It’s the first and only such thing in North America: a Holy Door.
The thick bronze door, with images of Jesus and Mary carved on either side, is now installed, inaugurated and ready to welcome visitors to Quebec City’s magnificent Notre Dame basilica, the capital for French Roman Catholics on the continent.
There are only six other such doors (porta sancta in Latin) in the world: four in Rome, one each in France and Spain.
They are sanctioned by the Vatican to mark significant jubilees in the history of the church. In the case of Notre Dame, it’s the 350th anniversary of the founding in 1664 of the oldest parish in North America.
The man responsible for the establishment of the first formal parish was the very busy Francois de Laval. He was the first bishop of Quebec, arriving at a time when France’s foothold in North America — Nouvelle France — amounted to some 2,000 souls huddled along the shores of the St. Lawrence River, centerd in Quebec, at the narrowing of the river.
It’s a testament to the challenges Laval faced that the population of the French colony had grown so little in the 50 years since Samuel de Champlain first established a settlement in the vast, hostile territory.
Almost immediately upon his arrival, Laval engaged a power struggle with the political authority in the colony by setting up a religious court to adjudicate sins and crimes.
That tug-of-war between church and state in Quebec would set the tone for the next 350 years that even continues today with the current government’s proposed charter to ensure a secular state.
The official opening of the Holy Door kicks off a year of ceremonies and celebrations to mark the milestone. As yet, those ceremonies do not include a visit from the pope.
The last time a pope visited Canada was 2002, the third of three visits John Paul II made to Canada, the only pope to visit his Canadian faithful.
The actual history of Holy Doors seems a bit obscure, but what is established is that going back to the 1400s a practice developed that faithful could seek sanctuary and blessing by passing through a designated door. Eventually, the tradition of the door became associated with special occasions, such as jubilee anniversaries.
Also according to tradition, a pope or designated official, opens the door with three taps of a silver hammer.
Although no pope has been compelled to wear protective headwear for the job since, at one door opening during Pope Paul VI’s reign, the holy father did get showered with cement debris when the seal was broken.
Other Holy Doors in the world are unsealed only every 25 years, and that will be the case at Notre Dame basilica. If you miss the opportunity to pass through the doors during the current anniversary, you’ll have to wait until 2039 for another chance.
What perhaps makes the Quebec doors particularly special, and distinct from the more antique ones found in more temperate climates, is that the bronze facades are attached to an actual refrigerator door. With heating costs being what they are these days, the Holy Door is insulated against the unforgiving cold of this part of the continent.
Naturally, Notre Dame parish officials are hoping the Holy Door — an investment, including fabrication, installation and access program, of some $900,000, most of which comes from private donors — will draw visitors, pilgrims if you like, to the basilica.
A major target is at least a portion of the estimated 18 million Americans whose ancestry can be traced to the French Catholic faithful who sustained the parish for three and half centuries.
The pre-Christmas inauguration of the Holy Door underlines one of the key historical elements of the role of the Catholic Church in the early European incursion into the new world: the relationship with First Nations.
In fact, the oldest Canadian Christmas carol, “Jesous Ahatonhia (Jesus is Born),” was written by a Jesuit missionary in the Huron language, in 1643.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.