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My First Year in Canada

By the Right Rev. Ashton Oxenden, D.D.
Bishop of Montreal, and Metropolitan of Canada

London: Hatchards, 1871.

Chapter VI. A Winter in Montreal

I HARDLY know a pleasanter place in which to pass the winter months than Montreal. Its cheerfulness, and at the same time its quietness--for, instead of the rumbling of carriages along the streets, they glide noiselessly over the snow--its many appliances to keep out the cold--the kindness of its inhabitants--the facilities for moving about, &c.--all make it a charming place of residence in the winter. We were living in a most comfortable and convenient house in Drummond Street, which had been provided for us by some generous members of our Church; and here the time passed as happily as it could in the absence of those beloved ones whose companionship we sorely missed. I had now a good deal of quiet time for gathering up" the arrears of work, which a year without a Bishop had accumulated in the Diocese, and also of becoming acquainted with the clergy and congregations in the city of Montreal.

There are nine churches in the town: most of them in a prosperous condition; and certainly the staff of clergy is above the ordinary standard both in point of earnestness and power. My interest was of course in the Cathedral primarily; but the other churches also had a strong claim upon me. In the former I held my first Ordination, consisting of three persons, who were admitted to the Order of Deacons. This was a very solemn time; but the actual ceremony was in a measure spoilt by the peculiar inconvenience of the structure for such a Service; so much so, that I felt it would be better to hold the three following Ordinations in other churches.

As I found a deficiency of labourers in the Diocese, I was thankful for this accession of three promising men to our ranks. My present desire is rather to raise than to lower the standard of ministerial acquirements, feeling that the greatness of the work and the advance of education demand it.

The congregations in our city Churches are generally good, and the services well ordered. There is a Sunday-school attached to each church; and some of these are excellently managed and numerously attended. At the two largest the numbers amount to five and six hundred. These schools are in some instances held in the basements of the churches, in a large room almost underground. They are attended by all classes, even the highest, and the number of teachers is large. On one day in the winter all these Sunday-schools assembled in St. George's Church, and I preached to them. The Service was especially interesting; and my feeling was that I had seldom addressed a more important congregation.

There is also an abundance of Charitable Institutions at Montreal--Hospitals, Church Homes, Friendly Societies, &c., and all well managed. St. George's society, St. Andrew's, and St. Patrick's, lay themselves out to receive poor emigrants on their arrival in Canada; also to be generally useful to their countrymen, and to keep up a national feeling amongst them.

I have scarcely ever seen a beggar in the streets of Montreal, or in the country. There is a great absence of poverty, except perhaps among the lowest French population. Of course, there are no Poor-Laws or Unions here; but there are several charitable Refuges, in which the needy and friendless are cared for. And among the Roman Catholics especially there are many Institutions on an enormous scale.

Besides the several fine churches belonging to our own Communion, which would be an ornament to any town, there are handsome buildings belonging to other denominations. Between the various sections of the Protestant Church there exists a friendly rivalry, but an absence of that bitterness which sometimes disgraces the members of differing religious bodies. We, who are Churchmen, are decided Churchmen, perhaps even more so than in England; but we honour the feelings of those who conscientiously differ from us, though we are persuaded that they would be great gainers by joining our ranks; and earnestly long for the time when 'there shall be one Lord, and His name one.'

The Roman Catholics are by far the most numerous body, and have some fine churches, though not strictly in harmony with our English tastes. Happily there is at present a kindly feeling between the Roman Catholics and Protestants, each pursuing their own course without molesting the other. And it is well that it should be so, for little would indeed be gained on either side if controversy and contention were the order of the day. As a Reformed Church, we desire, by God's help, to hold our own, and 'contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints.' But we wish at the same time to speak the truth in love, carefully avoiding all bitterness and harshness of language, which only wounds without healing.

But now--to speak more generally of the state of things at Montreal--the whole city is at this season in its winter's dress. The roofs of the houses, and also the streets, are covered with snow from the beginning of December to the end of April--five long months. In the majority of the streets, no attempt is made to remove it from the wooden side-walks; but it becomes beaten down, and makes a solid footpath. Sometimes the walking is very bad, and almost dangerous, so that elderly gentlemen, like myself, are glad to put on 'creepers,' which are something like the spikes which are attached to cricket shoes, or to the 'crampons,' which are used in Switzerland for crossing the glaciers. However, the people at Montreal are not much given to walking; and last winter Mrs. Oxcnden and myself were about the most persevering pedestrians in the place: and this, I am sure, contributed not a little to our health.

The sleighs, darting about from street to street, are most picturesque. Some of them are very handsomely got up, with an abundance of furs and other trappings. The motion is most agreeable, and the pace delightful; and even in the keenest weather, provided there is a tolerable absence of wind, one suffers little from cold. A fur coat, and cap with ear-pads, completely protect one. We have sometimes been out at night in an open sleigh, when the thermometer has been considerably below zero, without feeling it so much as an ordinary cold night in England. They usually hold four persons, and being almost on the ground, and most of them without doors, one steps in and out with the greatest ease. The hired sleighs, of which there are plenty, are clean and good, and the owners take a pride in the robes with which they are provided. Most people keep a sleigh of their own; but we were an exception, and found but little inconvenience. One has occasionally to satisfy oneself that one's nose and ears are all right, as they are sometimes frozen before the possessor is at all aware of his condition. Ordinary precautions however are sufficient to prevent such a catastrophe.

The roofs of the houses and the Church-spires are often of zinc, and their appearance is very dazzling and pretty. But in the country wooden shingles are generally used, and are very serviceable, lasting about five-and-twenty years, and keeping out the wet and cold extremely well. Few objects are more striking than a country church with a zinc spire glittering in the noon-day sun.

I know not how it is, but there are more conflagrations in Canada than elsewhere. A fire at Montreal is a thing of weekly occurrence, and even more so at Quebec. There is an admirable Fire Brigade; and the whole system is perfect in its arrangements. There are telegraphic wires, which communicate between all parts of the town and the engine-stations, and the supply of water is excellent. The plan of operations is this: when a fire breaks out, some one immediately runs to the nearest telegraphic box, of which there are more than one in each street, and having procured the key which is known to be deposited in an adjoining house, the box is opened, and the very act of opening it conveys the alarm, by means of the telegraphic wire, to the Engine-house. There the horses are kept harnessed, and a body of men are always in readiness, so that in the course of a few minutes the engine is at the door of the house in danger. In the country, large tracts of woodland are sometimes on fire for days together, and it is very difficult to extinguish them; but of this I shall speak further in another chapter.

I have said that Prince Arthur was in Montreal during this winter. His Royal Highness might be seen day after day driving his phaeton and pair down to the Barracks after an early breakfast, or walking home a couple of miles in the afternoon. There was no parade about his movements, but all was natural, and yet most correct and princelike. His presence among us added not a little to the enjoyment of all. Twice he honoured us by being present at an evening reception at our house, which enabled us to entertain all our kind friends, to the number of some hundreds, who had given us so cordial and hearty a welcome. The Prince shone much on such occasions, being full of kindness, and showing always that good breeding for which England is remarkable.

The Skating Rink is a great winter feature in this city, and to this the Prince paid almost a daily visit. It is a very large and handsome building, the flooring of which is a smooth sheet of ice, constantly renewed by the inlet of a flood of water. Here hundreds of persons may be seen skating every day, and especially in the afternoon, among whom are some of the best skaters in the world, of both sexes.

We went there on one grand occasion, when every skater wore a fancy costume. It was one of the most beautiful sights I ever beheld. The place was hung with the gayest flags, most tastefully arranged: it was splendidly lighted, and filled with skaters in their fancy dresses, and lookers-on. The Prince invited us, and also the Bishop of Quebec and Mrs. Williams, who were with us at the time, to his gallery, from whence we had a delightful bird's-eye view of all that was going on. It was indeed a fairy scene to look upon. The skating was wonderful, and the dresses gorgeous. On this occasion the Prince was only a spectator.

The great St. Lawrence is of course, frozen over during the winter; but the state of the ice is totally different to that which we had pictured to ourselves. I expected to see a smooth, even sheet of ice, spread over the bed of the river, so that upon this even surface people could walk and drive ad libitum: but no such thing; the river is covered with an irregular mass of snow and ice jammed together upon the water, and presenting all kinds of shapes. In this state of chaos, it is perfectly impassable, until two or three roads are made upon it leading to villages on the other side. Along these roads there is a considerable traffic, as provisions, and especially hay, are continually being brought in from the country. A few places are cleared for skating, but these are very few and but little used. The whole appearance resembles an irregular glacier more than anything else.

Before leaving England, I was charged by my doctor to ride; and I was one of the few who steadily persevered in this exercise during the whole winter. It was a great refreshment to me, when wearied with indoor work, to get an hour on horseback before luncheon. There were but few days when I was prevented by the cold, although I confess that I had sometimes a difficulty in keeping up a sufficient amount of circulation. For this exercise, which contributed not a little to my health, I was indebted to a kind officer commanding the Artillery, Colonel G------, who pretended that I did him much service by keeping his two horses in exercise.

The custom of paying friendly visits on New Year's Day has long prevailed among the upper classes, both of French and English, in Canada. These visits are paid by gentlemen only, the ladies remaining at home to receive visitors. An exception is kindly made in the case of the Bishop and the Clergy, who are allowed to consider themselves as the visited on this occasion. We received on New Year's Day nearly 300 visits, and among them we were honoured by a special visit from the Prince.

It is a genial and time-honoured custom, and one that I should be very sorry to see discontinued. It draws out much kind feeling; and I have known cases where it has been the signal for a reconciliation between persons who have been long estranged from each other.

Dinner-parties are frequent in Montreal. There is perhaps a little too much expense devoted to them; and this prevents all but the wealthy from indulging in such hospitalities.

I should say that the general cost of living here is much the same as in an ordinary English town. House-rent is high, and so are all kinds of grocery and dress; whereas meat, poultry, fish, &c. are reasonable and excellent. The meat is fairly good, but not perhaps first-rate. The beef is somewhat hard, and the mutton is generally too young, being usually little more than grown-up lamb. There are no butchers' shops in the streets, but every kind of meat is to be had in the public markets, which are held daily, and are admirably supplied. It is by no means unusual to see the greatest Ladies sallying forth after breakfast to make their purchases. Much of the meat is killed in December and kept frozen through the winter; but in this state it loses somewhat of its freshness and flavour. It is not at all uncommon in passing one of the markets, or when driving into the country, to see a large hog standing stiff on all fours, looking quite alive, but having ceased to breathe for many weeks.

The turkeys and fowls are remarkably cheap and abundant; and the game, which consists of partridges, prairie-hens (a kind of grouse), quails, snow-birds, &c., are excellent. One often sees a string of cock-pheasants hanging up outside a grocer's shop, which have been sent over from Blenheim or Stowe; also English hares, of which there is only a very debased mongrel kind to be met with in this country.

The Canadians are somewhat demonstrative in their sorrows. The funeral cavalcades are of enormous dimensions. It is a common thing to see a hearse followed by forty or fifty carriages, and sometimes by one or two hundred mourners. There is a very picturesque and beautiful Protestant Cemetery on the north side of the mountain, about three miles from the town; and here most of the burials take place. There is however something very sad and unsatisfactory about the ceremony, for, owing to the severe cold, there is usually no service in the open air, as in England; and from the impenetrable state of the ground, no interment can take place in winter, but the body is consigned for a time to a public vault within the enclosure of the cemetery. The service therefore is read in the church before leaving the town.

Montreal is decidedly a healthy city during the winter, and unhealthy in the summer, especially for children. There is no lack of medical advice, and that of a high character. As to the legal profession, there are almost as many lawyers as there are clients; and yet I am sure that the Canadians are not a quarrelsome or combative people.

But I must now be bringing my chapter to a close, and the winter too. Suddenly, in the end of April, the thermometer mounted up from zero to forty degrees. Two or three days of hot weather came, and then a soaking rain. The sleighs were suddenly put by, and wheels once more were the order of the day. The snow and ice disappear in wondrously quick time, almost before one is able to put by one's furs, and take to a more seasonable dress. The transition from winter to summer is remarkable: there is scarcely any intervening spring.

On the first of May half the people of Montreal change their houses. For about three days huge waggons piled up with furniture are to be seen in every street, and innumerable auctions take place. We, among the rest, moved to a fresh house, which we have taken for a year, when we hope to get into our new and permanent abode, to which I have ventured to give the name of 'Bishop's Court,' there to remain fixed so long as God shall be pleased to keep us here.

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