A Treasure from the Era of New France
Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Church is Place-Royale’s most authentic building from the French Regime, despite the many transformations that have marked its history. Construction began in 1688 on the ruins of Samuel de Champlain’s “abitation,” the colony’s first building. Bombarded, rebuilt, threatened with demolition, and renovated, one of its greatest victories is the fact that it has remained faithful to its original architectural design to this day.
A history verging on the miraculous
When the first bishop of Québec, François de Laval, fought to push ahead with construction of this church, which began in 1688, he had no reason to think it had been born under a lucky star. The merchants complained that it deprived them of space for business, and construction was held up by numerous lawsuits. Yet, this rare witness to the 17th century stands to this day. Parishioners, newlyweds, and tourists continue to experience this place of worship typical of New France.
The Canadian style
In 1688 barely 10,000 people lived in New France, and Québec had fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. Signs of wealth were rare. This satellite church of the Upper Town cathedral, whose mission was to minister to the many Lower Town faithful, is unpretentious. Its sombre style, in contrast to the monumental style of churches in France, would become characteristic of churches in the colony.
At first the church was dedicated to the Infant Jesus, but before it was completed, Admiral Phips dropped anchor across from Québec with a fleet of some 30 vessels poised to seize the city. Governor Frontenac adroitly led the defence against the invaders. But the townsfolk maintained that it was prayers to the Virgin Mary that had turned the tide. The church was therefore named in her honour. A second attempted siege was cut short on the reefs of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1711. That is when the church was renamed Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Our Lady of the Victories.
The same face
Engravings from the time show that today’s church resembles its older self. An eagle eye will note that the plaster that covered the walls is gone and the alcoves housing statues on the facade of the church have been replaced by windows. The belfry has also been moved closer to the front of the church. But the general physiognomy has not changed.
Like a face with only a few wrinkles, the general features remain—the windows are where the alcoves once were, the canopy is laid out the same way, and the basic imprint—the size and proportions of the building—is identical. The high, narrow church has preserved the personality imposed by its setting.
Rebirth and endurance
Most buildings in Place-Royale were heavily damaged by enemy shelling in 1759. Notre-Dame-des-Victoires was painstakingly rebuilt. But the church was quick to be ravaged by fire. The second renovation was done hastily, with disappointing results. Consequently, in 1816, architect François Baillairgé undertook a major and much-needed overhaul, giving the church the appearance it has today.
Some 50 years later, the church came very close to being demolished. Its congregation had outgrown it, and once more the merchants wanted it gone. However, the parishioners put up a fight, and in 1929 it was classified a historical monument by a newly created commission for the Province of Québec, making Notre-Dame-des-Victoires among the first three historical buildings to be preserved for posterity. From that day forward, the church did not have to fear for its future. It was renovated again in the 1970s when extensive work was done on Place-Royale.
There is only one remaining original element inside the church—the tabernacle of the chapel of Sainte-Geneviève. However, period paintings have been brought back, such as this one of the miraculous deliverance of the ship L’Aimable Marthe, a gift in 1747 in gratitude to the Virgin Mary. You can also admire the replica of the 17th-century vessel Le Brézé, which was recovered from the ruins of Notre-Dame-de-Québec Cathedral Basilica in 1759 and is now suspended from the ceiling.
The current interior provides a very good idea of how the church looked to 18th-century parishioners gathered to worship.