It is a guiding sign, an icon as old as the city itself
The cross stands tall on Mount Royal. It is an effulgent beacon drawing the gaze of
Montrealais from most points across the city. Like insects to a blaze, people trek up Mont Royal
to see the monument up close. For some it’s a secluded and intimate aerie to nest and swoon
with their loved ones, others venture through the woods, tripping on psilocybin in a pilgrimage to
pay honours to their gods of adventure. What ever the purpose of the ascent, the 103 foot tall
crucifix draws many locals and tourists.
It’s been standing there for 371 years. Since the city was born, the Mont Royal Cross has
watched over Montreal. It is an icon that glows white against the night sky or purple if a pope
dies. At 103 feet tall, the 26 ton steel structure turns its visitors into dwarfs. But it’s more than
just a structure: it’s a palladium, a Catholic reimagining of the Pallas Athene enshrined in
statues to protect Greek poleis. The original cross was built by the city’s founder, Paul
Chomedey de Maisonneuve, as a promise and symbol of dedication to the Virgin Mary if the
floods of 1643 would cease. The city was under duress, floods threatened to wash it all away.
But when the clouds broke and the water drained the promise was kept and ever since it’s stood
atop Mont Royal, protecting us.
I’ve never made this trip. I’ve gazed at a thousand landscapes since moving to Montreal; the
sun and stars and trees and clouds all changed, all shifting in their cycles of warmth and frost
but the cross remains fixed. Standing like a looming titan, it watches over the city
simultaneously vowing and fulfilling an oath of perpetuity. Maybe it’s a desire to stand next to
this titan, to measure ourselves against something superhuman. Or to reach out to the distant,
and in a triumphant moment gape over the city, knowing that countless eyes unwittingly reflect
our stare as we crest the horizon.
“Today is the day” I told myself. I gathered my camera and lenses and geared up for a climb.
I strapped on my hiking boots, pre-rolled a splif and bought some supplies from the dep —apple
juice, curd cheese, and a twix bar. I was gonna climb that mountain and stand next to the titan,
the time had finally come! I knew there were paths that wound slowly up the mountain side,
making it a casual stroll for anyone with an hour to kill. But I’ve always scoffed at people who
call Mont Royal a mountain, “I’m from BC, I know real mountains, this thing is a hill.” I wasn’t
going for a walk, I wanted to earn my stance at the top, and besides it’s “just a hill,” how hard
could it be to scale its side.
As I stood behind the McGill stadium, craning my neck to peer at the top, all I saw was a
sheer slope. It was a mountain side of loose dirt and tumbling rocks, with a blanket of
decomposing maple leaves that tucked the hillside in a cover of deep ochre. “This is a little more
than I bargained for,” ran through my mind as I silently plotted my path. I dug in my boot-toes
and slid, all too often. I had to be careful not to unleash a rockslide on the joggers and dog
walkers below. I zigzagged up the hill hopping from one tree to the next, searching moments of
respite and to keep me from sliding and slipping and tumbling all the way down. When I neared
the first crest I began to reconsider, but then again what adventure starts from point A and end
at point B without moments of doubt or reevaluation. I wondered about the people who climbed
this hill hundreds of years before me, laden with wood and steel materials, scrambling up this
humungous hummock speckled by trees. Did they feel satisfaction in their climb too? Was part
of the point to sweat in dirt, to scramble like fleas on a shifting body. Was this reminder of our
insignificance part of the grandeur we feel gazing over hundreds of kilometres, to see the city
like a glowing dollhouse metropolis?
When I climbed the last crest and stood on solid ground I was elated that the danger of the
declivity was done with. It wasn’t all that dangerous really, but heavy with breath it was enough
to feel like something bigger.
Its weird. That I’m pulled, that we gravitate towards a symbol of faith when secularism has
long supplanted Belief. Montreal is the city of sin, it has been since the days of American
prohibition on alchohol. Strip clubs and brothels and fetish conventions and liquor in every
neighbourhood! Hedonism and nihilism guide this city, Catholicism has been deposed for a long
time. But the cross on Mount Royal isn’t a religious site: it’s a beautiful anachronism, enjoyed by
us all. It means something new, not something old. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe its meaning is
still deeply embedded in the Christian psyche that founded our nation. And though we have
reached a point where we know there’s no mythical power who’s appeased by this symbol of
worship and watching over us all, we still feel its presence. We’re still pulled up mountain sides
to stand next to a symbol, and how could a symbol of nothing withstand? What else has stood
for nearly four centuries to be looked upon by millions of evanescent lives. There is no god to
watch over us, but that doesn’t stop us from building one.