St. Martin of the Bakers
One day in the year of our Lord 1733, when Michel Bessière the baker’s apprentice was fourteen, and Jean-Pierre Leroux the vintner’s boy was fifteen, the two made a pact: together they would travel to the New World and ply their trades in a town of their own founding. When their apprenticeships ended three years later, Michel and Jean-Pierre, much to their parents’ chagrin, embarked on this journey, travelling by sea to Montreal. The sea journey was grueling, but its discomforts paled in comparison with those the two friends faced when they put into practice their ill-conceived plan to paddle up the St. Laurence river in a small boat. Nevertheless, through good luck and perseverance the two arrived, many months later, at a site about thirty miles north of Trois Rivières, having travelled almost two hundred miles from Montreal. And it was there that they discovered that, among everything else that they had brought with them, among all the supplies and memories of France, was a disagreement.
Michel firmly remembered that, four years earlier, Jean-Pierre had offered him the honour of naming their town after his patron saint, Peter, the patron of bakers. Jean-Pierre recalled the conversation, but was certain that it had been the other way round. It was Michel who had promised him the privilege of naming the town after Martin, patron of vintners. The argument lasted months. Eventually an unhappy compromise was reached on the name St. Martin des Boulangers – Martin of the Bakers. But neither Jean-Pierre nor Michel felt vindicated, in fact each thought he had been cheated. Michel dreaded that common usage might in time remove the epithet, while for Jean-Pierre the epithet was a grinding irritation. And so, although St. Martin des Boulangers flourished, the friendship did not. And when both Michel and Jean-Pierre married and their marriages were fruitful, they passed on their grievance as well as their trades.
While time passed eventfully elsewhere, the years and centuries rolled over St. Martin des Boulangers almost without effect. A few muskets were replaced with rifles. The schoolbooks accumulated news of terrible wars. But both the Lerouxs and the Bessières prospered. In 1918, to celebrate the end of the First World War Albert Bessière bought celebratory baking forms in the shape of the fleur de lys, the symbol of Quebec, from a supplier in Trois Rivières. This extravagance was much remarked upon in St. Martin des Boulangers. The villagers also noted with some surprise the good humour with which Henri Leroux discussed the successes of the bakery. So carefully did Henri Leroux hide his annoyance that only Mrs. Leroux suspected that her husband was frantically scheming to one-up the baker. And so, only she was unsurprised the next spring when a cargo ship arrived with a Ford tractor – the first on any farm for fifty miles – destined for the Leroux orchard and farm. Henri Leroux used it often, but especially for any task which allowed him to bring it into the town, though he admitted to his wife one evening that it was prone to breaking down and was really no substitute for a good horse.
But this is not the story of the rivalry between the Lerouxs and the Bessières. This is the story of how that rivalry came to an end.
The year 1920 marked a minor upset in the history of the village of St. Martin des Boulangers, for in that year the priest at St. Martin’s church – the only church in town, of course, had retired, and been replaced by a young priest fresh out of the seminary in Quebec City. Father Belec had favoured homilies consisting of exhortations, although their topics had grown vaguer as the years passed. The young Fr. Verreault, by contrast, had discovered philosophy at the seminary, and he let it be known in all his sermons. Fr. Verreault had come to believe that the essence of philosophy lay in maintaining a cautious uncertainty. He therefore rarely let an opportunity pass without a “one might argue that…” or a “many of our best theologians would disagree…”.
This habit quietly irritated many of Fr. Verreault’s new flock. But respect for his priestly vocation prevented the young from showing this irritation, while the old felt confident that his dalliance with matters philosophical would not last long. Fr. Verreault, at any rate, performed all his duties with skill and interest, and it was generally thought that the occasional windy homily was a small price to pay for his devotions.
But among those not altogether delighted with Fr. Verreault’s ministry were the two eldest children of the Lerouxs’ and the Bessières’. Years ago, when the church of St. Martin was being built, Guy Leroux (the grandson of Jean-Pierre, and great grandfather of Henri) had travelled out to meet the first priest as he came to take up residence in St. Martin des Boulangers, to secure the front pew on the gospel side. This left the surprised Bessières no choice but to rent the front pew on the epistle side. It was a rare Sunday where Mr. Leroux did not cast an amused glance at Mr. Bessières when the candles were extinguished, first, on the Bessières side of the church.
An utterly unintended feature of this arrangement of seating was that, in 1920, the eldest son on the Leroux side and the eldest daughter in the Bessière pew should fall in love, although afterward some pointed out that the real wonder was that it had not happened before. On account of the silent encouragement of his father, and despite the vocal discouragement of his mother, who thought it was impious, the young André Leroux had fallen into the habit of imitating his father’s scornful glance cast at the Bessières as the epistle candles were extinguished. But then, on one such occasion, the young André Leroux had let his eyes stray from Albert Bessière, whose sullen gaze faced straight forward, to his eldest daughter Thérèse, whose chin was held high in the defiance and scorn that only a blossoming girl of 17 could display.
André began to glance at Thérèse frequently after that, and on one such occasion, she had happened to steal a glance at the pew full of Lerouxs. Their eyes had met, prompting André to blush, which prompted Thérèse to blush. This happened again the next week, and again the week after that. When André found himself at the bakery, the same blush was exchanged. Tentatively, André and Thérèse moved from the language of glances to that of words.
After the harvest celebration in October, André and Thérèse snuck away into to the forest just far enough away that they could hear the music but could not be seen dancing together. In November of 1920, André bought a necklace from a trader, and gave it to Thérèse folded in a one dollar bill while he was buying bread. (The Lerouxs had no credit at the bakery.) In December, Thérèse disappeared from her post at the counter of the bakery for a full four hours, leaving her little sister sworn to silence in her place, and she met André who had brought a horse drawn sleigh through the woods and as close to the bakery as he dared. In January the snow fell fiercely, and the village hardly moved. But one Sunday, after mass, as the Bessières filed away from the church, Thérèse did succeed in hitting André in the back with a snowball, and when he turned around, she blew him a kiss. Even so, January dragged by with so little interaction that André screwed up his courage and decided on what had to be done. In February he met Thérèse at the bakery and managed to convey with nods and eye-movement that he would wait outside. When she met him there, he proposed marriage. She ran inside, but when he returned the next day after enduring a sleepless night, she used the same language of signs to tell him to await her outside. When she stepped out the bakery’s back door, radiant, he knew the answer would be yes.
André’s proposal and Thérèse’s acceptance did not remove the main impediment to their nuptials: the disapproval of their families. What then to do? In stolen conversations throughout February and March, André and Thérèse considered eloping. But where would they go? What would they do? How would they even leave St. Martin des Boulangers, with the town frozen in place, the river barely navigable? But if not elopement, what then?
In the end André and Thérèse decided to throw themselves on the mercy of the priest. Fr. Verreault was young, and would surely understand. And, once married, they could present their families with a fait acomplis.
They went to see him after the Good Friday mass, but Fr. Verreault, did not understand. When they met him in the small manse beside St. Martins, which he shared with the retired Fr. Belec, he expressed surprise at their suggestion, and explained to them that “Many of our best theologians have begun to appreciate the essential role played by marriage in maintaining the social order. By going against your parents’ wishes, you would be perverting that order. And one could argue that your parents know what is good for you better than you know yourselves.” Instead, he suggested that they prayerfully reflect on their situation, and either seek to persuade their parents to assent to the match, or resign themselves to its impossibility. Neither argument nor entreaty would move him, and Thérèse and André spent a tearful fast, and when they arrived in church on Easter Sunday, they had little joy to spare.
While Thérèse and André thought to approach the young Fr. Verreault, it had occurred to neither to ask the formidable old Fr. Belec. But Fr. Belec had not been a priest f0r forty years without learning to observe his flock. Of late his infirmities had rarely allowed him to celebrate the mass, and so, sitting behind the Lerouxs on the gospel side of the church he had had ample time to observe the language of glances developing between André and Thérèse. Fr. Belec had been anticipating for some time the meeting that came as such a surprise to Fr. Verreault.
And so it was that, after the Easter service Fr. Belec caught André by the sleeve, and gestured with his gnarled hand for Thérèse to come over as well. Without so much as a word, he made his slow way to the lady altar and, as the villagers were filing out of the church or mingling at the back, he began to say the words of the wedding ceremony. The core of the wedding ceremony is brief, but as Fr. Belec well knew it could not be effected without witnesses. And so, as he neared the end, his ancient, mumbling voice once again found the volume that had filled the church for many years. “… I declare you man and wife,” he boomed. Parishioners spun around, fixing their attentions on the couple at the altar. News of this singular event shot through the church like electricity, and it was only moments before Albert Bessière and Henri Leroux had shouldered their way back into the sanctuary.
“What have you done, Father?” Shouted Albert.
“I have married these two young people. They love each other very much, and they will set a good example to their families,” he said, narrowing his eyes at the outraged Lerouxs and Bessières.
“Impossible,” declared Henri Leroux. Then, turning to Fr. Verreault, he said “anyone can see that Father here is no longer in his right mind. The ceremony can have no validity.”
Fr. Verreault’s demeanour grew pensive. “One might consider,” he said, that “Fr. Belec is still a priest. Perhaps,” he mused “if the marriage had been a forced one, his state of mind might be brought into question. But ex opere operato: I can’t see how his state of mind would invalidate the matter, on reflection.”
“But Fr. Verreault, surely you can do something” shrieked Mrs. Leroux. “Can’t you see that Father has only done this to spite us? What, must we give some sort of dowry to these, these Bessières? He has always preferred them to us.”
Fr. Verreault, unable to resist any question of canon law, looked reflective once again. “No,” he mused, “you can’t say that. Strictly speaking, the priest’s role is one of witness here, so his intentions do not - and we are still strictly speaking - justify an annulment. No, I don’t think that will do either.”
“Well it’s simple then,” said Mr. Leroux, “we’ll take Thérèse home, and you take – your son. No, we will do more. Thérèse will become a nun!”
“Papa!” Thérèse wailed, “no!”
But Fr. Verreault could not resist the lure of the problem now. “Ah, but the best theologians believe, you know, that a man and wife have a conjugal duty. By forcing Thérèse into a nunnery, you would be impeding this duty, thus willfully scorning the institution of marriage, which, let us not forget, is a holy sacrament.”
Albert Bessière glared at Fr. Verreault, at his daughter, and at André. “Very well,” he said in icy tones, “here is what I shall do. I do not consent. I will not celebrate this day. My daughter may do as she pleases, but I will give no dowry and I will show no joy.” He turned on his heel, and left the church, and the family followed, leaving Thérèse standing with her husband.
“Ah, that is entirely within your powers to do, theologically and legally speaking.” Fr. Verreault called after him, with enthusiasm. “I can see no argument against that.”
“For once in his life, Albert has got it right,” said Henri Leroux, and he too went, leaving the young couple standing alone with Fr. Verreault. “Oh, my children,” said Fr. Verreault a little pompously, “see what you have done. Did I not tell you that no good would come of this marriage? Did I not tell you that it would tear this community in two? Alas, that you did not heed my advice.
“I do not know what you will do. Perhaps it would be best that you travel away. You may spend this night here in the Lord’s house, and tomorrow I will give you what provisions I can spare for your journey. And now, I must find the old man who has acted as a vehicle for your foolishness.”
André and Thérèse sat in the church. Thérèse wept quietly for her family, for she loved them, and she was not sure that, if she left St. Martin des Boulangers, she would ever see them again. André sat up straight, but he felt as though the responsibilities of marriage had crashed down upon his shoulders like a great weight. And Fr. Verreault went in search of the old priest.
But Fr. Belec was nowhere to be found, either in the church or in the manse. Fr. Verreault searched everywhere. Then he thought to look whether Fr. Belec’s coat was still on the rack. It was gone, as were his boots, and his snowshoes. Bemused but also a little concerned, Fr. Verreault slipped on his own furred coat and snowshoes, and followed the tracks that led out the back door.
Father Verreault was not surprised to see that the tracks led to the Bessière bakery. “He has gone to plead with the baker and his wife,” he thought “but good luck to him”. So certain was he of this conclusion, that he almost did not bother going on, but then, thinking that Fr. Belec might need a sturdy arm when walking home, he went anyway.
In a town as small as St. Martin des Boulangers nobody locked their doors, so Fr. Verreault was not surprised to be able to open the door and step into the bakery. But he was surprised at the scene before him. The bakery was perfumed by the smell of Easter baking, and he could see on the cooling racks that the baker’s fleur de lys forms had once again been put to good use. But there in the middle, apparently unaware of his surroundings, stood Fr. Belec, mumbling in Latin. Mrs. Bessière hovered around him, unsure whether to lead him away, or prop him up, or pay him no heed, while her husband looked on in disgust. When Fr. Verreault entered, Albert Bessière immediately hailed him, and said “Father, please remove Father here. I think he has done us enough harm for one day, and anyway, he clearly does not know where he is. He thinks,” he said with contempt “he is saying mass.”
Fr. Verreault approached the old priest and took him by the arm. Fr. Belec mumbled a few more words, made the sign of the cross, and then looked up. “I was saying mass,” he said with complete clarity.
Albert Bessière shook his head, but Fr. Verreault, philosopher and theologian that he was determined to be, recognized a point of theological protocol when he heard one. “Over what did you say mass, Father?” he cautiously asked the older man.
“Over this, all this,” said Father Belec, with a hand gesture that took in the whole room.
“Do you mean you’ve consecrated all of this bread?” Asked Fr. Verreault, gasping at the quantity of it all.
“The cake also.” Said Father Belec calmly.
“What?” roared Albert Bessière, “what does this mean? Have you not done enough against us? And now what, must we deconsecrate every loaf?”
“I am afraid not,” said Fr. Verreault, ever vigilant for theological error. “You must eat every loaf, or you may burn the loaves you cannot eat.”
Mrs. Bessière turned to her daughter. “Run to my sister. Tell her we are doomed. We will be poor! And we will all die from eating Albert’s cakes!”
Albert Bessière looked pleadingly at Fr. Verreault “But this, this is a week’s worth of baking! And my lovely fleur de lys cakes! I can’t burn it all. How can you expect us to eat this?”
“I suggest,” said Fr. Belec, “that you do not do it alone.”
“This man is impossible!” Exploded Albert Bessière. “But Father,” he turned to Fr. Verreault, “this does not stand, does it. He cannot just consecrate cake.”
“Aha, well now,” said Fr. Verreault, getting into the disputative spirit once again, “as I was explaining to Fr. Belec only yesterday, many of our best theologians consider the requirement that the priest use only unleavened bread a convention, but not a necessity.” And suddenly it occurred to him to wonder how long Fr. Belec had been planning his Easter activities, and whether the old man really did pay attention to his theological disquisitions.
“But if it’s a suggestion, Father, he surely can’t consecrate leavened bread when he has unleavened bread ready to hand?”
“Yes,” said Father Verreault thoughtfully, “but then again, I suppose one might argue that the church is under my jurisdiction, and so he no longer has free access to that bread.”
“But then he has no right to take our bread either!” shouted Albert.
“Indeed he does not. I suggest you submit a written complaint to the Bishop in Trois Rivières, and I shall sign my name to it,” said Fr. Verreault. “But though he may have had no right to use your bread, he’s consecrated it now, alright. It is the very body of our Lord. And indeed, if you were to withhold even the smallest piece of it, it would be a grave sin, and on your head.”
“Perhaps,” said Albert, with desperation in his voice, “I could sell it?”
“Come now Mr. Bessière. Wars have been fought over less.”
It was then that Mrs. Bessière’s sister arrived. But in the way of things in St. Martin des Boulangers, as she rushed to her sister’s aid, she had found time to tell her neighbour the story that she had gleaned from her excited niece, a story which, as it passed from hand to hand, soon became that the Bessières, filled with grief, had eaten so much of their own cake that they were on the verge of death, and that Fathers Belec and Verreault were now giving them the last rites. And so although she was the first to arrive, she was by no means the last, and as news of the strange affair of the cakes spread through the village, villagers hurried to the bakery to witness the strange spectacle there.
On arriving, many were secretly a little disappointed at finding the bakers very healthy if not entirely happy, but their disappointment turned to delight when they were informed that their help was required to eat the totality of Albert Bessière’s stock. Fr. Verreault ran frantically to and fro, saying the necessary benediction for each new villager.
Sitting in the church, Thérèse had heard someone shouting outside that her parents had perished, and fearing the worst, she and her new husband ran to the bakery. There they were surprised to see a happy rather than a mourning throng. Fr. Verreault, rushing outside, had blessed the whole group indiscriminately, and Thérèse’s little sister had snuck out and brought the couple half of a fleur de lys cake.
It was not long before news of the disaster spread to the Leroux farm. Henri Leroux, barely able to conceal his satisfaction at the story, told his wife that he had always suspected the Bessières of being unhinged, and that suicide by cake was entirely within that family’s character. And then he attached a wagon to his Ford tractor, and drove through mud and snow to the bakery, around which a huge and happy crowd had now gathered. For a fleeting moment Henri Leroux thought the joy of the crowd was a natural reaction to the demise of his old enemy. When he pushed into the bakery he saw Albert and suffered a moment of chagrin, before he was blessed by Father Verreault and handed a small cake.
But when Henri Leroux heard what had happened, he was once again transported with delight. Going over to Albert he smiled and clapped the defeated looking man on the shoulder, and said “Perhaps you have provided my son with a dowry after all – or at least a delightful meal. Now all that is missing is the wine!” And at that moment he felt a terrible premonition.
Henri Leroux dashed outside, and shouting at his wife and children to get into the wagon, he leapt onto his Ford tractor and began driving as fast as he could toward his home. The tractor was capable of moving fast, but at such speeds it was prone to breaking down. About two miles down the road to his house, and with only another mile to go, the tractor gave way under the speed and the strain, and smoke poured out of the engine. It really was no substitute for a good horse.
Out clambered Leroux and his family, and they made their way toward the house on foot. Soon they were overtaken by villagers on horseback and in horse-drawn carts. For the villagers, sensing the significance of Leroux’s dash to his tractor, had taken what remained from Albert Bessières emptied shelves and followed the vintner to his farm. Even André and Thérèse had come, travelling in a cart with some young friends. Thus it was that Henri Leroux suffered the final humiliation of being pulled into his own home on another man’s cart, surrounded by a crowd of villagers speculating on what misfortunes might await him there. On arriving, dashed into his house, down into his wine cellar, and there, as Henri had feared, was Fr. Belec.
“Yes, as you have probably guessed, I have said mass here.” said Fr. Belec.
“What, will you and Fr. Verreault drink my whole stock of wine?” asked Leroux?
Father Verreault at the forefront of a crowd had just pushed into the room. “Technically speaking,” said Father Verreault, panting, “laymen may receive the chalice as well as the host. It is a matter of convention that they usually do not. So I believe that we might all drink it.”
“Wait,” cried Henri Leroux, “you can’t do this. You’ve already communed more than once today, you can’t just do it again.”
“Aha, very good!” exclaimed Verreault, delighted by this theological conundrum. “I salute your knowledge of doctrine. I shall recommend you as an usher, in fact. But, what you may not know is that this too is a mere convention. It is suggested that one not receive more than once, but, as we can see, this is an extraordinary circumstance indeed.”
So, with ill grace, Henri Leroux began to open his casks. Mrs. Leroux found cups, and bowls, and even handed out some of her grandmother’s china tea set, though she swore she would have the heads of anyone who broke one of her cups. And as the village milled about on the Leroux farm, eating cake and drinking wine, conversation naturally turned to the couple whose surprise wedding seemed to have been the occasion for this mad and holy feast. André and Thérèse, though keeping some distance from the house itself, enjoyed an empty marmalade jar full of wine brought to them by André’s younger brother.
In a few hours it was almost dusk. Fr. Verreault, who had blessed all the communicants in this strange sacrament had applied himself to consuming the wine along with some bread that he had brought with him from the bakery. All were in high spirits. Even Albert Bessière was cheered by the wine and reflected that at least his enemy’s misfortune matched his own. But he decided, nevertheless, that he would have words with Fr. Belec.
But when he strode about looking for the old priest he could not find him. Finally, Albert asked Henri Leroux if he might know where to find Fr. Belec. Henri did not know, though he too wished to make his grievance known. The two were able to discover that the old priest had been seen slipping away. But in which direction? No one could recall.
When Albert and Henri told Fr. Verreault, he was very concerned. The forests of Quebec smothered the light even when the moon was visible, and it was a cloudy night. Besides, the old man had already exerted himself too much with the walk from the village to the Leroux farm. Mrs. Leroux found lanterns and candles, and fifteen men went out to search for Fr. Belec. Albert and Henri went out together.
At eleven o’clock, most of the guests went home in carts and sleighs, being careful to stay on the road. Mrs. Leroux invited the families of the searchers to stay, and the invitation was passed on, after a moment’s hesitation, to the Bessières. And as he and Thérèse were making to go, she caught her son André by the arm. “Of course you’re going to stay with us too, and as long as you want,” she said. And then she whispered in his ear “I know a sign when I see one.”
At three o’clock in the morning, the searchers began to straggle back in, empty-handed. The last to return were Albert and Henri. They never spoke about exactly what had happened to them, though their wives noticed that they each had snow and mud on their jackets, and that while there was a hint of dried coppery blood around Albert’s nose, Henri had acquired a black eye. But they came back with their arms around each other’s shoulders.
Mrs. Leroux and Mrs. Bessière were only too pleased to adjust to the new status quo, and set about advising the new couple, and offered them house furnishings and blankets and a few pots. Mrs. Leroux even gravely handed her new daughter in law Grandmother Leroux’s china tea set, although, as Mrs. Leroux privately thought, it was easier to part with now that it was missing two cups. And Albert and Henri easily agreed that the couple should live in a little cottage that was standing empty on the Leroux farm. Though André and Thérèse did not know it yet, their marriage would prove fruitful, and Thérèse’s first son would be born only eleven months from that day. The couple would agree, after only a moment’s hesitation on André’s part, to name the boy Pierre-Martin.
That night however, no one found Fr. Belec. Two woodcutters found him the next day, only two hundred yards from the manse, though on the far side. It seemed he had circled around it in the dark and lost his way. He was leaning against a tree, but when they tried to take him by the arm Fr. Belec simply toppled over into the snow. As they lifted him up to carry him away, they were suddenly aware of a fragrance like the wildflowers that sometimes grew in furrows and in little clearings.
“It smells like Spring.” said one of the men.
But when his friend looked around he could see no flowers in the muddy snow, not even shrubs or flowering trees. There were only a few scattered pines, and beyond them, the forest.