Which Catherine is Ste-Catherine Street Named After?

The only known and likely historically inaccurate portrait of Saint Catherine Tekakwitha
The only known and likely historically inaccurate portrait of Saint Catherine Tekakwitha

Kate McDonnell did me a solid and linked to my recent article about the future of the Faubourg on her site, the Montreal City Weblog (which should be regular required reading if you want to know what’s going on around town), but also pointed out that the right way to write what I might pronounce as ‘Saint Catherine’s Street’ should in fact be written (and pronounced too) ‘Ste-Catherine Street, despite the fact that my word processor is screaming red underlines at me for doing so.

Anyways it got me thinking – which Saint Catherine does the street refer to?

Is it Catherine of Alexandria, the virgin martyr whose touch apparently destroyed the eponymous breaking wheel and was later beheaded by the pagan Roman Emperor Maxentius?

Or was it Catherine of Siena, co-patron saint of Italy, philosopher and theologian who brought an end to the Avignon Papacy and helped restore Pope Gregory XI to the Holy See?

The answer is possibly neither as it was once a fashionable convention to name city streets after prominent locals and add a saintly prefix. Perhaps the best known example is Saint-Urbain, named after the 17th century landowner Urbain Tessier.

If the street is in fact simply named after a member of our city’s former bourgeoisie, perhaps it might be prudent and politically expedient to officially name the street in honour of Kateri Tekakwitha, baptized Catherine Tekakwitha and also known as Lily of the Mohawks, canonized by Pope Benedict XVI as recently as 2012.

I mean, she’s as close as this city is going to get to having it’s own saint (* untrue, see below), and she’s been immortalized in fiction both by Leonard Cohen (Beautiful Losers) and William Vollman (Fathers and Crows). Her story doesn’t inspire me to become a Catholic, but it’s inspirational insofar as it makes me think about what life was like during this city’s colonial period. It’s captivating in its own right. So why not make it official and remove the ambiguity? I think there’s a case to be made here; if one of this city’s most important streets is to be named after a saint, why not make it our saint?

I say such a move may be politically advantageous simply because our mayor has already indicated he wants special status for Montreal with regards to the implementation of Bill 60 (the proposed secularism charter) and clarifying the origins of the street’s name (to coincide with a major redevelopment of the strip) would demonstrate the mayor’s doing the real ‘frontline’ work when it comes to protecting and promoting cultural identity in Québec. It’s a move that appeals to traditionalists and conservatives and is almost assuredly guaranteed not to offend the sensibilities of religious minorities or social progressives.

Just a point of clarification really, a win-win that shows the people the mayor’s got novel solutions to the PQ’s problems.

*** Update ***

So the Commission de toponymie du Québec indicates that the origins aren’t entirely clear and that it has only been more-or-less officially known as Rue Sainte-Catherine for two hundred years. Prior to that it was named both Chemin Sainte-Catherine and Chemin Saint-Jacques.

The Catherine and Jacques could be a reference to a ‘road inspector’ (I’m assuming that means surveyor/street-namer) named Jacques Viger (not the mayor) and his daughter, Catherine-Elizabeth.

Or it could be named in honour of a Catherine de Bourbonnais who lived on the street in the 18th century.

But it seems as though the oldest reference may in fact be of a religious nature, given that road once ran to a convent run by the Soeurs de la Congrégation.

Leaving us right back where we started: no clear answer.

*** Update II ***

I should have know better, Montreal already has two saints.

Saint Marguerite d’Youville, founder of the Grey Nuns and patron saint of widows and troubled marriages.

And Saint André of Montreal, also known as Brother André, the apparent miracle-maker of Mount Royal.

So in this case, Saint Catherine Tekakwitha would be the closest this city’s going to get to having its own First Nations saint, given that she never actually lived here and was buried across the river.

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