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An auction for the dead: Quebec Catholics hold on to an unusual French tradition



John Burger - published on 11/02/18

Money raised goes to offer stipends for Masses for the dead, and to pay for church maintenance.
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In Western Christianity, November is a special month to pray for the departed. Traditions such as visiting cemeteries have taken on local variations around the world. Across the board, having a Mass offered for a loved one who has passed away is a Catholic practice meant to assist the soul in its period of purification before finally entering Heaven.

It’s customary to offer a small stipend to the priest who offers such a Mass. For hundreds of years, some French Canadians have had an unusual way to both help the faithful departed in Purgatory and support their local church here on earth.

As originally celebrated in France, the Criée des Âmes, or “All Souls Auction,” was held after Mass each Sunday in November. An auctioneer “crying” from a platform set up on the steps outside the church would auction off handicrafts and farm products donated by parishioners. The tradition crossed the Atlantic with French settlers.

The auction was largely abandoned in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it was kept alive in certain quarters, such as Isle-aux-Grues, where it was moved to the month of January. Beginning in the early 20th century, many parishes revived the celebration. In L’Islet-sur-Mer, a town in Quebec’s Chaudière-Appalaches region, the Criée des Âmes was resurrected in 1977 during the tricentennial celebrations of the foundation of the Seigneury of L’Islet-St-Jean.

“L’Islet-sur-Mer residents relived a piece of their heritage by auctioning off farm animals at the Criée, just as their ancestors once did,” historian Sébastien Couvrette wrote in the Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America:

Starting in 1980, the Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours parish council introduced a yearly carnival to raise funds. Capitalizing on the success of the event held three years earlier, the organizers added the colourful Criée and the berlot parade to carnival activities like a lumberjack competition, snowmobile races, and other attractions. The carnival activities were gradually abandoned in the 1990s, and today the old religious traditions are all that remain.

Nowadays, the event is a fundraising activity that helps Quebec parishes pay for church maintenance. In L’Islet-sur-Mer, the Criée is held on a Sunday in February, preceded by a parade of berlots, a 19th-century Quebecois horse-drawn winter sleigh. Some 30 sleighs take part in the mile-long parade, which starts near the village of Trois-Saumons and ends at Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Church. The event points to an earlier era, when people of Trois-Saumons rode sleighs to get to Mass in winter.

“In the spirit of the carnival celebrations and traditions of yesteryear, sleigh drivers are encouraged to don their raccoon coats for the event,” Courvette wrote.

After Mass, the auction is held inside the church—a concession to the often frigid February weather. “Participants are invited to warm up and have a hot meal of baked beans and chiard blanc, a hearty local specialty. This typical eastern Quebec dish, a mixture of potato and onions cooked in salt pork fat, has a number of different names depending on the region: patates fricassées in Saguenay, patates à Bernard in the Lower St. Lawrence, and chiard de goélette in the Gaspé and Magdalen Islands.”

Auction items, still donated by parishioners, include homemade pies, jams, breads, and cakes, farm products and handicrafts such as wood sculptures, cushions, placemats, and blankets.

The tradition might not be held in November anymore, but any time of year is a good time to pray for the souls of the faithful departed.

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