The Unitarian Pilgrimage to Montréal, September 25-28, 1917

On 8 December, 2013, our minister delivered the sermon Why we Fight that characterized the schism that arose during the 1917 meeting of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) in Montreal, Quebec.  At that meeting, a young pacifist Unitarian minister from New York, John Haynes Holmes, presented a resolution calling for the AUA to take no particular stand on the War, citing the longstanding tradition of Unitarians to support minorities and minority views.  The next speaker, former President William Howard Taft, presented a ringing and vigorous denunciation of Holmes’ resolution, and Holmes was defeated by a vote of 236-9.  As a result, Holmes and his congregation were forced to resign from the AUA, along with many other ministers and congregations around the country who agreed with his pacifist views.  The episode marks a dark chapter in our Unitarian history.

First Parish Church in Beverly, like most other Unitarian congregations, sent a delegation to the conference in Montreal.  The trip journal,  maintained by delegate Jenny Woodbury, and presented to the Parish Aid Alliance on November 17, 1917, engages our interest today for several reasons.  It describes the reasoning behind our Church’s position relative to the Holmes resolution to be sure, and also provides some insight on life at the turn of the twentieth century and particularly our peculiar attitude toward our Canadian cousins.

The accompanying images were glued to the original manuscript and are herewith attached as close as possible to their point of reference.


On September 25 a party of over 300 left Boston on a special train of 14 cars (“The Christian Specialist”, the porters called it) for Montréal.  At Concord New Hampshire another engine was added, but in spite of this additional help Unitarians and Unitarian principles were too heavy to be born evidently for the engines failed and sat down to rest and we were at a standstill.  This experience was repeated more than once. When we thought our trials in this line were over, just a little this side of the Canadian border the engine broke down.  We finally reached Montréal at 9:15 PM, too late for the first meeting of the conference, but I think we all rather sympathized with the frame of mind of one of the gentlemen of the party who, when told by another that we were too late for the meeting replied, “Well I don’t know as I care.  I don’t feel in a particularly ballelinjab [sic] frame of mind just now anyway”.

An unfortunate accident, upon arrival at Montréal, prevented the writer from attending all meetings except those held in the hotel in which the party, or most of the party, was housed.  She is indebted therefore to others, and to articles in various Unitarian publications, extracts from which you will, no doubt, recognize.  This does not claim to be an adequate report of all the meetings.

Tablet Montreal 1917The conference was a most notable gathering in more ways than one, and a most significant one, if only because it was the first meeting of the organization to be held outside the United States.  It was further particularly interesting because of the opportunity given at Montréal for the celebration of the 100 years of peace between the United States and Great Britain, and the 75th anniversary of Montréal Unitarian church, the oldest Unitarian church in Canada.  One of the notable and, permanently important things that occurred at Montréal was the placing on our church there the beautiful bronze tablet commemorating the 100 years of peace between the great countries (the emancipation tablet).

Canadian Unitarians and American Unitarians belong together.  Their relations in history and destiny are intimately close.  In both realms, the things our church stands for are coalescing factors in the destiny of two great people.  The Unitarian ideal of human brotherhood, of open-minded spirit of progress, and of reciprocating sympathies in all relations of life, is coincident with the ideal which makes possible the removal of defensive fortifications along our national borders, and stimulates the most generous trade and industrial relations amongst our peoples.  The more our ideal grows, the more surely the people of the earth will draw closer together- which is part of our missionary responsibility.

The first meeting of the conference at which all visiting members could be present, was the one held Wednesday morning in Windsor Hall, a hall seating 2000 people, in the Windsor Hotel, where most of the visiting delegation was housed.  This meeting was a most interesting and thrilling one, as I think all who were present will agree.

The outstanding personalities of the conference were those of the president, Mr. Taft, and the chairman of the Council, Rev. John Haynes Holmes.  Mr. Taft’s forcible address was listened to by great audiences, limited only by the capacity of the hall and vigorously expressed the principles and hopes which intimate the Unitarian Fellowship in these critical times.  These two leaders differed absolutely in their convictions and Mr. Taft was justified in feeling that the report of the Council, read by Mr. Holmes, did not represent the convictions and purposes of the Unitarian body.  It certainly seemed, to some of us at least, that to accept the report, and in Canada, would be almost an insult to the Canadian Unitarians, who of course are members of our body.Taft Article 1917

After the report had been read, Mr. Taft called the vice president of the conference to the chair and in a singing speech, in opposition to the views expressed in the address, called for the support of all patriotic measures to win the war and offered a resolution to this effect.  The address of Mr. Holmes was a fine address, from a literary point of view (you have probably all read it in the Register) but it represented the views of the speaker and a very small minority, if one might judge by the remarks of most of the other members of the Council, who individually rose, and wished to make plain to the gathering, that they did not agree with the views expressed by Mr. Holmes.  The resolution offered by Mr. Taft was then put forth before the meeting.  The delegates voted on it and after that those attending the meeting but not delegates were allowed to show their opinion (unofficially) on this resolution.  The vote, and the expression of opinion by that large company of 2000 people, was almost unanimous in favor of the resolution.  The report of the Council was repudiated, and the resolution of Mr. Taft was adopted.  By an overwhelming vote the conference put itself squarely and emphatically behind the administration in the conduct of a necessary and a righteous war.

During the discussion of the resolution the feeling was tense, and the debate animated, but the Unitarians exercised that their customary self-control.  Not one word was said that anyone needs to regret.  The opposing speakers dealt in no personalities, but with principals only.  Complete courtesy was shown to the members of the minority, and they were given entire freedom of speech.  The Unitarian people there again demonstrated the reality of their belief in freedom, their tolerant goodwill towards even a very small minority, and their capacity to reach a practically unanimous and ardently patriotic decision.

Speaking of courtesy reminds me of the remark made to one of our ministers, by one of the elevator men in the Windsor Hotel.  He said, “Your people are the most courteous people I ever met in my life and I want you to tell your secretary so”.

The Alliance held no special meeting at the conference.  Their only special gathering was the Alliance luncheon, served in the Rose Room at the Windsor Hotel, and it was more was attended by 508 women.  After the luncheon was served there was speaking but as we were seated too far from the speaker to hear, can give you no report of what was said.

Two very impressive meetings were the two vesper services held in the Church of the Messiah (the Unitarian Church of Montréal), and at the latter service the memorial tablet, previously mentioned, was presented by the American Unitarians, and accepted by the Canadian Unitarians.

Church of the MessiahA pleasant social feature of the conference was a reception held one afternoon at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, at which Mr. Taft, Miss Lowell, Mr. Griffin (Minister of the Montréal church) and his wife, and other notables receive their guests.

A summary of the accomplishments of the conference is not easy, because the main thing was the development of the spirit of courage and confidence in the drawing together of the bonds of fellowship and goodwill.  Shall fellowship in the tragedy of a great war bring to us a deeper and more sacred realization of what we can be together for world progress than was ever realized before?  The answer to the question must come in terms of religion – and of our sort of religion.

There was no sightseeing in a body at Montréal but sightseeing was indulged in individually, and in small groups.

There was no difficulty in remembering we were in a foreign country for, besides the speaking of French all about us Karen even more in Québec than in Montréal) was the difference in manners and ways of doing things from what we are accustomed to on the side of the line.

One of the first things that attracted our attention was the carriages, drawn by one horse and seating for people.  The backseat was far preferable as the occupant rode facing forward and had a covering over the head giving protection from sun or rain while those in the front seat were obliged to ride backwards in the full glare of the sun.  When it rained a rubber blanket was simply drawn across the open space but with no protection at the sides.  There were no closed carriages.

Montréal is a beautiful city, but being a Catholic country all through that region, the number of cathedrals, nunneries etc., built mostly of a rather drab gray stone, was rather depressing to, at least some of us.  The constant sight of men in khaki  (and they were everywhere) individually and in groups, besides a company of them passing the hotel once or twice a day on the way to or from the drill ground, added to the depression, although men themselves always seems cheerful enough.  Among them we recognized Rev. Mr. Ives, formally at Andover New Hampshire.  He was dressed in a black scotch bonnet and khaki kilts for he is a member of the “Black Watch”.

An IdyllThe one natural attraction that perhaps stands out more prominently than any other in Montréal is Mount Royal.  This can be ascended in two ways: by a carriage drive; or by trolley to a little station where you are locked into another trolley car and, with no attending motor man or conductor, you are shot along to the base of the mountain.  Here you are transferred to a sort of cage, seats and back of the car of wood and sides of mere grating, and after you are securely fastened in you are, without any attendants, drawn to the top of the mountain a short but very steep ascent.  At the top you are released from the cage and allowed to wander at will.  It is well worth the journey for the view is fine over the city and even over to the American side of the river.

One of the celebrated cathedrals in Montréal, St. James, is worthy of note, as it is said to be an exact replica of the famous St. Peter’s at Rome, only one third the size.

Some Canadian ways of doing things were both amusing and exasperating at times.

We have been told that the American drinks much more cold water that his English cousin.  We believe it.  Water to drink was the hardest thing to get in Canada. Our glass at the table was rarely filled until the meal was well-nigh served and if we expressed a wish for second glass we were looked upon with wonder and amazement, apparently.  What anyone could want of more than one glass of water staggered them.

There was a sightseeing auto that made a trip about the city starting from the hotel and, in order to be sure of seats for his party, of one of our ministers went to the hotel office, and engaged eight seats for his party for the following morning, and supposed that was all that was necessary, as nothing further was told him.  The next morning five minutes before the time given to start, the party were all waiting at the steps, when the auto, filled to the brim passed by.  Upon making inquiries at the office the minister was told that the auto had gone and there would not and could not be another until 2 PM.

There was a sightseeing trolley that made a trip about the city, and around the base of the mountain.  Some of the party had taken the trip and recommended it, so more than enough people of our party, to fill the car went out to take the trip one day, and after waiting patiently for the car for over an hour, after much telephoning it was finally learned that the car was not to be sent out that day, because – the wind blew.

After the close of the conference, about two thirds of the party, something over 200, left Montréal on the large steamer’s Saguenay for the trip to Québec and the Saguenay River.  This is a beautiful trip.  The water was smooth and the weather was fine until Sunday brought us a northeast storm, making the water rough and hiding the shore from us.  Two rugged promontories, 200 feet high, are passed on the way, capes Eternity and Trinity; Eternity, one solid mass, and Trinity, three distinct elevations.  Both rise abruptly from the water’s edge, and on the second elevation of Trinity, has stood 30 years, a beautiful white marble statue of the Virgin, a thank offering of a devout Catholic who ascribed his  restored health to answer to his supplications to the Virgin.  This statue is 36 feet high but from the boat it looks to be about 1½ feet high.  When reaching this point, Sunday forenoon, the engine was slow down so that the boat almost stopped and a service was held on the boat.  After the service was concluded, the journey was resumed.  In the evening, around the piano, the company gathered for an informal service of song, and one of the favorite selections seemed to be Canada’s song, “Oh Canada”.

On the journey, we stopped about an hour at Murray Bay, where we took a drive around the place, stopping at the summer residence of Mr. Taft.  It seemed a simple, comfortable summer home, with no sign of ostentation.

At Tadoussac, owing to low tides, and the steamer being larger than the  usual bout that runs, it was most difficult to make a landing there.  Some of our party landed here and visited the interesting little church said to have been established in 1615, the oldest place of worship in Canada, and they claim the oldest in America.  The size of the boat and lowness of the tide cut our trip a little, for we were unable to reach the quaint little French village of Chicoutimi, much to the regret of some of us.

The river, all the way, is dotted with little villages and whenever the steamer made a landing the villagers could be seen all flocking to the landing to what was the great event of the day, evidently.  The villages, in all cases, seem to be principally clustered around the landing, but always in the heights far above, like a watchtower stood the church it seemed symbolic.

Monday the weather was still poor but as this was our only Day in Québec, we made the most of it.  We began the day with a trip by special train, to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, passing the celebrated Montmorency Falls said to be higher than Niagara on the way.  After we had been seated in the beautiful Basilica, which occupies the site of the old shrine, a priest welcomed us, told a something of the history of the place, and sung the hymn “Good St.  Anne”, accompanied by the organ, which is an especially fine one.  Afterwards the organ was played further for us.  One thing in the church that was especially noticeable was the main altar surrounded by a vast number of Campanula flowers, mostly white, and the whole effect was wonderfully delicate and beautiful.

On returning to Québec, special sightseeing trolleys were waiting at the station, with a guide in each to point out places of interest.  The guide seemed to have only a limited number on this list such as the Plains of Abraham, Parliament buildings, etc.  Mrs. Davis, our national secretary, was seated just across the aisle from me and several times asked information of the guide, only to be met with in an invariable “don’t know”.  “Well”, said Mrs. Davis after a while, “he doesn’t seem to be able to tell us much we want to know Does he?” and sat back and despair.  That was the way it was everywhere.  Nobody seemed to know anything you wanted to know.  I don’t believe there is a schoolboy, a newsboy, or boot black in any of our large American cities who hasn’t a better fund of general information, and able to give that information, than the average adult hotel employee or prepared guide in Canada.  They seem to know just so much and no more.

The car ride ended at Château Frontenac, said to be one of the most beautiful hotels of the world.  On a fine day the view from there must be wonderful.  Here we had lunch, and while waiting our turn to go into the dining room, someone behind us, also waiting and possibly a regular patron remarked, in a very scornful and disgusted tone of voice, “Well, who’s this crowd anyway?”  Up to that time we had considered ourselves a highly respectable looking crowd.  After lunch we took a short carriage drive about the city, visiting a few churches and ending on the wharf at the steamer.

One especially interesting church we visited was the Franciscan.  Here the “White Nuns” celebrate a perpetual adoration of the holy sacrament.  There are two nuns, dressed in white, always kneeling before the altar day and night.  We happened in at the auspicious moment, when they were about to change the guard, so to speak.  They are changed every hour throughout the day and night.  When we arrived two nuns like two beautiful white marble statues (so absolutely motionless where they) were kneeling at the altar, while seated behind them in the pews were two other white nuns, evidently keeping guard.  Soon from the front of the church, near the altar, came in several other white nuns and, after going through some motions all prostrated themselves before the altar.  When they arose two other nuns settled themselves in place kneeling before the altar, two more replaced those on guard in the pews than all the rest passed out like shadows, leaving the new ones on duty.

We left Québec that night and Montréal the next morning for the United States, passing twice under the new Québec Bridge in traveling to and fro between the two cities.

The remainder of the trip was uneventful but beautiful for the autumn miracle had taken place, and as we slid down to Vermont and New Hampshire, it was no longer the Green Mountains of Vermont and the White Mountains of New Hampshire we passed by, but the jeweled hills of fairyland, for the autumn foliage was wonderfully beautiful.

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