Posted by Censor Librorum on Jun 7, 2006 | Categories: Lesbian in a Catholic Sort of Way

My lover is French-Canadian. Actually, half French-Canadian. In the late 1800s her mother’s family migrated down from Trois-Rivieres in Quebec to St. Albans, Vermont. From there, they followed the railroad line to a town in western Massachusetts. Growing up, Lori attended Saint-Jean-Baptiste school, where the morning classes were in French, and so was daily mass. French was spoken at home by her mother, her aunts and her uncles. Two of her aunts, like her teachers in Saint-Jean-Baptiste (SJB), were members of the community of Ste. Anne de Beaupre, an order with their motherhouse in Quebec. The clergy followed people as they migrated south to find work
in textile and paper mills.

When I went home with her to “meet the family”, one of the stops was mass at Saint-Jean-Baptiste, the “French” church in town. Lori’s grandmother, an Italian immigrant from a village near Milan, went to the “Italian” church–St. Mary’s. “She would not set foot” in a French church, she told me. There was also an Irish church, a Polish church and a Portuguese church. This was so unlike my own experience growing up. My town had so few Catholics we didn’t have the option of separate parishes based on ethnic origin. There was also the issue of the basketball team: Italians were quick; Germans were tall; and the Irish supplied the grit. We got along.

David Plante, who grew up in Rhode Island, wrote several books rooted in the French-Canadian experience: The Family (1978); The Country (1981) and The Woods (1982) form part of his highly acclaimed Francoeur trilogy. But it is in his novels The Catholic (1986) and American Ghosts-A Memoir (2005) where the strands of family, heritage, faith and sexuality (he is gay) are raveled and unraveled. Because it is so infused with religion, the sex in The Catholic is among the most intense and erotic I have ever read.

I arrived at Saint-Jean-Baptiste expecting something very different, but getting the same sensory experience I grew up with–Catholic churches are an experience of the senses. The place had the old church smell: snuffed candles, the old paper smell of hymnals, the specs of dust caught in the light streaming through the stained glass windows, the creaking kneelers, the worn steps. Worn down and polished by generations of shoe leather. Lori left the place for good when she went off to college. She had no regrets going–she carried with her all the usual Catholic school horror stories–and yet, almost genetically, Sainte-Jean-Baptiste helped to form her determination and faith.

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