Quebec Journal: No Rest for You, Champlain.

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Apr 8 17:31:10 UTC 2002

New York Times, April 8, 2002


           No Rest for You, Champlain. The Hunt Goes On.


               QUEBEC, April 7 Many French Canadians say Quebec is losing
its way. The drive for independence is stalling. Long-held customs are
fading too, with church attendance in deep decline and abortion and
divorce now commonplace.

           But Rene Levesque, a retired geography teacher and archaeologist,
professes to have the answer to the province's woes and the match that
just might reignite the flames of separatism.

           All that is needed, he says, is the discovery of Samuel de
Champlain's bones still hidden somewhere under Quebec City ever since his
death in 1635.  Champlain is the first hero of every public school history
textbook in Quebec Province since he was the founder of New France and
first European with the gumption to brave the cold and settle Canada
(after a brief effort by the Vikings in the Middle Ages). As a man who
dedicated himself to spreading Roman Catholicism among the Indians and
left all his wealth to the Virgin Mary in his will, he remains a hero of
the Quebec Catholic Church as well.

           Mr. Levesque, who has the same name as a late premier of
Quebec, has been obsessed by Champlain ever since he was 12 years old, and
that was 64 years ago. He is determined to find the remains of his hero,
France's greatest New World explorer and the founder of this marvelously
preserved colonial city, and thinks he is getting close.  The remains, he
says, will most likely be found in a bronze or copper coffin below the
basements of either the Notre Dame Basilica or a French cafe on Rue
Ste.-Anne.  Mr. Levesque is something of a folk hero. A jaunty man, he
walks around Quebec City in a red, white and green woolen hat and scarf to
commemorate the colors of an 1837 rebellion in Quebec against the British
authorities. There is always a trowel, neatly packed in a plastic bag,
tucked in his ski jacket.

           "Finding Champlain would spur a move to go back to our language
and culture," said Mr. Levesque, as he hunched low under the basement beams
of the Notre Dame Basilica the other day. "It would be an opportunity to
talk about another way of living based upon the traditions and morals of
the past. I want Champlain to be a model for young people."  More
conventional archaeologists here characterize Mr.  Levesque's search as the
fanciful quest of a publicity seeker, or just another example of a long
Quebec tradition of relic collecting.  Some fear that Mr. Levesque's work
will be a distraction from the plans the city is making to do several
important excavations in preparation for the city's 400th anniversary in

           Still, Mr. Levesque's dogged search follows a path taken by more
than a dozen other diggers over the last 150 years in an enduring quest
that has become a stitch of folklore in the cultural fabric of Quebec
City.  The search for Champlain's remains began in the 19th century, at a
time of Quebec nationalistic effervescence, with a spirited intellectual
debate among several priests who published pamphlets arguing competing
theories. One engineer in the 1940's touched the popular imagination when
he roamed a university courtyard with a pendulum, arguing it would halt
when he found the crypt.

           There have been several false findings, including one that is
commemorated by a plaque that still hangs along one of old Quebec's
winding, narrow streets.  Mr. Levesque has had his own share of setbacks.
Once an archaeologist working under his direction dug the wrong way in the
basement of a French cafe, and ended up bursting through the storage room
of a Chinese restaurant. Another time Mr.  Levesque fought with Quebec
cultural authorities to open a copper-encased coffin found under Notre
Dame Basilica, but the tomb turned out to contain a 19th-century Jesuit
instead.  He hopes to have better luck with the help of a radar-tracking
device that can identify underground cavities or metal objects.

           Tour guides stop their excursions when Mr. Levesque walks by, to
introduce him to tourists. He speaks eight languages and is kind of an
ambassador for the city. He gets a good bit of television and radio
coverage, and his long search has been satirized over the years in a
series of cartoons in the daily Soleil.  One cartoon showed a couple of
basement mice packing their bags in frustration as Mr. Levesque made yet
another subterranean dig, with one whining, "Mr. Levesque, you are always
disturbing us!"

           But there is still no grave to visit, nor even a monument with
Champlain's true likeness since no contemporary portraits of the explorer
exist. Mr. Levesque hopes that if he can find Champlain's skull,
researchers could approximate his physical appearance and artists could
finally paint and sculpt an accurate resemblance of the explorer.
Champlain died on Christmas Day 1635 at the age of 65. A chapel that was
built over his grave was destroyed by fire and its location is still a
matter of speculation. Since the 17th century the city's original street
pattern has been reworked and streets widened. Champlain's remains may
have been uncovered during road construction in the 1830's and dumped as

           "I'd never say never but the possibility of finding Champlain
is very slight," said Marcel Moussette, an archaeology professor at Laval
University.  But Mr. Levesque is undeterred. "I've got passion," he said.
"I am trying to find something good in the past to be used in the future."

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