MONTREAL, Quebec — In this city on the St. Lawrence River, crossing the street is like crossing the border. Looking out from Mount Royale across the city is like looking at three worlds — North American, French and Elizabethan. On one street corner, you may be greeted with, "Nice to see you," on the next, "Bon jour." Add a dash of Spanish, Asian, African and Caribbean, and you hear the sounds of the cultural mix of Montreal, Quebec.
The Church in this eastern Canadian city aptly mirrors this unique blend. The Montreal Quebec Stake, created in 1978, is the first French-speaking stake in North America. The mostly English-speaking Montreal Quebec Mount Royale Stake was not created until 1980 — even though the first branch here, created in 1930, was English. Since 1961, when then-Canadian Mission President Thomas S. Monson sent the first six French-speaking missionaries to Quebec, the French quarter of the Church here has grown proportionately to the English. Even the cornerstone of the new Montreal Quebec Temple says "Edifié en L'an 2000" — "Erected 2000" in French.
"It's important to support the two cultures," Montreal stake President Sterling H. Dietze recently told the Church News. A tall, dark-haired man who speaks fluent English, French and Spanish, he sat in his living room explaining the influence of the two European cultures and the rise of the Church here. French-Canadians and English mingle in all walks of life here, and, thus, in the Church, he said.
However, it has only been since the 1960s that the gospel has taken root among French-Canadians. This new growth, President Dietze related, came about only after several court cases on religious freedom ended so-called "padlock laws," which were exclusionary of certain religions, and after the 1967 World Expo in Montreal. (The Church had a pavilion on the grounds open to the public after the Expo.) During this time of social, religious and political awareness, he added, "the Church started carrying the French-speaking population."
Today, there are about 4,000 Latter-day Saints in the Montreal Quebec Stake, with a proportionate number in the Mount Royale stake. Also included are several Spanish units. To illustrate the Church "coming out of obscurity" here, President Dietze related how during the open house of the temple, which was dedicated June 4 this year, a local parish priest visited and told him, "Thank you for inviting me. I wish you all the best."
As strong as Church growth is among French-Canadians, it seems it's becoming just as strong among immigrants flowing to Canada from throughout the world. Fatima Glowa, a ward Young Women president in the Mount Royale stake, said among her Young Women group are Canadians, Italians, Jamaicans and Africans. Emil Monssen, ward mission leader in the Montreal Ward, Montreal Quebec Stake, said they had four baptisms in May — one from Africa, one from Eastern Europe, one from Canada, and one from the Caribbean.
Whatever the nationality or ancestry, however, the gospel brings them together — and keeps them together. One woman who has not only watched the change but was also part of the change is Jeanne Clement, 93, of the LaSalle Ward, Montreal Quebec Mount Royale Stake. A French-Canadian, she joined the Church in the late 1970s.
"I had been asking myself serious questions about [my faith] for at least 15 years, but I didn't know where to go. Four years later, the missionaries stopped by my house on a stormy day in January, and I was baptized," Sister Clement, who is grandmother to 24 and great-grandmother to 23, recalled.
Bishop Raymond Sawyer of the Montreal Ward also remembers well those early years. He even recalls as a boy attending Church in rooms over the Rialto Theater in downtown Montreal in the 1930s. He was reared by his grandfather after the death of his father and after his mother became ill with tuberculosis. His grandfather was in the original Montreal Branch presidency.
"The thing that impressed me was [the lodge which owned the upper rooms] had a presidency of three. They had these three huge chairs, something like you would see in a movie with a king. The one in the middle had a very high back, and I can remember sitting in the congregation and looking up there at my grandfather and the branch president [sitting in those chairs] and thinking, 'They've got to be really important to be sitting up there in those big chairs,' " Bishop Sawyer said with a chuckle.
He never guessed that one day he would figuratively sit in one of those chairs. He was first called as bishop in 1978 and again in 1998. This was a man who quit attending Sunday School as a boy because he was asked to give a 2 1/2-minute talk, and did not attend Church during the 1950s.
"I was very timid; I would shy away from passing the sacrament," he recalled. He always assumed he was not "bishop material."
Then, in 1961, he returned to full activity in the Church and remembers the organization of the first French Sunday School. "When I came back they were just starting this work [among the French.] They went through the Montreal Branch and took everybody who could speak French and said, 'We need you to form a nucleus. We need you in that Sunday School to build it up."
Today, Bishop Sawyer's eyes moisten when he speaks of the joy of the gospel among all members here and within his family. His wife and three daughters joined the Church in 1975 and the family was later sealed.
As one generation here — whether French or English — passes the torch to another, the Church continues to influence all walks of life. Joslyn Vaillancourt, who is an aerospace engineer with the Canadian Space Agency, attends the Lemoyne Ward, Montreal stake, with his wife, Marly, and 13-month-old son, Alexy. Sister Vaillancourt, who is originally from Venezuela and who speaks French and Spanish, is a counselor in the ward Relief Society presidency.
From the time he was a boy, Brother Vaillancourt, who speaks English, French and Spanish, had his nose in books about airplanes and science. "To me it was natural I would go into science," he explained. He now works on the international space station program, headed by NASA. His team works on the mobile servicing system, a robotic assembling and maintenance system, for the station.
"It says in the Doctrine and Covenants that all the knowledge we acquire here we bring with us to the other side," he said, explaining his love of learning and applied science. "From the gospel perspective, it's good to learn as much as we can, including science, and to discover as far as we can."
His wife said she had a difficult time just "discovering" her new roots in Canada. "I found it a little difficult because my family is not around me, but I'm adapting and maturing." She said serving within the Relief Society program has made Montreal become "home" to her as she develops relationships with other sisters.
"Service helps me to forget about my problems. Instead of looking at myself, I look at others and this helps," she added.
For a people with roots from the four corners of the globe, this is what the Church does — helps them look to one another.