Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles

Les Pères Capucins du Lac Meach

Volume 8, page 17

Shirley Shorter

When I was a little girl about seven years old I lived in Ottawa on Somerset Street between Metcalfe and O'Connor. It was around 1928 and the area was called Centretown. Mr. Topley, the famous photographer, lived next door to us. Junior Askwith's grandfather was the Chief of Police, and Betty and Gerry Burnett's grandfather was the Fire Chief. As children, we spent many a Saturday morning at the Museum on McLeod Street, and the afternoon at the Imperial or Avalon Theatres. Radio Station C. K. C. O. was in our apartment building.

Just west of Somerset Street, at the corner of Wellington and Fairmount, stood a very large Catholic Church. It fascinated me as I rode by it on the streetcar to Britannia Bay. The steep front steps led up to massive doors on the first floor. Two golden statues stood in niches on the next level. At the very top, reaching to the heavens, were two towering steeples containing huge bells. These bells could be heard for blocks, when rung by the Capucins. It was a pleasant happy sound. One time at Christmas, our sewing lady, Mrs. Orange, (whose husband was one of our familiar streetcar conductors) took me inside this church to see the nativity scene of Mary and the baby Jesus. In the summertime, for one whole week, the church had an outside bazaar which was like a festival. Tables were set up with canopies and colored lights above them.

The name of this church was Église St. François D'Assise. It was built about 1914 for the Capucin monks who came from France. These monks were known by their brown hooded robes tied at the waist with a rope, round shaven heads, beards and sandals. The first church was built in 1890 and stood behind the present Recreation Centre at 1064 Wellington Street. Père Alexis was one of the founders.

What is the historical background of the Capucin Fathers? They were an order of Friars in the Roman Catholic Church, one of the chief offshoots of the Franciscans. About 1520, Matteo di Bassi introduced a habit with a pointed hood. This hood was called a capuche, hence the popular name of Capucin. A recognized order grew out of this movement. These Capucins chose to live in extreme poverty, austerity, and simplicity. They still possess very few worldly goods. They modelled themselves after St. François D’Assise, whose three vows were: chastity, poverty, and obedience. St. François was known to understand the animals and birds. People believed he could talk to them. This is a legend told to me by my friend, Mrs. Conti. In a small town in Italy, St. François discovered the people were afraid to come outside their houses for fear a wolf would eat them. He went to see the wolf in the woods and told him that, if he was friendly towards the people, they would be kind to him. The wolf said he would try. When he came to town the people fed him and he became friends with them. It seems the wolf was starving and that is why he wanted to eat the people.

Les Freres Capuchin
Les Freres Capuchin building their chapel, showing their foundations and Meech Lake in the background. Photo courtesy of Pére Jacques Bleau, o.f.m. cap.

About 1945 my father bought the old Joynt cottage, near the Robertson's, at Meach Lake. It was set up high on a hill across the bay from the O'Brien’s and the Gilhooley's cottages. The Ernie Fournier family from Ottawa helped us clear the woods to give us a view down the lake. At night, as dusk fell, we could hear beautiful chanting and singing coming from boats out on the lake. It was les Frères Capucins from L'Église St. François D'Assise on Wellington Street. It seemed they vacationed at Meach Lake in the summertime. lt was their custom to row to the middle of the lake in their long boats and serenade the cottagers. They also climbed the high cliffs in Hope Bay and said prayers beneath a wooden cross, erected in memory of the Capucins who had drowned in Meach Lake when their boat became swamped in rough water. Père Ludovic Caya, a Capucin for forty years, lent me a very interesting reference book. It was written by T. R. P. Alexis, Des Frères Mineurs, Capucins, and is called “Le Canada Heroique et Pittoresque”. In this book from pages 221 - 228 there is a chapter titled Le Lac Meach. lt explains how the Capucins acquired their property at Meach Lake in the early 1900's.

The first residence for the students or séraphiques, as they were called was designed in France. The windows were small and the ventilation poor for so many sleeping in one room — (about 40). Many became quite ill with tuberculosis. The doctor said the students should be in fresh air as much as possible in the summer to regain their health. Père Alexis discovered a pretty little point at the edge of Meach Lake owned by farmer James Farrell. The farmer sold him 2 acres for $40.00 on condition that his aging mother could take mass with the Capucins instead of travelling to Old Chelsea. Later the Capucins acquired more land to make up the 5.7 acres shown on the sketch of their property. As time went by the students were very happy there, and their health improved. The Capucin missionaries came to Meach Lake for their holidays and the older Capucins came to recuperate. It was an ideal spot for the followers of St. François. The people who lived around the lake were at home with nature. There were many fish in the water, birds in the sky, animals in the woods, and plants in the fields.

T. R. P. Alexis in his chapter on Meach Lake starts his tale as follows: "Le Lac Meach est si beau l'été que plus je vieillis plus je l'aime". This quotation can still be applied to Meach Lake today. Alexis speaks of a little inn at the entrance of the lake which he called Meach Lake House or Cowden House. He mentions the school house and Alexander's Mill. He describes the superb chalet built by the inventor Willson and the farm of James Farrell. Then around the bay stood the pretty pale green cottage of the Capucins. The McGrath farm was down at the end of the lake.

François Lafleur, a former Capucin, was another monk who wrote about Meach Lake. His article was titled "Notes Historiques Sur Le Lac Meach". He quoted quite a bit of Ethel Penman Hope's article on Meach Lake. He explained that the French name for Meach Lake was Lacharité. The popular names for Harrington and Meach Lakes were Mousseau and Lacharité. His article mentioned several persons whose names are seen on the 1941 map. He said that M. Stewart lived at the lake for forty years, winter and summer, and was known to be a keen scholar. Père Ludovic Caya visited his cottage and had many conversations with him. Miss Tilley, daughter of William J. Tilley, and aunt of Mrs. Arthur Davison, resided on the point opposite the Gill cottage. Her father used to walk from Ottawa to Meach Lake. He loved the lake so much he asked to be buried there. His land Was bought from James Farrell, too, and his log house was one of the first cottages on the lake. Miss Davey lived alone on her island at the end of the lake. She loved animals, as the Capucins did, but she was a believer in theosophy. The population of the lake grew to 150 families Some of the families he mentioned were, Pelletier, Parent, Amyot, Champagne, Gagnon, Dupuis, Drolet, Lafleur, and many others shown on the 1941 map. He took care to mention the fact that Princess Juliana from Holland had visited the lake in the 1940's.

In 1900, the first chapel at Meach Lake was built behind the cottage of the Capucins. By 1956 the old chapel could no longer accommodate all the cottagers. A subscription committee was composed of Connelly, Brault, Beehler, Doran, Menard, Millette, and Joyal. Over forty cottagers, Protestant and Catholic, contributed money to pay for the costs of constructing a new chapel. Mrs. Hope and Mr. Dave Wright furnished materials gratis. The Janin Co. and Concrete Column Clamps Co. also aided in the construction without any charge. One of the support beams was brought from the old church on Wellington Street. The architect for the chapel was Mr. Henri Tremblay of Quebec. He was given valuable assistance with his plans by Mr. Hugh Doran of Doran Construction Co. of Ottawa. Victor Tolgyesy, a Hungarian immigrant, carved the wooden sculpture of the Capucin monk outside the chapel. The total cost of the chapel was about $8,500.00 and was paid by subscription and Sunday collections for two summers. When the chapel was built there was a special ceremony and blessing by Père Henri from the monastery in Ottawa. The Capucins served the benefactors and friends of the chapel a special lunch.

Now in 1977, Père Ludovic and Maurice Ménard have told me many interesting stories about the Capucins of Meach Lake. For instance, it was nothing for Pére Ludovic to walk from St. François D’Assise, across the railway bridge by the Filtration Plant, travel along the Mine Road, past Old Chelsea, then along Meach Road till he reached the path past the Gilhooley's cottage and finally arrive at the cottage of the Capucins. lt took him about five hours and he knew the path so well he could do it in the dark. Maurice Menard often brought meat and bread from Ottawa for the brothers when he returned to his cottage at Meach Lake every night. It was a familiar sight to see the Capucins walking along the road in their sandals and brown hooded robes. There was a saying among les Frères, “Meet me at Kelly and Leduc’s" — the reason being that Mr. Kelly very often gave them a ride to Meach Lake from his hardware store in Hull. Père Guy Bruneau, a Capucin, known for his beautiful artistry of stained glass windows, remarked that the logs which protrude at the front of the chapel reminded him of hands folded in prayer.

The Meach Lake Chapel is an open air chapel and when you enter it you feel very close to nature. The service is said both in French and English and provides a challenge to become bilingual. The Capucins no longer wear their brown robes for that attire has vanished with the modern church of today. On the third of October 1976, L’Église François D'Assise celebrated the 750th anniversary of the birth of St. François D'Assise.

François Lafleur wrote in his article: "Je vous laisse et vous invite à gouter aux charmes de ce lac ~ un vrai joyau des Laurentides.”

The original spelling of the name of the lake was Meech, after Asa Meech who settled in the area about 1821. However, in the writings of the Monks it is spelled Meach, the modern spelling, and that is employed throughout this article.

This article by Shirley Shorter of Ottawa and Meach Lake was awarded Second Prize in the sixth annual Essay Contest sponsored by The Historical Society of the Gatineau — 1977.

List of articles - Volume 8