On a cold, blustery November day, exactly 120 years ago, a group of elite Montreal women gathered together in the Victoria Rifles Armoury. Hundreds of women were seated together in that room with the intention of forming a local council of women. The council would unite the efforts of women across the city creating links and support systems that would extend the reach of charity and philanthropy in the city and beyond. On the stage were representatives from Montreal’s leading families and the wife of the Governor General. By the end of the meeting, the Montreal Local Council of Women had been inaugurated and Julia (Parker) Drummond had been elected its first president. She was assisted in her role by vice-president Marguerite (Lamothe) Thibaudeau. The council would go on to elect Katherine Samuel DeSola, Joséphine Marchand Dandurand, and Eliza McIntosh Reid to the executive committee. It doesn’t take a great deal of detective work to realize that this was a relatively interesting mix of women. They did share some characteristics to be certain – they were all white. And rich. And married. But there were also some very real differences as well. Drummond and Reid were both Anglophone Protestants though Drummond’s Anglicanism was a far theological step away from Reid’s Unitarianism. DeSola, also an Anglophone though in her case born and raised in London, England, was the wife of the Chief Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue. Thibaudeau and Dandurand were both old-familied Francophone Roman Catholics.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what brought these women together. And I’ve thought a great deal about the bridges they had to build in order to work in concert. I thought about it so much that I wrote a thesis on it. Fear not – I’ll leave the academese between the black covers of the dissertation. But I’ve always been particularly fascinated by the little issue of silent prayer.
Religion and language and ethnicity presented very real barriers to concerted effort in Montreal. These weren’t just issues of casual politics or honest census responses. Religion and language and ethnicity were at the very heart of being a Montrealer. They were central to identity and belonging and every day life. In very real ways religion and language and ethnicity dictated one’s geography and social status and family patterns. And those divisions were visible across the city. Long before the days of debating laïcité, meetings tended to begin with prayer. Especially respectable ladies’ meetings. The tricky part was whose prayer? Would the prayer be the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer or the Catholic version? What about the Jewish women? What were they expected to do during that prayer? In other cities in Canada this had already become a problem among women’s councils. But no where would this have the potential to explode the way it could in Montreal.
President Julia Drummond had anticipated this dilemma. She had thought about it long before she was even elected to the presidency. Her solution: silent prayer. From its very first meeting, the MLCW began every meeting with a moment of silence. It was the first of the Canadian councils to do so and it still does to this day. When describing the practice in her annual report, Drummond pleaded for the council to be a place with:
“the perfect freedom of expression,
but with one proviso – there shall be no attack.
Let the light that guides each one of us shine clearly before all,
but let no one try to put out her neighbour’s candle.
Two words will sum up our aim, to love and to understand.”
This all happened 120 years ago. Long before the Marois version of laïcité or the Charter of whatever it’s called now. Sometimes I wish we learned from our past.