over the years. Through them, you can trace the history of the city — and of the warring empires that have shaped the story of Canada.

Construction on the church began in a time of bloody war: 1687. For decades, the great empires of France and England had been battling over control of the continent, along with their Indigenous allies. They were fighting over the fur trade, anxious to make huge profits off a fashion trend: Europe had fallen in love with beaver-felt hats. And so, the wars were called "The Beaver Wars."

In fact, that very same year, as the first stones of the new church were being laid in Quebec City, the Governor of New France was away waging a brutal scorched earth campaign against the Seneca on the shores of Lake Ontario, driving the First Nation into famine.

As the capital of New France, it was only a matter of time before Quebec City found itself on the front lines. The church was still being built three years later when thirty-two English warships sailed up the St. Lawrence, bringing more than two thousand Massachusetts militiamen to conquer Québec.

The English demanded the city's surrender. It was still a small town back then — the entire population of New France was only about 12,000; the population of Quebec City much lower than that. But it was still a difficult target: built on the great cliffs that towered over the banks of the St. Lawrence, recently fortified in anticipation of the British attack, and defended by a force of nearly three thousand men.

The new Governor of New France, Louis de Buade de Frontenac, was defiant. "Non, je n'ai point de réponse à faire à votre général que par la bouche de mes canons et de mes mousquets."

"I have no reply to make to your general other than from the mouths of my cannons and muskets."

He had reason to be confident. The attack fizzled. As the French cannons bombarded the English fleet below, the invaders turned around and sailed home.

Before the failed siege, the church had been known by a modest name: Chapelle de L'Enfant-Jésus. The Church of the Christ Child. But in celebration, the French settlers of Québec gave their new church a new, more heroic name: Notre-Dame-de-la-Victoire. Our Lady of the Victory.

But that was far from the last time the British would try to take Québec. Just twenty years later another English fleet set sail from Boston. But this invasion would be an even bigger disaster than the last. The fleet never ever reached Quebec City. They ran into bad weather at the mouth of the St. Lawrence and were shipwrecked. Hundreds of English troops died without ever getting within firing distance of the French.

Quebec City celebrated once again. And the church got its third name, even more heroic than the last. Our Lady of the Victory became Our Lady of the Victories. Plural. Notre-Dame-des-Victoires.

That winning steak, however, wouldn't last. Four decades later, the British returned yet again. And this time, things didn't go nearly as well for Québec. The city came under a punishing siege that lasted through the summer. A rain of cannonballs destroyed much of the town. Notre-Dame-des-Victoires was one of the casualties, reduced nearly to rubble.

It was an ill omen. The fall of the church was followed by the fall of New France.

As the summer drew to a close, the British made their move. They snuck up the cliffs to the west of the city and attacked. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham lasted only about an hour. Soon, all of New France had fallen into English hands.

But Québecois culture survived. And so did the church. Restoration efforts returned Notre-Dame-des-Victoires to its former glory. Today, it's a National Historic Site, a popular tourist attraction in the lower city, and a reminder of the bloody history of the city in which it stands.

 

Learn more about the Siege of Québec and the scandalous love triangle that helped bring down the city: