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The parish of Sainte-Famille (Holy Family) Île d'Orléans (Isle of Orleans) revisited

by Denis Ouimet, translated by Marc Ouimet


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The parish of Ste-Famille de l’Île d’Orléans is of particular importance for the descendants of Jean Ouimet and Renée Gagnon since they lived there for 25 years or more. Following are a few facts about this historical site.


Sitting on the northern slope of the Isle of Orleans, the parish of Sainte Famille (founded in 1661) is the oldest parish on the island and the second oldest in the colony. The baptismal certificate of Barthélémy Landry, dated April 12, 1666, is the first entry in the register of the parish. Before that date, the priests /missionaries had to register baptisms, marriages and funerals with the Notre-Dame de Québec parish.


Other parishes, namely Saint-François (Saint-François-de-Sales), Saint-Jean (Saint-Jean-Baptiste), Saint- Laurent (formerly Saint-Paul) and Saint-Pierre were founded in 1679, and Sainte-Pétronille (at the southwestern end of island) in 1872. On the map below, you will notice that the parishes are in alphabetical order if you read clockwise starting with Sainte-Famille.

Before 1679, Sainte-Famille was apparently known simply as the parish on the island. The name of the parish is attributed to Lord Bishop Laval who had a great devotion for the Holy Family of Nazareth.


The Isle of Orleans was originally named Minogo (Algonquin for «bewitched» derived from wendigo), then Isle of Bacchus by Cartier in 1535 (Roman god of wine, drunkenness and excesses; its Greek equivalent being Dionysos) due to the abundance of Vitis Riparia grapes, then Orléans in 1536 by Cartier in honor of the Duke of Orléans, then Île-Sainte-Marie by the Huron displaced from Georgian Bay since 1651, Île-des-Sorciers («Sorcerers Island») by the first settlers shortly before 1656, Island of the County of Saint-Laurent in 1675 and again Île d’Orléans (Isle of Orleans) in 1770.


The building of the first stone church of the parish of Sainte-Famille (26 meters long by 11.70 meters wide, covered with a thatched roof and later with planks) started in 1669. It was paid for by the Québec Seminary and blessed in 1701, was replaced by the present church built between 1743 and 1746 (30.65 meters long by 14.2 meters wide). In 1675, there were four rows of pews 1.4 meters wide. The church was consecrated in 1749. It seems it was spared by the incendiary madness of the English Army during the Conquest. It was reported that the English took out the bell from the belfry. According to Gilles Boileau, the first church was built approximately one and a half “arpent” from today’s church. Please note that the «arpent» of last century measured 58.47 meters while the “arpent” during the era of New France measured between 64.97 meters and 71.46 meters. We think that the first church was located southwest of the actual parking at an undetermined distance due to different versions of the “arpent”.  The search goes on.


Today’s church, classified as a historical monument in 1980, is one of the five most beautiful specimens of traditional religious art in the province of Quebec. It is currently the oldest twin tower church in Canada and the only church in Québec to have three belfries on its façade. The building is made of axe-squared timber framing assembled with tenons, mortises and dowel pins, covered with planks and shingles, to which is attached the suspended vault.


    The following statues are sheltered by five niches on the front wall: three of the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph; Saint Ann (mother of Mary) and Saint Joachim (father of Mary).

The Sainte-Famille parish has the highest concentration of stone houses dating from the French regime, more particularly the Drouin House (circa 1730) which is one of the few spared by General Wolfe’s troops in 1759.  You can see those houses all along the King’s road or Chemin du Roy.


    Sainte-Famille was erected canonically (as a parish) in 1684 and became a parish municipality under the name Sainte-Famille Île d’Orléans in 1845 and then Sainte-Famille ten years later.


    Behind the old rectory, converted into an interpretation center named “La Maison de Nos Aieux” (Our Ancestors’ House), sits the Parc-des-Ancêtres (Ancestors’ Park) where beautiful floral arrangements overlook the Côte-de-Beaupré and Mont Sainte-Anne. In a North West direction from the church, a commemorative tablet (plaque) has been installed and dedicated to Jean Ouimet and his wife Renée Gagnon, one of some 300 pioneer families who settled on Isle of Orléans.




Boileau, Gilles (2000), Sainte-Famille en l’Île d’Orléans, Histoire Québec, pp. 31-34


Lacoursière, Jacques and Caron, Pierre (2008), Québec et sa région, Les Éditions de l’Homme, Montréal, 371 pages


Létourneau, Raymond (1984),  Sainte-Famille, l’aînée de l’Île d’Orléans, Imprimerie L’Éclaireur, Beauceville, 688 pages.

La Sainte Famille, I.O.: the first church and the first cemetery 

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    Following are a few particulars regarding the first church and the first cemetery of the parish of La Sainte-Famille of the Isle of Orleans.

Mrs Sabrina Gamache-Mercurio, assistant-coordinator of the François Lamy foundation, which is housed in the old parish presbytery, graciously e-mailed this information last October 22:

On November 10, 1669, Lord Bishop de Laval, lord of the Isle of Orleans, granted eight “arpents” of his seigniorial domain for the construction of a church, a presbytery and a cemetery.  In 1669, the church was already under construction.  The eight “arpents” were next to Jacques Bilodeau’s land whose address today is from 2489 to 2532,  chemin Royal in Sainte-Famille.


That first church made of stone, was located approximately 90 meters north of today’s church and measured 80 feet X 36 feet (24 X 11 meters). Due to its rapid wear and tear, many repairs had to be done before the people decided to replace it by the present church whose construction began in 1742 and ended in 1749.


After the construction of the present church the parishioners asked for a cemetery as large as possible around the church.  At the time of the construction of the second church, the body of the first priest of Sainte-Famille, François Lamy, was exhumed to be interred in the new church.  The bodies of the parishioners buried in the old graveyard were also exhumed and buried in the new cemetery of the new church in 1764.


The exact site of the first graveyard is not mentioned anywhere, but it’s logical to assume that it’s near the first church.


In accordance with the customs of the time, the deceased were buried around the church close to the walls of the building.

To this day, you will often see graveyards situated real close, next to churches.  It is therefore logical to assume that the body of Jean Ouimet was buried close to the church of the parish of Sainte-Famille.


One interesting detail is certainly the transfer of corpses within the periphery of the new cemetery around the new church. We can assume that in 1764, due to the advanced decomposition of bodies and caskets, the oldest sepultures were put into a common grave and the newer ones in individual graves.  The approximate dimensions of this enclosure surrounded by low walls are as follows: south east sides, 12.5 meters by 50.5 meters and North West sides, 5.5 meters by 26.5 meters.  Those measurements were taken last November 10.  It is interesting to note that the North West wall across from the St-Lawrence river channel is separated in two because that side of the church has a door leading to the basement.  The ground on each side of the path leading to that door is elevated.  Would those mounds be the common graves dating back to 1764 ?


In 1764, Jean Ouimet had been dead for 77 years, or since 1687.  We can easily imagine that his remains and his casket were in a state of advanced decomposition.  In those days, people reverted to wooden crosses or planks as grave markers.  Those markers have long since disappeared.


On the south-east side, the oldest dates on the monuments, namely those inside the graveyard adjacent to the south-eastern side of the church, are necessarily from the last two centuries.

The location of the first church, 90 metres north of the present church, is another interesting detail submitted by Mrs. Gamache-Mercurio. Today, this site is a large green space on the north-eastern side of the Ancestors Park of the Isle of Orleans. A few years back, in an article in this series of bulletins, we had hinted that Jean Ouimet’s grave was on a shelf between the existing church and the St-Lawrence river’s North Channel. Now, in the last bulletin, we declared that the first church must have been located further west due to the proximity of the « Chemin Royal » or Royal Road.  Thus, in light of this new information, the history of Jean Ouimet becomes clearer.

We would like to point out the distance between the original church and the present Chemin Royal; more than 150 meters (more than 500 feet). We believe that the original road must have been located further north and consequently closer to the first church.

In conclusion, we can affirmatively state that we know the approximate location of the first and second burial site of the body of Jean Ouimet.

Sources : Létourneau, Raymond (1984). Ste-Famille, l’ainée de l’Ile d’Orléans, Imprimerie L’Éclaireur, Beauceville, 686 pages. Roy Guy-André & Andrée Ruel (1982). Le patrimoine religieux de l’Ile d’Orléans, Les cahiers du patrimoine numéro 16. 313 pages.

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