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Vol. 3 No. 2 - Pentecost 2008

Saint Clotilde vs. The Revolution:
Authentic & Inauthentic Identity

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,"
- The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats

Recently, the unrelenting debate over Quebec nationalism and separatism took a new turn, as the sovereigntist forces in the province proposed legal measures that would enshrine Quebec identity in the provincial Charter of Rights. Such a question is in fact complex, since the inheritance of Francophone Quebec culture has many layers. Roman Catholicism ruled the French cultural mind for centuries, yet it has largely been abandoned by most Quebeckers as a vital force in everyday life. The glory of the Bourbon kings, whose architecture and furnishings adorn the Quebec National Assembly, were similarly wiped away by the revolutionary bloodshed of 1789, and the legacy of this chapter of French history has been largely lost on recent generations.

Not surprisingly, advocates of the revised Quebec Charter of Rights would embrace the ideals of the French Revolution, the goals of socialism, democracy, and above all, secularism. As the growing influence of Islam in the French-speaking world presents a fundamental challenge to French culture in Quebec and elsewhere, the jargon of the French Revolution provides a convenient, yet incomplete, response to the threats of fundamental change to francophone culture.

Yet for those who know the heart and soul of the French people, the true history of the francophone culture of Quebec did not begin with the Revolution of 1789. The enduring legacy of the francophone world cannot be reduced to the consequences of Paris street riots, the destruction and abandonment of churches, and the guillotine. The eternal and enduring value of French identity is not to be found in the principles of Robespierre, the Reign of Terror, or Gaullist nationalism. These are but a bigoted shadow of the soil that gave rise to the beautifying aspects of French culture, the forebears of French Canadian culture. Indeed, it is this very struggle between the false French identity and the true destiny of the French people which is alive today, which characterizes the history of the ancestors of today's French Canadians. It is through this inheritance that one can rediscover the eternal essence at the heart of French Christianity, which traces its path back to the Annunciation of the Lord Himself.


It is surprising - often unbelievable - for contemporary Quebec Catholics to discover the Orthodox Christian roots of their ancestors. Yet it is in the undivided Church of the first millennium that the French people received the Gospel of Christ, much in the same manner as the conversion of so many other peoples, by the direct revelation of God. Suffering from overwhelming losses in war in the year 496, the French pagan King Clovis turned in desperation to a God he did not know, the God worshipped by his Christian wife, Queen Clotilde. Like Saint Constantine the Great, Clovis vowed that if the "God of Clotilde" delivered him the victory, he would accept baptism, and reign as a Christian king. The historian Saint Gregory of Tours relates that Clovis was granted the honour of consulship by the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I. It was King Clovis who established the capital of the Frankish kingdom at Paris, dedicating there a church in honour of the Holy Apostles*.

At the baptism of King Clovis, Holy Tradition tells us that the Mother of God appeared to Saint Clotilde, presenting her with a lily (fleur-de-lis), the three-leafed flower which soon became the symbol of the Bourbon French house. King Clovis adopted three lilies on blue (the colour of the Mother of God) as his royal standard, replacing the three frogs which he had used previously - a noteworthy symbol of his rejection of paganism in favour of the Holy Trinity. The symbol is used to this day as an emblem of Quebec nationalism.

The early death of King Clovis left Saint Clotilde to live as a widow for nearly four decades. As her sons vied for control of the French lands, Clotilde retired to a monastery, asking the prayers of Saint Martin of Tours. Some historians see her monastic path as the foremost example of women's monasticism among the French. It was this example which led centuries later to the construction of the first extensive network of public hospitals and schools in Quebec, prototypes of the public health and education systems across Canada which continue to this day.

What was distinct about the unique contribution of Orthodox France to Canadian life can be found at the heart of many contemporary debates over the role of religion in public institutions. French monasticism, in the persons of Saints Martin and Clotilde, shaped numerous movements of Church hospitals which existed for the Christian service of those who had nothing with which to pay for their care. The debates over funding that contemporary health ministries face would have been alien to the French ancestors of public health, not just because most who served in such hospitals were monastics, but because they were Orthodox Christians, deeply formed in the spiritual life, rather than formed by the consumerism that drives the secular hospital economy of our day.

A similar case can be made for Church-sponsored schools. The monastic milieu of French Christendom saw education as a primary means of shaping a Christian character, of building a right-believing adult from the ground up, with the skills to support the co-operative life of the Church. Mathematics, architecture, language, and the arts were put primarily at the service of the Church, and those who were blessed with wealth and power became patrons not simply of secular institutions that could bear their family name, but patrons of Church institutions that bear the names of Christ's saints. We see this in such early examples the martyrs Saint Hyacinth and Saint Justine, as well as the Mother of God, whose names grace Quebec institutions to this day. Certainly, the patronage of wealthy Christians has not always been altruistic, yet the environment one finds at the heart of Orthodoxy in France and its descendants in Quebec provided the authentic framework in which such human acts of charity were given the benefit of being spiritual labours, not simply random acts of personal choice or even self-promotion.

The radicalism that afflicted the heart of French Quebec culture in the 1960s tore deeply at the roots of this inheritance, secularizing hospitals and schools, and culturally turning a proverbial back on ascetic and monastic life as a vibrant force within Quebec culture. In the decades since the Quiet Revolution, the struggle for the heart of Quebeckers has usually been reduced to arguments between secular capitalism and secular revolutionary socialism under the banner of Quebec nationalism. Both options are of course false constructs, cut off from the inheritance of Quebec's ancient Christian forebears. Yet in the villages of rural Quebec, in the hearts of her youth, and in the memories of her elderly, Quebec as a distinct society - for such it is - has not yet lost its chance to reconnect to its true roots, to discover the spiritual path of Saint Clotilde. It is in the life of this saint and benefactress of the Church and of French Christian culture in the ancient Church, that French Quebec can once again regain its joie de vivre, in the same Church that gave life to the civilization of her ancestors.

[*] The Church of Rome did not split from the Orthodox Church until 1054, at which time many of its beliefs and doctrines began to change. From the conversion of King Clovis, up until the 11th century, the Church of the Frankish people would have held the same faith and doctrine as modern Orthodox Christians, and would have been in full communion with the whole Orthodox Christian world, as the honours bestowed upon King Clovis by the Byzantine Emperor suggest.

Father Geoffrey Korz, (Pentecost, 2008)

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2008.