The Man Behind the Black Cross Temperance Society
What made my ancestor think of using a black cross to mark homes of temperance?
Edouard Quertier (Cartier) launched Quebec’s first official temperance society in 1842 by placing a giant black cross on the top of the escarpment in Saint-Denis-de-Kamouraska. So began an organization that would encompass 400,000 of 900,000 Canadian Catholics eight years later.(1)
The symbol created a tradition that continues in Quebec to this day. If you ever go into a home with a bare black cross hanging in the middle of the living room wall, you’ll know you’re in the house of people who do not drink alcohol.
But what gave him the idea?
1842 Arrival in St Denis
Quertier certainly wasn’t feeling inspired when he first arrived in the tiny hamlet or between 10 and 15 families at the edge of a cliff on the Saint Lawrence’s south shore.
How did I accept this arid rock?,” he wrote. “When I arrived [in October], there was not even a piece of board on which to place a bed or a table. I had to go down the slope and rent a small house, or rather a cabin. No matter! I waited there, until my lodging was acceptable.”(2)
Still, Quertier was no youngster when he arrived in Saint-Denis-de-Kamouraska. At 43 years old, he had had four previous jobs before his priesthood and 12 years of experience serving communities.
Both of his previous roles as parish priest were stressful.
As curate and then parish priest of Saint-Antoine in Montmagmy, he argued frequently with his patron, Father Charles Francois Painchaud.
His bishop got him out of that situation by appointing him parish priest of Sainte-Georges of Cacouna. There, a new church and presbytery were required, but building them was difficult due to arguments between residents who wanted religious leadership and those who believed in the strong separation of Church and State. Despite the conflict, Quertier was able to build a new church and presbytery within the village. He oversaw the presbytery stonemasons and carpenters and got the church walls well underway before resigning the post. His departure halted the building of the church for a time, but it resumed in 1845 and opened for worship in 1848. The belfry didn’t get added until 1892 and full consecration delayed until 1897, but that’s another story.(3)
The experience simply makes clear that Quertier knew he had to do something important quickly to make an impact on his new neighbourhood.
He decided to promote temperance as a movement.
Temperance in Quebec
The issue already had some momentum in Quebec. Popular people like Bishop Charles-August-Marie-Joseph de Forbin-Janson and Charels-Paschal-Télesphore Chiniquy had been telling stories about the evils of alcoholism in weekly masses since 1839. Community residents saw that frequent imbibing often led to fighting, lethargy, poverty, spousal abuse, theft and neighbourhood violence.
Unlike his predecessors, however, Quertier decided to formalize the movement with an official association he called “The Society of the Black Cross.” He created statutes, oaths for members and procedures for joining the society, including the requirement that each member display a plain black cross on the wall of the family living room.
For the next 15 years, Quertier’s campaign for temperance spread. So many French Canadian families displayed the black cross, it became a decor tradition. The Quebecois de Souche society includes a photo that shows the once prevalent look.(4)
Growth and Departure as Leader
In the meantime, Quertier continued building his parish. The wooden chapel that originally opened on December 24, 1841 got replaced by a stone gothic church in 1850.
Seven years after that, Quertier retired. By then, the Society of the Black Cross included believers in almost every parish in Quebec and Quertier’s own parish had grown to encompass 100 families containing “625 souls.”(5)
Temperance continued to be a key issue, not only in Quebec but across Canada. In Quebec, however, the secularism movement also had great strength in many communities. To avoid angering these groups, the Province of Canada passed the Canada Temperance Act that allowed any county or city to hold referendums to consider whether or not to forbid the sale of liquor. This would ensure that communities who wanted to stay dry could do so without forcing prohibition on the entire country.
Life after Death
Quertier spent the rest of his life in Saint-Denis-de-Kamouraska, which became Saint-Denis-de-la Bouteillerie in 2013. After his death in 1879 at 73 years old, the church entombed his body under the crypt of the church. A tombstone says in French:
Here lies lord Edouard Quertier, first parish priest of St. Denis, one of the first apostles of temperance. Died July 17, 1873, aged 73 years, 10 months, 12 days. For 15 years, he lived for you. Pray for him.”(6)
Quertier’s remains continued to draw enough visitors that the church got entirely rebuilt after a fire damaged it on March 9, 1886. Initially, they built a belfry to hold a 2027-pound bell that cost $425,000 the following spring, and new walls on those of the former church by October. Later, they’d add two more bells to the tower.
Quertiers’ campaign for temperance didn’t end when he died. Members of his Black Cross Society were among 20% of Quebec’s population that supported a federal referendum on prohibition in 1898.
The movement grew substantially during World War I.
Temperance, not Prohibition
The Quebec Government declared prohibition in 1919. Then it made several exceptions by legalizing the sale of light beer, cider, and wine in hotels, taverns, cafes, clubs and corner stores.
The prohibition law got repealed entirely to enable liquor sales through a government-run commission in 1921.
In many ways, by choosing control over strict adherence to abstinence, the government duplicated the practicality Quertier included within the original functioning of the Society of the Black Cross.
Any household that became a member of the temperance organization could get a special dispensation to serve alcohol during celebrations, such as baptisms, birthdays and weddings. If the parish priest agreed that a special occasion merited an exception, he would temporarily replace the plain black cross in a home with a white one. The white cross hung on the wall during the celebration. After the celebration ended, the priest would visit to exchange the white cross with a black one and return the home to a liquor-free location.(7)
This kind of flexibility enabled temperance to continue growing within Catholic communities in Quebec even after 1921. Some of its proponents resurrected Quertier in the form of a statue in front of his former church in 1925. The statue remains in place today.
(1) Ferland, Jean-Baptiste Antoine, in a report to the Holy See, 1850 as written in section 8, part 98 of Canada and its provinces, edited by Adam Short and Arthur G. Doughty, Glasgow, 1914, https://archive.org/stream/canadaitsprovinc11shoruoft/canadaitsprovinc11shoruoft_djvu.txt, accessed July 19, 2020.
(2) Julienne Barnard, “QUERTIER, ÉDOUARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–,written in 1972, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/quertier_edouard_10E.html, accessed on July 18, 2020.
(3) Ouellet, Jean-Baptiste, Municipalité de Saint-Denis-De La Bouteillerie. https://munstdenis.com/municipalit%c3%a9/historique/, accessed July 18, 2020.
(4) Fédération des Québécois de souche, https://quebecoisdesouche.info/la-croix-noire-croix-de-temperance/, accessed July 18, 2020
(5) La Corporation de développement de Mont-Carmel, https://www.mont-carmel.ca/histoire/, accessed July 18, 2020.
(6) Généalogie Abitibi-Témiscamingue, https://www.genat.org/cimetieres/photo.php?idPhoto=2c0bf0249a01fd83b57322e7b7cb3362, accessed July 18, 2020.
(7) Fédération des Québécois de souche, https://quebecoisdesouche.info/la-croix-noire-croix-de-temperance/, accessed July 18, 2020.
About the Author
Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.