April 10, 2019 — Did you know that in the 20th century a museum was set up by a Jesuit in order to promote a better understanding of Chinese art and culture among Quebecers? One of the artifacts from this museum is displayed in the second floor hallway of Maison Bellarmin, the main headquarters of the Jesuits in Canada – an imposing wooden panel carved in bas-relief and entitled Saint Peter and the Catholicity of the Church, in which the saint is surrounded by 22 cathedrals. A note states that it was made in Zikawei, a Chinese city, and that this artifact is unique, with the exception of another panel that can be found at the Vatican. But how did this piece get to Montreal?
It all began with the first Canadian Jesuits to travel to China in 1918. In 1923, three scholastics (Gagnon, Côté and Marin) came back to Canada with several artifacts that caused great astonishment everywhere, to such an extent that they considered grouping them and exhibiting them to the public. These first pieces were then followed by several others that were either collected or sold.
Part of these objects travelled between 1929-1930 in an exhibit that ran at Brébeuf College in Montreal and in Kahnawake. In 1931, Father Joseph-Louis Lavoie (founder of the magazine Le Brigand) established a Chinese Museum in Quebec City, both for apostolic and financial reasons, but also to change the misperceptions that French Canadians had of the Chinese.
But why set up a Chinese Museum next to the Chinese Missions Procure? Let us be honest: a lot of money was needed to support and develop our Mission. A museum could attract more visitors than a procure, don’t you think so? And amongst these visitors could be some who had not only a big heart but a big purse. Who knows? And there would be paid admission - a small source of income not to be overlooked. […] Better known, judged according to its true value, upon documents which undeniably proved the high culture and artistic tastes of countless people, China would become more interesting from an apostolic point of view and that is how one can see that a Museum Curator could simultaneously be a Mission Procurator (Le Brigand, No. 6, February 1931.)
Most of the artifacts of the Chinese Museum were made by orphans. This craft was of Chinese style, but some works were tailored to Western taste and style.
But what about Saint Peter’s panel? It was the centrepiece of the 1930 Montreal exhibit along with other objects made in China such as fonts and crucifixes. It was an expensive work: around $220 at the time (namely $1,745.64 today!). According to Le Brigand of August 1968, it was "one of the most beautiful pieces of Fr. Lavoie’s Chinese Museum that can still be admired at the Montreal Missions Procure."
In fact, the Museum moved to Montreal in 1946. In 1990, at the time of the 450th anniversary of the foundation of the Society of Jesus and of the 500th anniversary of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, most of the pieces from the Chinese Museum were transferredto the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City. However, Saint Peter’s panel was not transferred and can now be found on the second floor of the Maison Bellarmin where it can still be admired.
Besides having a fascinating story in itself, this panel resonates with the current ground floor exhibit at Maison Bellarmin, Missio Sinensis Süchowensis, on the Chinese mission of the French Canadian Jesuits in Suchow, which I invite you to visit. The exhibit is based on the holdings of the Archives of the Jesuits in Canada.
Information for this article comes from: Lord, France, La muette éloquence des choses : collections et expositions missionnaires de la Compagnie de Jésus au Québec, de 1843 à 1946, thesis, Université de Montréal, 1999.
Interior of the Chinese Museum in Quebec City.
Le Brigand, June 1936.