Society member visits Cape Breton

Richard Upsher Smith, Jr. is a former Anglican minister who became Catholic in 2001.  Recently retired as a professor of classics at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, he is a member of the Anglicanorum coetibus Society and has written articles for our journal Shared Treasure, that members can access at our website via the “member’s only” menu button.

Professor Smith spent a number of years in Canada’s Maritime Provinces during his Anglican ministry.   Having lived in Nova Scotia for 12 years myself, and Prince Edward Island for almost two, the Maritimes are like a second home for me, I share his love for that part of the world..

The New Oxford Review has published Part I of his Cape Breton Diary, entitled Forgetting & Remembering: Encounters with Three Traditions on the Edge of Oblivion 

This beautifully-written travelogue evokes a lot of memories and makes me wistful the the glimpses of the cultures that once animated this region.   Go on and read the whole thing, perhaps with a pot of tea nearby.

Here’s an excerpt:

Acadian French is moribund, at least on Isle Madame, Gaelic is all but dead as a first language, and Mi’kmaq is not spoken at all on some reserves. The Mi’kmaq are the Native Americans of the region, the Acadians were here early in the colonial period, and the Scots began arriving in the late 18th century from the Hebrides and the Western Highlands. They are thus the three historic peoples of Cape Breton. But their languages are endangered, their children have been leaving the island for a hundred years, and the cultures of the Mi’kmaq and the Gael have to be studied in various artificial settings contrived for tourists. (To be sure, the Gaelic College in St. Ann, Colaisde na Gàidhlig, just celebrated its 75th anniversary, and Cape Breton University has a Mi’kmaq Resource Centre. The Université Sainte-Anne in Church Point at the western end of the province maintains a Centre Acadien.)

Of course, the English-speaking political elite made it public policy to assimilate the Aboriginals and Highlanders by eradicating the Mi’kmaq and Gaelic tongues. These marginal languages were forbidden in government schools. Similarly, the English-speaking plutocrats tried to homogenize and exploit their workers for the sake of efficiency and profit. To be sure, over the decades of the 20th century, the lot of the working man did improve, until the collapse of the so-called Fordist compact. Nonetheless, this improvement in the workers’ lot was achieved in tandem with severe environmental and cultural degradation. Of course, neither the workers nor the plutocrats foresaw this, as attached as each side was to its own gain, and now neither the elite nor the common folk have solutions to the crises that face their world and ours.

Thus, the degradation of the languages, cultures, and economic practices of the three great peoples of Cape Breton — all of whom are predominantly Catholic, by the way — is a disaster. These three peoples had much to teach the English-speaking, largely Protestant elites. I do not mean to idealize the primitive or recommend that we all be “goin’ up country,” but I rue the monomania of the dominant culture, the culture into which I was born. I rue the professional landscaping, so to speak, of the human and the natural environments, the lifeless uniformity that modernity has imposed on the richly varied and vital landscapes of men and nature. The garden of life has been diminished to a suburban lawn.



 The chapel’s large windows are filled with clear glass, and the walls, though made of stone, are plastered and painted white. A painting of St. Louis IX of France hangs over the altar. Primitive, powerful statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Peregrine are in shallow bays in the nave, and a striking crucifix of the same genre hangs beside the confessional.

In this chapel and in the garden already described, I had a strong sense of the cooperation of nature, reason, and grace. In particular, the clear windows and whitewashed walls admit and intensify the light of the sun in a natural allegory of the illumination of the rational soul by word and sacrament in the liturgy of the Church. It is a thoroughly 17th-century French experience: Catholic and Platonic!

One of the docents with whom I spoke, who was dressed in the uniform of a French artilleryman of the period, was an Acadian. His ancestors had escaped deportation in 1758 by fleeing into the woods. Over the next four years, they made their way to what is now Madawaska, Maine, where they settled. This docent said the French and the Mi’kmaq were allies, and there was significant intermarriage. He said the Acadians were taller and swarthier than the soldiers from France because of Mi’kmaq genes and nutrition. The African slaves of the French also intermingled with the Mi’kmaq. One famous female slave, Marie Marguerite Rose, upon her emancipation, married a Mi’kmaq, and they established a tavern together in Louisbourg.

Why were the French so much less rigid about the aboriginal peoples than the English? It was surely partly policy: The French were in North America particularly to exploit the natural resources, and they needed the natives as allies and entrepreneurs. Nor, I suppose, were the French less vainglorious about their race than the English. Could it be that Catholicism helped them to perceive, however dimly, that nihil humanum alienum sibi esse (“nothing human was foreign to them”)?


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