Welcome to the world of unicorns.

Welcome to the world of unicorns.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Finding Memère and Pepère

I'm back from a very exhausting, but exhilarating trip to Saskatchewan that took place over the course of 2-1/2 days, where I sought out the places I had always heard tell tales of in my childhood. You see, my grandparents, Napoleon and Leopoldine de Montigny, were one of the first homesteaders in Southern Saskatchewan shortly after WWI. Together they cleared the land, and tried to build a life for themselves during the twenties and the dirty thirties while bringing up seven children. Today, I will tell their story with the photos I took while there.

I drove the 3-1/2 hour trip from Regina to Val Marie at night, lovely at first as the sun set until I hit Cadillac at dusk and the road changed from a modern highway to some bumpy and narrow wagon trail full of potholes marked by small, red signs. I managed to miraculously arrive in Val Marie with no flat tires, but I couldn't find my hotel, The Convent Inn, because there were no streetlights and my GPS was freaking out. (They're not built for small towns, I guess.) Finally, in frustration, I stopped at some place and went in to ask for directions. Turned out it was the right place. And what a place! (Although I'm kind of ashamed to admit that since it was an old convent, I was worried about ghosts.)

I slept well that night because it was so quiet. No cars, not even a rooster. And definitely no ghosts. Phew!

In the morning, after a delicious breakfast, I went to the Municipal Land Claims office and found out exactly where the homestead had been. But I have this terrible problem -- when I listen to people talk, I fade in and out a lot. So I wasn't sure if the information was quite right. But here's what's left of Masefield, the closest town to the homestead.

After passing Masefield, I found what I thought was the road that lead to the homestead and traveled down it, looking for the two hills that marked the opening to where my grandfather had built the tiny house and dug a beautiful dam, planting trees beside it. Couldn't find the two hills, so when I saw a truck coming along the gravel road, I flagged it down. Two Hutterite men gladly stopped and chatted with me. One of them told me that when he was a boy, he used to play in that dam and that the Hutterites now owned the land. He said they had drained the water and cut down the trees that once stood beside it, providing much-needed shade. He pointed me in the direction of where the dam had been. So off I went, walking through the prairie, just me and fields of gold under incredible blue skies dotted with puffy clouds. Fortunately, I didn't run into any rattlesnakes or aggressive bulls (another thing I was worried about), just some muck from time to time. (My boots are still crusted.) I never found the damned dam, but I did make it all the way across to the highway. That's a lot of land. When I got to the road, I had walked so far, I had to flag down another car whose driver gladly took me back to my vehicle. Not Hutterite this time.

I paid another trip to the Land Claims office because I was deeply suspicious that I hadn't been in the right place. Turns out I hadn't. So back I went to the same road and took pictures of the surrounding area, this time standing on my grandparents' land. Could this be the two hills?

I took lots of pictures, then drove back to Val Marie to look for the house Pepère built for his ever-growing family after leaving the farm. It was still there, but someone was renovating the inside. My father was very proud of this house. He was supposed to have dug the basement, but never did because he kept being distracted by pretty girls in town. 

Here's the wheat pool.

And here's the school they attended for a while.

I'm wondering if this was the general store. Aunties and Uncles? Would you know?

Anyway, after filling my car up at the local card lock, something I'd never done before, I went off to Ponteix where my great grandfather had lived. What a charming town! Here's his house. It too is being renovated and has changed.

I had some help finding this house. A couple in Quebec City - Louise Lupien and her husband, Guy Ferland walked me around on Facetime until we found it. Louise Lupien's grandfather was the first pioneer prairie doctor in the region. He lived two doors down from the de Montignys. His house is being renovated too. Apparently it was a house they ordered from the Eatons catalogue.

And now, here's the church the de Montignys went to every Christmas when my grandparents went to visit the family. There's a convent and a school too.

Then there was the sad part of the trip, going to the cemetery and finding the graves of the twin baby girls Memére had lost to meningitis as well as the baby boy who died a couple of months after birth. This is what had brought me to Ponteix. I had been so moved by that story that I vowed to place flowers on their grave some day. And here it is. It still makes me want to cry.

I also tried to find my great grandfather's grave, but many of the graves were so worn that the names were no longer legible. However, I did find Uncle Levi's grave. Apparently, this man was quite the musician - a kindred spirit, a fiddler. And it was my great grandfather who made the cross, according to a relative.

And of course, I found Dr. Lupien's grave too and placed a rose on it.

After I was done grave hunting, I went back to Regina. (Still can't believe a queen named her daughter Regina. What was she thinking?) This is where my grandfather came to meet my grandmother after WWI. He'd proposed to her in Belgium, but she told him to go back home and think on it and that if he still wanted her, to send for her. Well, he went back home and worked as a cowboy until he'd made enough money for her passage. Memère then left her hometown of Chatlineau, Belgium and traveled to Halifax, across Quebec and Ontario, and then the prairies where there was nothing. Just fields of snow for miles and miles. She finally arrived in Regina at the Union Station (which has now been turned into a Casino - so much renovating).

That night, they were married with only two priests as witnesses. I believe this was the church they were married in. It was called St. Mary's at the time and is now Blessed Sacrament.

Here's the inside of it. It's quite lovely. Can you imagine it through her eyes? 

Then, apparently, after supper, they went and saw a show. I figured it was at the Globe Theatre which still exists. 

I had a tough time finding old hotels dating back to that time, but was very surprised to discover that the Holiday Inn was once The Champlain, renovated some years back. Could this be where they stayed? This is what it looks like today:

The rest of my trip was taken up by a bit of sightseeing and shopping. When I got back to Vancouver, my husband and the dog welcomed me home at the airport. (The dog looked bored to see me.) Tomorrow, I continue to write the story that has been haunting me, that has been calling my name for years. And now that I've been where it all took place, it's all the more real to me. Fields of Gold Beneath Prairie Skies to be released in September, 2017.


  1. I wish I could go back in time to see things the way they looked when Memère first arrived in Canada. I bet her story would be really fascinating. Coming from another country, far across the sea, to begin a new life in a new land with her new husband. She went through so many changes and survived them all. She was a remarkable woman. They were so lucky to have met as they had.

  2. I think things probably haven't changed much in Val Marie. There's a new wheat pool and that's about it. It's when you get to Regina that it's all modern.

  3. What a wonderful trip you had. So great to visit these places. Love your pictures!!

    1. Thanks, Darlene. It was lovely to be there. I love the prairies.

  4. You're quite the adventuress. Should be a great book!!

  5. Wow, Suzanne, what a fab trip in the footsteps of your ancestors! Really fascinating and lovely that so many buildings are being renovated and are still there. Tomorrow, I'm going on a mini journey to Stepney, East London to find the street where my paternal grandparents used to live. I still remember going there but I know it was demolished to make way for flats some years ago. But I'm going to find what's left of the street, anyway. But that's only a twenty minute train journey for me, so nothing like the journey you just made! x

    1. But still kind of exciting too. London! Last summer, I found the house that my grandmother left 100 years ago to marry my grandfather in Belgium. It's still standing.