The Writings of Michèle Mailhot and Marcelle Brisson: Exploring Quebec’s Religious Past

Written by guest blogger, Myreille Pawliez, Victoria University of Wellington.

An old Catholic school in Montreal, © Myreille Pawliez

In Quebec, every village is dominated by a disproportionately large church and presbytery, and every town is peppered with imposing stony seminaries, colleges and schools. These tangible mementoes of an ultra-conservative Catholic Church which had a tight grip on the Belle province from the 1840s to the 1960s remind us of its long omnipresence. Considering its influence over moral, social, educational, health and recreational matters, it comes as no surprise that literature, bridled by Catholic censure, depicted for a long time a society where the Catholic parish priest, or the teaching brother, is an everpresent benevolent figure, and the nun a secondary character, associated with health and educational care. Viewed from the outside, these religious figures were part of a microcosm that represented the rural traditional parish idealised by the Church.

Michèle Mailhot, a Quebec writer whose literary writing spans three decades (1964 to 1990), was the very first to conceive a novel solely focussing on a nun. A first-person account of the story of a twenty-year old postulant, her second novel, Le Portique (1967), depicts Josée’s daily life when she enters a Montreal religious teaching community. Full of life and searching for the Absolute, she finds that, despite her strong faith, she is unable to endure cloistered life and the rigid rules of a Catholic convent. Confronting her doubts and questioning very lucidly the traditional values and rituals imposed on her community, she leaves just before becoming a novice. Throughout her journey, the author not only imparts the experience and inner thoughts of a young postulant, but also describes with great realism and details a typical Quebec Catholic women’s religious community of the 1950s. Via the viewpoint of a critical protagonist, the novel denounces the dogmas held by conservative Catholics that still prevailed in religious communities, and in the society at large, and reveals a Quebec Catholic Church in crisis.

Almost a decade later, Marcelle Brisson recalls in Par delà la clôture (1975) her own life as a Benedictine postulant, novice, then nun at Sainte-Marie-Madeleine Abbay, where she lived between 1949 and 1962. She reports on the very strict way of life in her cloistered congregation, comments very insightfully on her doubts and on the problems affecting her community undermined by modern views. Even though her portrayal is that of a real enclosed contemplative congregation of French origin, it is very similar to Michèle Mailhot’s fictitious encapsulation of Josée’s semi-enclosed Quebec religious teaching community.

I have been researching Michèle Mailhot’s writings since the late 1980s, and it seemed interesting to compare her novel with Marcelle Brisson’s nonfictional account of her real-life convent experience. Examining how each community functions and the impact this has on the two women, as well as their family and social background, I reveal a Quebec society controlled by an ultra-conservative clergy which was on the verge of collapsing. In a sense, I resurrect, through the lens of history, a world now nearly forgotten, a Quebec full of social limitations, where intelligent girls were driven throughout their education to enter religion but grew up aware of new literary trends and the more open Catholic vision of the Modernists. With both women finding themselves at a crossroads and eventually choosing modernity over tradition, their stories herald the rapid secularisation that would prevail in the 1960s in Quebec.

Myreille Pawliez’s article, “La religieuse dans Le Portique de Michèle Mailhot et dans Par delà la clôture de Marcelle Brisson has been published in the International Journal of Canadian Studies Volume 52, 2015. Read it today at IJCS Online – or on Project MUSE –


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