Lost in a rape field some 150 kilometers east of Paris, Neuville-sur-Vanne is a hot spot for any agitated soul in search of tranquility. Here you can fish for trout, count the four hundred or so sheep that outnumber the human population or read your favorite magazine on a park bench on Montreal Street, corner of Maple. And if these last sound familiar to you, blame it on the fact that Neuville is the birthplace of Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, Montreal’s very own papa.
Born on Valentine’s Day, 1612, with a silver spoon in his mouth and riding boots on his feet, the boy had a nose for adventure. When he was just thirteen, Paul packed his bags for Holland and the bloody fray of the Thirty Years War. No prancing about in tights in the Bois de Boulogne for our Paul. By the time he returned, he’d probably killed more people than he’d kissed.
Back home, Paul took a look at his future. His father had made him Monsieur de Maisonneuve, with an estate consisting of a few acres and a small ruin impossible to live in. Of course, he could wear jet-black silk suits and breed pigeons and doves in the garden of the family castle, but this amounted to a rather beige prospect. Instead, reading by the fireplace the account of a visionary Jesuit who had recently returned from la belle province, Paul started having dreams of a white Christmas. Offered the chance to cross the Atlantic and give birth to a city in la Nouvelle France, and fired by a new-found religious faith, the young bachelor jumped the next boat at La Rochelle. The rest is, well, history.
A fact worth underlining is that Maisonneuve knew where he was going. Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci firmly believed they had found the coast of India. Samuel de Champlain expected Quebec City to be nothing more than a pit stop on his road to China. But our Maisonneuve was better acquainted with reality: he knew he would spend years of his life chattering his teeth and shoveling snow on Notre Dame Street. He also knew that his little colony of Ville-Marie would one day have a baseball team in the National League—though the records are unclear on this last point.
We are in Neuville-sur-Vanne, seeking an exclusive interview with a descendant of the Chomedey de Maisonneuve family. Unfortunately, aside from a million or so Montrealers, the father of Montreal hasn’t a single heir. Paul himself remained unmarried, his older sister was a nun, his brother died young and his younger sister was assassinated by a cousin who belonged to the rival clan in the Neuville gentry.
For anyone wanting to follow in Maisonneuve’s footsteps, the person to contact turns out to be a frail retiree with a goatee named Jacques Cousin. He is the most devoted ambassador imaginable for Montreal. A native of Neuville, Monsieur Cousin has been obsessed with Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve for almost forty years. And with the help of successive town councillors, he has put Neuville-sur-Vanne on the map and revived the ghost of Maisonneuve.
Until recently, few historians even knew that Maisonneuve was born here. And they certainly never made any fuss about it. In the 1920s, a commemorative plaque was installed in the church where Paul de Chomedey was christened, but until the creation of the Maisonneuve Committee in 1967, that was pretty much it.
Under Monsieur Cousin’s tenacious guidance, however, Neuville has become quite an international venue. Former mayors of Montreal such as Jean Drapeau and Pierre Bourque have paid visits, as has an impressive crowd of ambassadors, members of Parliament and representatives from other federal, provincial, municipal and parochial institutions. Even some trees, a row of thujas from the Montreal Botanical Garden, have made the trip.
With a smile from ear to ear, this curator of the Maisonneuve shrine will proudly take you on a tour of his microscopic capital, where every other street drives you to nostalgic reverie: rue Ville-Marie, Place Paul de Chomedey, Parc Montréal, and rue Pointe-aux-Trembles, named after Montreal’s easternmost suburb, a sister city to Neuville since 1974. In a five-minute foray around town, you will see a Maisonneuve memorial, commemorative plates, another Maisonneuve plaque and a dozen more bits of memorabilia. Local gossip about the Chomedey castle, now up for sale, claims that the Canadian embassy in Paris might buy it to use as a tourist office.
Obviously, a single swashbuckling Christian could not build a town all by his lonesome. As with most things Catholic, a saint was needed. It took a few hundred years, but one came into view in 1982, when Pope John Paul II pronounced the name of Marguerite Bourgeoys. For Neuville locals, this was an unexpected bargain, as Marguerite was practically the girl next door. Born in nearby Troyes in 1620, she joined Maisonneuve in Montreal several years after its founding and became a leading figure of the young colony, establishing the city’s first school.
When word spread that Marguerite had slipped through the narrow doors of sainthood, a group of nuns from Quebec decided to invade the Champagne region. Realizing that Marguerite Bourgeoys was virtually unknown in her own birthplace, they came to propagate the good news. Two decades on, they are still here. With an office in Troyes, and two houses in Estissac and Méry-sur-Seine (only a few kilometres from Neuville), the veiled Quebecers are now famous in the village. They have even imported the cabane à sucre (sugaring off) tradition, building a holy sap house so they can approach the divine via maple syrup and a few buckets of crushed ice each spring.
Of all people, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve would surely approve.